So you wish you had time to contribute to a worthy cause, but you just can't find the time to do it? Don't worry, you can get your computer to do the volunteering for you. Your computer probably spends most of its time idle with nothing better to do anyhow, so now you can get it to contribute towards finding a cure for disease, or modeling the effects of climate change or even finding intelligent life beyond the stars.
Volunteer computing is when you donate your spare computing time to projects that gather a lot of data that requires processing. An example of this is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI project. Their goal is to detect intelligent life outside of Earth and they do this by analysing data from radio telescopes, searching for radio patterns that would be indicative of intelligent life. There is a huge amount of data to search through and this is where the distributed computing power of volunteer computing becomes very useful. Traditionally scientist would use extremely powerful supercomputers to crunch the data, but these are expensive and getting time on these systems can be difficult. Distributed computing breaks the data into small chunks and then sends that out to thousands of volunteer computers to do the work required.
There are around 50 projects that use this distributed computing model. Volunteers computers need to have internet access and sufficient resources to run the BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) software. You will need an account to log your volunteer hours to as well. This is also a great way to see how much you have contributed to the project. Once BOINC is installed you can configure it for the best time to use your computer (e.g. overnight or during weekdays etc) and then you can choose which project to contribute to. If you want to run multiple projects or setup a team, you can use an account manager (GridRepublic or BAM!) that will manage this for you.
I have found that I don't even notice the impact on my computer when BOINC is running (I'm running the climateprediction@home project) and any recent model computer will have plenty of spare resources to cope with the workload. If you do find BOINC slowing your computer down then change the settings so it uses less processor power or runs when you are not using the PC. For more information check the links below. Happy volunteering!