New app takes processing powers of Android smartphones to contribute to scientific research

Lorenz Angelo Gonzales/Staff

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For Android users, participating in scientific research — from discovering stars to creating a seismic network to detect earthquakes — is now as simple as charging their smartphones.

In late February, HTC, a popular smartphone and tablet manufacturer based in Taiwan, released HTC Power To Give, a mobile application that enables the processing powers of eligible Android smartphones to contribute to various scientific research projects throughout the world.

The app relies on “volunteer computing,” in which people provide the processing capabilities of their computers and other devices to existing research projects of their choice. A platform developed in 2002 by UC Berkeley researchers called the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Networking Computing, or BOINC, provides the technology that serves as the backbone of the app.

There are currently 12 scientific projects in different disciplines that users can choose from — ranging from artificial intelligence to medicine to mathematics — that can be powered by Android operating systems. The phone’s power will be tapped only when it is connected to Wi-Fi and after it has reached at least 90 percent battery capacity while charging.

“In the last couple of years, the sale of smartphones and tablets started increasing … and now they are becoming fundamental research tools,” said David Anderson, the director at BOINC.

While BOINC created the software behind volunteer computing, HTC has provided the technical and engineering assistance to make the app secure enough to prevent data breaches and to get more research projects to use Android devices, according to Anderson.

Since its launch in February, the app has been downloaded by approximately 20,000 people, according to Sunny Wong, an HTC employee. Volunteer computing, however, has historically reached a very limited demographic of users.

“The volunteers are overwhelmingly male, mainly technologically inclined and highly educated,” Anderson said. “We are trying to get younger people and women involved, and our partnership with HTC is an effort to do that.”

To engage a younger generation of contributors, HTC is marketing the app to university campuses, starting with UC Berkeley and San Jose State University.

“We are focusing on students because the app complements the students’ coursework and aligns with what they are learning and doing at school,” Wong said.
Despite HTC’s attempt to create a growing market for volunteer computing, the app still has its shortcomings, according to Eugene Ling, UC Berkeley junior who was involved with a pilot university initiative of the HTC Power To Give app at UC Berkeley.

“The app is not very user-friendly and is still an unfinished product,” Ling, who has used the app in the past, said. “The user interface is text-based and not graphical.”

He said, however, that the app is taking the right step toward lowering the barrier to entry into scientific research, and it is only appropriate that HTC targets the UC Berkeley community.

“This project is Berkeley-centric — but not only because BOINC was founded here,” Ling said. “This app is for people who are conscious about social change and care about the world. It is perfect and appropriate for Berkeley.”

Contact Ivy Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @ivykim224.

Due to misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article identified UC Berkeley junior Eugene Ling as an HTC marketing intern. In fact, Ling was involved with a pilot university initiative of the HTC Power To Give app at UC Berkeley but was not an HTC marketing intern.