Computing Profession

What Motivates Volunteer Computing Contributors? It Depends

U.C. Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory research scientist David Anderson
David Anderson, research scientist at U.C. Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, thinks volunteer computing is the best way to conduct large-scale scientific computing.

What motivates people to contribute to "volunteer computing" projects such as Wikipedia, SETI@home and Galaxy Zoo? The factors that drive participation depend in large part on the endeavors themselves, says Oded Nov, assistant professor in the Department of Technology Management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, NY, and one of the authors of a report entitled "Volunteer Computing: A Model of the Factors Determining Contribution to Community-based Scientific Research."

"Our findings show that the motivations that drive people to contribute to the different types of projects are actually not identical," Nov says. "In projects such as Wikipedia, enjoyment and the desire to ‘do good’ are a major factor. In volunteer computing [for example, SETI@home] and other citizen science projects, however, in addition to enjoyment there’s a great emphasis on the particular science the project supports."

That is, volunteers are motivated by the objectives of the scientific project they contribute to, and the results it achieves, Nov says. "They are also motivated by the opportunity to gain knowledge about the scientific subject matter," he says.  "Volunteering helps them keep up to date on scientific issues they care about," such as astronomy and climate science.

David Anderson, research scientist at the Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, CA, and a co-author of the report, says based on his more than 10 years of observing email and  message-board traffic, there are three volunteer archetypes. One is people who care mostly about the science being done. "They select projects based on the scientific area and on accomplishments and credentials of the scientists," Anderson says. "This is the silent majority."

Another are those who care about computer performance, and want to show off their computers. "Many of them build their own high-performance systems, often with multiple GPU boards, liquid cooling, etc.," Anderson says. "They typically select a large project or a project that gives more credit than others."

The third group wants community involvement. They typically are active in message boards and teams.

Anderson himself is involved in such projects, serving as director of SETI@home and the BOINC project, which develops the middleware used by most volunteer computing projects.

"I believe that volunteer computing is the best way to do large-scale scientific computing," and it will accelerate scientific progress, Anderson says. In addition, "there are lots of challenging and fun problems for me to work on."

Ego enhancement and knowing that their contribution could eventually lead to  scientific publication also influence participants, the authors say. Some are motivated by the sense of discovery. "As I learned more about computers, programming and the science, I got more involved," says Kathryn Marks, a contributor to the World Community Grid, FreeHal, QuantumFIRE Alpha and Einstein@Home projects. "I have been a science buff since childhood."

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