Motivations of cybervolunteers in an applied distributed computing environment: as an example
First Monday

Motivations of cybervolunteers in an applied distributed computing environment: as an example

Research laboratories and scientific modeling projects often lack computing power to run complex simulation models solely with in–house computing resources. One form of volunteer computing uses an interface called the BOINC software platform that allows hundreds of thousands of volunteers worldwide to participate in projects such as SETI@home and, searching for extraterrestrial intelligence or contributing to research linked to malaria control. These volunteers are effectively acting as cybervolunteers, meaning volunteers who, in part or entirely, use a computer or the Internet for their volunteer activity.

We conducted a study on the motivations of and BOINC cybervolunteers. Are volunteers only donating CPU power or are they making other contributions? Why do they participate in projects such as The aim of this paper is to present results obtained, formulate useful conclusions from them, and identify patterns in the motivations of volunteers that may be useful to other distributed computing projects, in particular, and the understanding of cybervolunteerism, in general.

Volunteers living in 67 countries participated in our enquiry. We found that a majority of them indicated either solidarity and/or a cause as their main deciding factor for getting involved. This trend was stronger for than for general BOINC volunteers. Volunteers remained involved if they felt useful. The study clearly suggests that the recognition of cybervolunteers is important: volunteers invest their time in a project without financial compensation, but not for free. The paper also summarizes technical and communication suggestions made by volunteers with regards to and BOINC.


Current state of research




Scientific modeling projects and research laboratories often struggle to obtain the required computing power to run complex simulation models. Volunteer computing can be a solution if in–house computing resources are not sufficient to address the challenge. Volunteer computing is defined as a type of distributed computing through which volunteers donate their computers’ idle time [1] (such as processing power and storage) to one or more scientific projects [2]. In this way, projects are able to tap into the enormous processing power of thousands of individual computers around the world.

Currently, the most commonly used middleware [3] system for such shared computing efforts is an open source platform called BOINC, the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing [4]. Initially developed to support SETI@home, searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, the BOINC software platform is, at present, used by a range of other distributed applications in areas as diverse as mathematics, medicine, molecular biology, climatology, and astrophysics [5].

In 2005, a volunteer computing project called Africa@home was launched by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, CERN), University of Geneva, Swiss Tropical Institute (STI), ICVolunteers, and Informaticiens sans frontières (ISF) [6]. This project has enabled the Swiss Tropical Institute to create the ‘’ platform and develop the BOINC application with the same name in order to harness sufficient computing power for its simulation model that aims to study the epidemiology of malaria. Simulation models of the transmission dynamics and health effects of malaria are an important tool for the control of the parasite that is responsible for close to one million deaths a year [7].

To donate computing power to this particular project, volunteers may simply download a screen saver from a public Web site, ( Currently, has about 10,000 active users (37,002 registered) from 198 countries. This corresponds to 15,000 active computers and 17,000 CPU years to date. As of writing, STI has been able to obtain 15,080.49 gigaFLOPS [8] (15.080 teraFLOPS) [9] of calculation performance. Without, it would have taken STI 300 years to obtain the same computing power with the 40 machines available in–house at STI (Maire, 2008).

We wanted to learn what motivates the thousands of volunteers worldwide who participate in projects such as Africa@home and [10]. What pushes volunteers to contribute to research through the Internet? Are they only donating CPU power or are they making other contributions? What is their social and professional background? What can make it more interesting for these cybervolunteers? Can we apply what we learn from this study to other distributed computing projects, in particular, and cybervolunteerism, in general? These are some of the questions we were trying to answer.



Current state of research

Study of motivations

Mira Belenkiy, et al. (2008) [11] looked at the different strategies a central authority can use to distribute computation to entrusted contractors in the context of distributed volunteer computing projects such as SETI@home. They discussed the link between motivation and trust–building in the relation between the project and the volunteer.

Andrew Gillette (2008) [12] examined the motivations of BOINC users from an economic perspective. He looked at the BOINC community framework and its potential as a scalable market model and found that BOINC participants became involved because they believe it is a good cause. According to Gillette, participation is not entirely dependent on specialization of knowledge; general interests are sufficient. He points out that most people want to be involved in changing the world in a positive fashion.

On a more theoretical level, the literature on human motivations differentiates between those that are intrinsic (the activity is valued for its own sake) and those that are extrinsic (providing indirect rewards for doing the task at hand) [13].

According to Ryan and Deci (2000), “Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external prods, pressures or rewards.” [14] Extrinsic motivations, on the other hand, provide an external incentive: people change their actions because they are induced to do so by an external intervention (Frey, 1997).

Lerner and Tirole (2002) proposed a rational calculus of cost and benefit in explaining why programmers choose to participate in free/open source software (F/OSS) projects. They argue that as long as benefits exceed costs, a programmer can be expected to contribute. Lerner and Tirole suggest that the net benefit of participation corresponds to immediate and delayed compensations. As von Hippel (1988) showed, F/OSS participants may receive payment (immediate) or develop software they need (delayed).

Lakhani and Wolf (2005) reported on the results of a study regarding the effort and motivations of individuals in contributing to the creation of free/open source software. For their study, they used a Web–based survey, sent to 684 software developers in 287 F/OSS projects, to learn what lies behind the effort put into such projects. They found that enjoyment–based intrinsic motivation — namely how creative a person feels when working on the project — is the strongest and most pervasive driver for volunteers developing F/OSS. They also found that F/OSS volunteers highly regard intellectual stimulation derived from writing code as well as the possibility to improve programming skills.

Technology–related volunteering

Acevedo (2004) and Krebs (2005) defined volunteerism — in terms of information and communication technologies (ICT) — as all activities performed by volunteers who aim to promote the use of digital technologies.

Ismael Peña–López (2005) distinguished four terms for volunteerism related to ICT: 1) online volunteering; 2) virtual volunteering; 3) ICT volunteering; and, 4) cybervolunteering. He defined an online volunteer as someone who volunteers through the Internet and is physically located elsewhere than the beneficiaries of his or her actions. Peña–López referred to the definition proposed by Ellis and Cravens (2000), describing a virtual volunteer as someone carrying out “tasks completed, in whole or in part, via the Internet and a home or work computer.” According to Peña–López, an ICT volunteer is a person who is working to foster the implementation and use of ICTs. He or she may install hardware, software or carry out ICT training programs. Peña–López pointed out that in order to be an ICT volunteer there is no need to be online. In his research, he treated the term “cybervolunteer” as synonymous with “online volunteering.” He noted, however, that the term is sometimes used to describe activities broader than pure online volunteering, and more in line with the definition of an ICT volunteer.

For this paper, we consider that a cybervolunteer is someone who may volunteer online but may also carry out offline activities that are related to information and communication technologies. We define a cybervolunteer as a person who entirely or partially uses a computer or the Internet to carry out his or her volunteer work and has a direct interest in information technologies and their development.




To conduct this study, we developed a standardized questionnaire. Its initial version was refined based on the contributions of researchers from BOINC, the Swiss Tropical Institute and CERN, during an Asia@home workshop in Taipei in May 2009 [15].

Once finalized, the questionnaire was posted through the internal message system of We adapted it for an identical study among general BOINC users (not specific to A link to this second questionnaire was posted in the news section of the BOINC Web site.

For the question related to individual motivations, we used the classifications obtained through a study of the motivations provided by the 10,000 volunteers involved in [16], an international non–profit organization that coordinates a network of cybervolunteers (Table 1). We distinguished the individual motivations by whether they can be considered intrinsic or extrinsic. For the study, we asked respondents to rate the motivations on a scale of one (not important at all) to five (very important). We looked both at absolute and average results.


Table 1: Respondents were asked to rate motivations on a scale of 1 to 5. Possible ratings were: Not important at all (1); Not so important (2); Moderately important (3); Important (4); and, Very important (5).
1ETo acquire professional experience
2ETo get to know people and build a personal network
3ETo learn and acquire new skills
4ETo share knowledge acquired over the years
5ETo keep involved: wanting to remain involved after retirement
6ECredits [17]: To obtain credits as a sign of contribution
7ISolidarity: Wanting to give to a community and human beings in need
8ICause: Getting involved for a particular cause
9IPersonal reasons: Because of past experience, friends involved, personal satisfaction, enjoyment
10ISelf–expression and empowerment: To have an opportunity to interact, express ideas






We received a total of 1,505 answers, 1,097 to the enquiry and 408 to the general BOINC questionnaire. respondents indicated that they resided in 63 countries, with 56 percent in Europe and 33 percent in North America. Only six percent reported that they lived in Asia Pacific, four percent in South America, and one percent in Africa. Among the top ten countries of residency were the following: United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Canada, Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium (Figure 1a).

Respondents to the general BOINC questionnaire indicated that they resided in 49 countries, with 44 percent in Europe and 44 percent in North America. seven percent reported living in Asia Pacific, followed by three percent for South America, and two percent for Africa. The top countries of residency were in this case: the United States, which obtained 37.5 percent of all responses, followed by the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, France, Australia, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, and Denmark (Figure 1b).


Figure 1a: Countries of residency of volunteers who participated in the surveyFigure 1b: Countries of residency of volunteers who participated in the survey
Figure 1a.Figure 1b.
Figure 1: Countries of residency of volunteers who participated in the survey. a) For the survey, N = 1,097; b) For the general BOINC survey, N = 408. The vast majority of participants in both surveys reside in Europe and North America.


The great majority of respondents to both questionnaires were between 20 and 50 years old. For, 34.7 percent indicated that they were 20 to 35 years old and 40.5 percent fell into the category of 36 to 50 years old. Altogether, 41.9 percent of general BOINC study respondents indicated that they were 20 to 36 years old, and 30.4 percent said they were 36 to 50 years old (Figure 2). More very young respondents answered the general BOINC questionnaire, corresponding to 7.4 percent of all respondents, compared to only 1.8 percent for users. Almost 20 percent (19.7 percent) of users were 51 to 65 years old, compared to 16.2 percent for general BOINC respondents.


Figure 2: Age of volunteers who participated in the study
Figure 2: Age of volunteers who participated in the study; a) For the survey, N = 1,097; b) For the general BOINC survey, N = 408.


Among the respondents of the two surveys, there were 12.2 percent women and 87.8 percent men (N = 693) (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Gender of the and the BOINC respondents
Figure 3: Gender of the and the BOINC respondents, N = 683.


Most of the respondents were IT professionals (software and hardware engineers, network administrators, system analysts, Web designers, and IT help desk staff), university students, and teachers and professors in IT. Some also came from the medical field, where they worked as doctors and researchers. Others worked as journalists, photographers, designers, architects, bankers, and attorneys [18].

A majority of respondents to the general BOINC study also indicated that they were IT professionals, students, and teachers. Fewer respondents said they had a medical background and more had non-technical jobs, such as drivers (taxi, truck). There were a number of respondents who indicated that they were in the U.S. Army, others were housewives and people with disability (some of them indicated that they were not able to work). Yet others had a background in bioinformatics, law, and translation. Quite a few indicated that they were retired [19].


Concerning motivation, solidarity ranked by far the highest in importance for respondents with an average score of 4.45 out of 5 (Figure 4a). Involvement in a cause came second, with 3.72, followed by personal reasons with an average of 2.73, and their credit rating with 2.03 (N = 1,097). Respondents indicated that professional experience, networking, learning, and knowledge sharing were not as important as reasons for their involvement. They gave average ratings ranging from 1.37 to 2 for these motivations. This differs somewhat from trends identified for other types of cybervolunteerism, where extrinsic motivations ranked quite high.

General BOINC respondents also valued solidarity highest, with an average score of 4.1 (N = 408). However, the rating obtained for solidarity was slightly lower than for respondents. In contrast, respondents gave a higher ranking to a cause (4.01) and personal reasons (3.46), as well as credits (2.54), and self–expression and empowerment (2.51). Learning and acquiring new skills obtained 2.08 and 2.04 respectively (Figure 4b).


Figure 4: Respondents were asked to rate on a scale of 1 (not important at all) to 5 (very important)
Figure 4: Respondents were asked to rate on a scale of 1 (not important at all) to 5 (very important). respondents rated solidarity by far the highest with an average score of 4.45 out of 5. General BOINC respondents also ranked solidarity highest, with 4.1, followed by a cause with 3.72 and 4.01 respectively.


The vast majority of volunteers (82.9 percent) indicated that they remained involved in and BOINC out of personal satisfaction. Slightly less than 14 percent (13.7 percent) were motivated by gaining a good credit rating and 6.7 percent indicated that the learning experience was important. Almost 20 percent (19.8 percent) mentioned other reasons, in particular their desire to help fight malaria (Figure 5). From the comments made by 19.8 percent of respondents, it appears that an important factor was feeling useful and proactive. Indeed, when asked why respondents decided to remain involved in, many of them mentioned their own efforts to promote the project and BOINC more generally speaking (Table 2).


Figure 5: Reasons for cybervolunteers to remain involved
Figure 5: Reasons for cybervolunteers to remain involved in, a), N = 1,097. b) General BOINC study, N = 408.



Table 2: Main types of comments made by 217 volunteers on why they remained involved, N = 1,097.
Promotion (of in particular and BOINC in general)
  • Promote the project at work, among friends, through BOINC groups, in Forums, on Twitter, through LinkedIn, in conferences, on other Web sites
  • Send promotional e–mail messages, talk about it to clients and doctors
  • Present to other BOINC members
Technical support
  • Provide technical expertise in forums
  • Help out others with problems
  • Set up BOINC with on some friends’ and family members’ computers
Development of new modules
  • Write one version of the BOINC scheduler
  • Develop a new screensaver
  • Discuss with students lessons learned and teach them how to make use of distributed computing for their malaria studies and models
Personal satisfaction
  • Collaborate with professionals, through my computer and my time
  • Be able to contribute grain of sand to the development of solutions to fight disease
  • Be useful in my humble position
Good cause
  • Contribute to a worthy endeavor
Translation and technical support in French
  • Participate in translation of documents into French; provide user support in this language
  • Get involved in an easy volunteer activity


Volunteer activities

All but three of the 1,505 respondents were involved by sharing the CPU power of their computer(s) with and other BOINC projects. A small percentage of respondents were, in addition, involved in teaching, presenting results at conferences and providing technical expertise. Three and a half percent of respondents mention that they participated in the promotion of BOINC, by contributing to technical forums, helping friends install BOINC and posting information about on different Web sites, such as their own and/or on social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter (N = 1,097) (Figure 6). On average, more respondents to the BOINC general enquiry indicated that they provided technical expertise (9.3 percent) and were teaching (5.4 percent). Almost four percent (3.7 percent) said they were presenting projects at conferences and 4.3 percent had participated in the organization of events (N = 408).


Figure 6a: Reasons for cybervolunteers to remain involved
Figure 6: All but three (1,505) respondents are involved by sharing the CPU power of their computer(s) with and other BOINC projects. A small percentage of respondents are in addition involved in teaching, presenting results at conference and providing of technical expertise. On average, more respondents of the BOINC general enquiry indicated that they were involved in providing technical expertise (9.3 percent) and teaching (5.4 percent).


Almost 50 percent (47.9 percent) of responding volunteers were sharing two to five computers. 42.8 percent were providing one computer only. The remaining 9.3 percent offered six or more computers, but only 3.4 percent provided more than 11 machines (Figure 7a). Over 50 percent (52.6 percent) of general BOINC respondents were sharing two to five computers. Over 25 percent (26.9 percent) were providing only one computer. The remaining 9.3 percent offered six or more computers, but only 3.4 percent shared more than 11 (Figure 7b).


Figure 7: volunteers sharing computers
Figure 7: Nearly 50 percent (47.9 percent) of responding volunteers were sharing two to five computers; 42.8 percent were providing one computer only, N = 1,097. 52.6 percent of general BOINC respondents were sharing two to five computers. 26.9 percent were providing only one computer, N = 408.

Use of technology and lifestyle

Close to 90 percent of all respondents (85.6 percent for and 93.5 percent for BOINC) indicated that they used Microsoft Windows. Of these, 55 percent were exclusive Microsoft Windows users, whereas 19.9 percent used Linux and 6.7 percent used Apple/Macintosh in addition. Over 30 percent (34.4 percent) of all respondents indicated that they were using multiple platforms, for example Linux for some applications and Microsoft Windows for others. Of the 27.7 percent Linux users, only two reported using this platform exclusively. Of the 14.4 percent Apple/Macintosh users, 4.4 percent also used Linux. Over three percent (3.3 percent) of the respondents used all three platforms (Figure 8 and Table 3).


Figure 8: operating systems
Figure 8: Over 80 percent (85.6 percent) of respondents are using Microsoft Windows, 27.7 percent indicate using Linux and 14.4 percent Apple/Macintosh, N = 1,097. Over 90 percent (93.6 percent) of BOINC respondents are using Microsoft Windows, 31.1 percent indicate using Linux and 10.5 percent Apple/Macintosh, N = 408. Both the and the BOINC general study indicate that Microsoft Windows is the most used platform.


Table 3: Fifty–five percent of all respondents are only using Microsoft Windows, 19.9 percent use Microsoft and Linux, followed by 9.8 percent who are exclusive Macintosh/Apple users. Nearly seven percent (6.7 percent) of all respondents indicated that they were using Macintosh/Apple and Microsoft Windows. They were followed by users of Macintosh/Apple and Linux (4.4 percent) and users who use all three platforms (3.3 percent). According to the responses obtained, only two people used Linux exclusively, N = 1,097.
Platform usedNumber of platformsNumber of users: MCPercentage MCNumber of users: BOINCPercentage BOINC
Microsoft Windows16115621854
Microsoft Windows and Linux22061910827
Macintosh/Apple and Microsoft Windows2626143
Macintosh/Apple and Linux236331
Macintosh/Apple, Microsoft Windows and Linux3363143
Total individual studies 1,097100%408100%
Grand total 1,505 


Seventy–four percent of all respondents (N = 1,113) provided an answer to the optional question regarding the average monthly expenses for means of communication (Internet and mobile phone). Almost 40 percent (39.5 percent) of the respondents indicated that they spent between US$51 and US$100 per month for communications, 32.6 percent spent US$11 to US$50, whereas 19.2 percent spent between US$101 and US$200 monthly. Almost five percent (4.7 percent) spent between US$201 and US$400 (Figure 9).


Figure 9: Average monthly expenses for means of communication (Internet and mobile phone)
Figure 9: Seventy–four percent of all respondents answered this question, which was optional, regarding their average monthly expenses for means of communication (Internet and mobile phone), N = 1,113.


Close to 50 percent of all respondents (N = 732) shared information on how much money they used on average for total monthly expenses. Over 30 percent (33.3 percent) of the respondents indicated that they spent between US$2,000 and US$5,000. Over 25 percent (26.2 percent) indicated working with US$1,000 to US$2,000, 18.3 percent with US$501 to US$1,000. Over 10 percent (11.6 percent) said they had less than US$500 per month. Over six percent (6.7 percent) had between US$5,001 and US$10,000 and 3.3 percent over US$10,000 (Figure 10).


Figure 10: Average monthly expenses for means of communication
Figure 10: Forty–nine percent of all respondents answered this question, which was optional, regarding their average monthly expenses, N = 732.


Comparing results obtained in Figures 9 and 10, we can see that the and BOINC volunteers who answered our questionnaire tended to spend 10 percent to 20 percent of their monthly budget on IT and mobile phone communications.

Habits and background of volunteers

The vast majority of volunteers (83.3 percent) reported that they learned about through the BOINC portal (Figure 11).


Figure 11a: Means of communication through which volunteersFigure 11b: Means of communication through which volunteers
Figure 11a: 11b: BOINC.
Figure 11: Means of communication through which volunteers learned about the project, a), N = 1,097; b) BOINC, N = 408.

Many of the volunteers stated that they were involved in multiple volunteer computing projects. Popular ones were the World Community Grid, Seti@home, ABC@home, Docking@home, Lhc@Home, Magnetism@Home, Milkyway@home, Poem@home, Boincsimap, QMC@home, Enigma@home, Folding@home, Freehal@home, Aqua@home, QMC@home, Ralph@home, Spinhenge@home, Einstein@home, Rosetta@home,, QCN Alpha, and Ps3Grid [20].

Proposed improvements

When asked about sources of dissatisfaction with and/or BOINC, many of the volunteers stated that they were happy with the system. Those who did indicate some amount of dissatisfaction mentioned that they did not feel sufficient orientation and feedback was provided, e.g., not enough progress reports, clear mention of scientific objectives, etc.

One major complaint for was the fact that some volunteers were not able to get as many work units as they would have liked. In other words, the volunteers’ eagerness to contribute computing power and obtain a good credit rating was hampered by the fact that, once the level of power required was attained, volunteers were put on hold. They mentioned a feeling of frustration, as they had wished to continue giving (e.g., they were a long time without work). Also mentioned was the lack of visibility of personal performance levels and ranking, and the lack of a function to invite friends. Others pointed out that the Africa@home Web site should explain in easy words what the project was all about and where to find actions to be more active! For some, the screensaver was not attractive enough and thought it could be improved by bright colours and explanations of what it represented. Some also mentioned technical issues: occasional computer slowdowns, system errors and computer crashes.

About 30 percent of all participants suggested ideas for technical improvements. We have classified them into 11 categories and summarized the main ideas below (full list in Appendix II):

1) Software and interface improvements: Respondents provided suggestions regarding the user friendliness of the interface. They pointed out that the software should not be platform–dependent. Further, work units ought to be adaptable in size. Respondents felt that the stability of the system was very important and automatic updates useful. One suggested that one single user account should be valid for all projects. Another user underlined that the system should be able to manage multiprocessing.

2) Hardware improvements: Volunteers suggested that research related to hardware should be encouraged. Some of them also felt that partnerships with the private sector would help improve the computer performance (e.g., cooling system) and allow improvements in the server capacity for individual projects, such as SETI@home.

3) Other technical suggestions: One volunteer suggested that placeholders should be created for stopped projects. Some felt that an improved infrastructure was needed in order to avoid delays of downloading work units. Some suggested that it would be very useful to have a CPU power donation control to avoid overheating a donating computer. Several respondents mentioned questions around credits and credit policies, which ought to be valid for all projects. According to some, only significant updates should be made, providing true improvements to the platform. One screen saver per project would help to provide more incentives for sharing CPU power.

4) Overview and statistics: Centralized status reports posted on one Web site would be helpful. These should include progress reports and more graphics.

5) Training and education: Several respondents pointed out that provision of training and education about BOINC seemed very important.

6) Better communications about what is going on behind the scenes: Many volunteers felt that more news and information would be beneficial. Such information might include details about remaining time and updates about research. Respondents suggested that regular e–mail news flashes would be useful. One user also mentioned multiple languages: not all users and potential users have mastered English. Therefore, it would be useful to translate project and platform–related information into multiple languages. Several respondents underlined that it was important to communicate the cause behind the projects (e.g., cure for cancer, fight against malaria, etc).

7) Increased awareness: Many respondents underlined the importance of awareness raising around BOINC. They stressed that the public at large needed to know more about the technology and about the fact that it would not compromise security.

8) Rewards: Respondents also underlined that it was important to provide tangible rewards. Several respondents felt that there was a need to create a fun environment for volunteers with games and more interaction between the client and the server. One user suggested that tax reductions would be a good incentive. Another mentioned awards or prizes.

9) Online community: Some volunteers would like to see more of an online community spirit.

10) Improved user manuals and documentation: Several respondents mentioned the importance of documentation and suggested that it could be improved. Funding could help finance such improvements.

11) Promotion: A number of survey participants stressed that publicity among the public at large was needed. They also suggested that governments, schools, universities, NGOs and businesses should get more involved.




Main motivations of users: Solidarity and a cause

It is interesting to note that many of the cybervolunteers involved in had strong social interests and indicated that the main determining factor for becoming involved was either solidarity and/or a cause. Many saw as a useful means in the fight against malaria. For the majority of respondents, volunteer computing appeared thus to be more than just a computer widget or game. BOINC general respondents gave higher marks to personal motivations and learning than respondents. They indicated a broader range of backgrounds, but still seemed driven by the idea of doing something useful.

Volunteer computing as a concrete form of digital solidarity

Given that 89 percent of all respondents indicated they lived in Europe or North America, we can see that volunteer computing is a technology based largely on English [21] in the Northern hemisphere. This contrasts with the fact that helps research efforts for a disease that strikes tropical and developing countries in the Southern hemisphere. As such, it is possible to consider the application as some kind of digital solidarity, where computing resources and actual participation are distributed.

Individual volunteerism rather than corporate volunteering

Given that over 90 percent of respondents provided one to five computers, we can conclude that the majority of contributors were individuals or small businesses rather than big corporations or laboratories (Figure 7). The results suggest that, for the moment, security concerns limit the number of big corporations involved.

Amount of effort vs. personal satisfaction

Responses clearly indicate that volunteer computing is seen as an easy way to make a difference. They further show that feedback and communication with volunteers are very important for volunteer computing projects. It would thus be false to assume that volunteers give and do not expect anything back. While the reciprocation is not monetary, volunteer computing is nonetheless based on an exchange. This exchange needs to be acknowledged and valued. New forms of recognition could be developed to respond to this need. cybervolunteers seem to value hands–on activities

Further, volunteers seemed to like hands–on involvement. Thus, when asked why they remained involved, many of the respondents commented on their efforts to promote This indicates that some appreciated the chance to contribute without significant effort on their part, while others sought an opportunity to be more proactive.

Change of demographics with improved application

Our study also shows that the great majority of BOINC volunteers are men studying or working in the field of IT. It appears that the demographics of volunteers involved may evolve as installing applications becomes easier.




There is something to be said for user–friendly applications: it should be easy, even for a non–IT savvy person, to install BOINC. While BOINC runs reasonably well, it could attract more participants with technical improvements. These would include making it easier to change priorities, personalize screens, and understand the project.

Communication is critical to motivate volunteers. They get involved without financial compensation, but not for free. Instead, they want to feel recognized and acknowledged. As pointed out by several respondents, volunteers may need occasional “feel good” messages to keep from feeling that their donations are taken for granted. They want to see how much they contributed and what results were obtained thanks to their involvement. Communication with volunteers could be improved through newsletters, orientation, as well as progress and feedback reports.

It appears that volunteer computing projects ought to always include a social component. Indeed, cybervolunteers want to be connected with volunteers who are already involved, as well as potential future volunteers. It would thus be a good idea to create tools to improve communication with and among volunteers.

BOINC seems to still be a relatively closed online community. Publicity would help to attract more people to the various projects if needed. For this promotion, it appears useful to first start with ICT communities (e.g., engineering schools, and ICT industry and consultants associations) and then expand it to a wider public.

Based on our findings, we recommend BOINC projects clearly state and emphasize their cause. This will help attract volunteers.

Last but not least, it is worth mentioning that in 2007, Dr. David Anderson, creator of BOINC, launched two new software projects: Bossa (middleware for volunteer thinking), and Bolt (a framework for Web–based training and education in the context of volunteer computing and volunteer thinking) [22]. A new wave of projects for online knowledge sharing takes the idea of participative science to a higher level. As François Grey (2009) reports, a popular example is the project GalaxyZoo (, for which volunteers are asked to classify images of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey as either elliptical or spiral. In a matter of months, some 100,000 volunteers classified more than one million galaxies via a simple Web interface. While only few of the respondents to our survey appeared to be involved in these new forms of online participation, the latter clearly seem to constitute a great potential for future research and online volunteering.

With this study, we have seen one kind of cybervolunteering. Many others do exist to which the question of motivation also applies. If we extrapolate our findings, we can conclude that the link between incentive, recognition and reward is of utmost importance. End of article


About the author

Viola Krebs is a sociolinguistic and communication specialist. She is the Founder and Executive Director of ICVolunteers (, a non–profit organization focusing on communications (communication technologies, culture & languages and conference support). ICVolunteers works with a network of 10,000 volunteers worldwide. Ms. Krebs is a member of the Strategy Council of the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID) and Co–Founder of Informaticiens Sans Frontières (ISF). She, chaired several international conferences, and served from 2003 to 2005 on the Civil Society Bureau of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). She has worked in both the public and the private sector, including for People Living with HIV/AIDS (PWA), the World Economic Forum and Merrill Lynch. Viola Krebs holds a master’s degree in Communications and Media, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics, Spanish and English of the University of Geneva. She is currently working on a Ph.D. focusing on the impact of the Internet on volunteers and volunteerism.



We would like to thank those who provided input into this study, in particular Nicolas Maire of the Swiss Tropical Institute, David Anderson of BOINC, François Grey of CERN, Christian Pellegrini of the University of Geneva and Yoshiko Kurisaki and Jim Rudolf of ICVolunteers. Special thanks also go to Sarah Webborn and Randy Schmieder for the reviews and editorial suggestions.



1. In computer science, the time during which a piece of hardware in good operating condition is unused.

2. Louis F.G. Sarmenta, “Bayanihan: Web–based volunteer computing using Java,” Proceedings of the Second International Conference on World Wide Computing and Its Applications (WWCA ’98; Tsukuba, Japan, 3–4 March 1998), Lecture Notes in Computer Science, number 1368, pp. 444–461. We argue that the term “volunteer computing” could also be used for other forms of volunteer involvement online. However, given that volunteer computing is a very new field, the term is currently mostly used to refer to distributed computing efforts.

3. In a distributed computing system, middleware is defined as the software layer that lies between the operating system and the applications on each site of the system. The software consists of a set of services that allow multiple processes, running on one or more machines, to interact. See Sacha Krakowiak, 2003. “What’s middleware?”, at; and, “Middleware,” Wikipedia, at

4. See for more details.

5. As a “quasi–supercomputing” platform, BOINC has about 586,000 active computers (hosts) worldwide processing on average 2.7 petaFLOPS (PFLOPS) as of November 2009, which tops the processing power of the current fastest supercomputer systems (Cray Jaguar performed at 1.75 PFLOPS and IBM Roadrunner with a sustained processing rate of 1.026 PFLOPS).

6. See;;;; and,

7. Half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria. There were an estimated 247 million cases in 2006, causing nearly one million deaths, mostly among children in sub–Saharan Africa. See World Health Organization, World malaria report 2008, at The advent of long–lasting insecticidal nets and Artemisinin–based combination therapy, plus a revival of support for indoor residual spraying of insecticide, presents a new opportunity for large–scale malaria control. See Amanda Ross, Melissa Penny, Nicolas Maire, Alain Studer, Ilona Carneiro, David Schellenberg, Brian Greenwood, Marcel Tanner, and Thomas Smith, 2008. “Modelling the epidemiological impact of intermittent preventive treatment against malaria in infants,” PLoS ONE, volume 3, number 7, at

8. In computing, FLOPS (or flops or flop/s) is an acronym meaning FLoating point Operations Per Second. FLOPS are a measure of a computer’s performance, especially in the field of scientific calculations that make heavy use of floating point calculations, similar to the older, simpler, instructions per second.



11. Mira Belenkiy, Melissa Chase, and Chris Erway, 2008. “Incentivizing outsourced computation,” Brown University, Technical Report, number CS–08–05, at

12. Andrew Gillette, 2008. “The invisible hand and hidden markets of the BOINC community platform: An economic perspective,” paper presented at the Fourth Pan–Galactic BOINC Workshop (Grenoble, France, 11–12 September).

13. Teresa M. Amabile, 1996. Creativity in context. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press; Bruno S. Frey, 1997. Not just for the money: An economic theory of personal motivation. Brookfield, Vt.: Edward Elgar; and, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Dedi, 2000. “Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions,” Contemporary Educational Psychology volume 25, number 1, pp. 54–67.

14. Ryan and Dedi, 2000, p. 56.


16. These motivations were given at the moment of their registration with the organization.

17. This is an online listing that shows the most important contributors of computing time for BOINC. This listing contains information specific to each project.

18. Academic (Student, Professor, Researcher, Statistician); Administrative (Accountant, Financial Administrator, Chartered Accountant); Aeronautical Engineer; Architect; Attorney; Finance (Banker); Business Consultant; Chemist; Civil Servant; Communications (Journalist, Graphic Designer, Filmmaker, Writer, Photographer, Radio Announcer); Disabled; Economist; Engineer (Telecommunications Engineer, Software Engineer); Geologist; Mechanical Design Engineer; IT (Computer Programmer, Software Developer, Database Administrator, IT Support Helpdesk Employee, Web Designer, Network Administrator, Systems Analyst); Medical (Medical Personnel, Med–Tech, Medical Scientist, Medical Doctor, Medical Transcriptionist, Bioinformatics Specialist); NGO employee; Retired; Sales Manager; Trainer; Truck Driver; Unemployed.

19. Academic (Student, Research Assistant, Teacher, Lecturer); Administrative (Legal Secretary); Agricultural Advisor; Analytical Chemist/ICT Manager; Bioinformatics Specialist; Business (Business Analyst, Business Manager); Civil Servant; Communications (Photographer, Media Specialist); Disabled (unable to work); Driver (Taxi, Truck); Engineer (Hardware Engineer, Engineering Student, Mechanical and Field Test Engineer); Physicist; Finance (Finance Broker); Foreman in the Chemical Industry; Housewife; IT (Programmer, Web Developer, Software Engineer, Network Manager, Computer Consultant, Retired IT Professional); Lifeguard; Medical Physicist; Lab Technician; Retired; Social Worker; Teacher (ESL Teacher); Translator; US Army Soldier; Volunteer Coordinator.

20. See Appendix I for extended list.

21. Note that a French–speaking BOINC community, for example, does exist, but many projects remain exclusively in English.

22. For more information see and



Manuel Acevedo, 2004. “Introduction,” In: Viola Krebs (editor). Volunteering and ICTs: “Establishing the framework for action”. Genève:, pp. 11–12, at

Teresa M. Amabile, 1996. Creativity in context. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Mira Belenkiy, Melissa Chase, and Chris Erway, 2008. “Incentivizing outsourced computation,” Brown University, Technical Report, number CS–08–05, at

Susan J. Ellis and Jayne Cravens, 2000. “The virtual volunteering guidebook,” at

Bruno S. Frey, 1997. Not just for the money: An economic theory of personal motivation. Brookfield, Vt.: Edward Elgar.

Andrew Gillette, 2008. “The invisible hand and hidden markets of the BOINC community platform: An economic perspective,” paper presented at the Fourth Pan–Galactic BOINC Workshop (Grenoble, France, 11–12 September).

François Grey, 2009. “Viewpoint: The age of citizen cyberscience,” Cern Courier (29 April).

Eric von Hippel, 1988. The sources of innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sacha Krakowiak, 2003. “What’s middleware?”, at

Viola Krebs, 2005. “Volunteers: An essential building block for a society of shared knowledge,” In: Daniel Stauffacher and Wolfgang Kleinwächter (editors). The World Summit on the Information Society: Moving from the past into the future. New York: United Nations, pp. 191–197.

Karim Lakhani and Robert G.R. Wolf, 2005. “Why hackers do what they do: Understanding motivation and effort in free/open source software projects,” In: Joseph Feller, Brian Fitzgerald, Scott A. Hissam, and Karim R. Lakhani (editors). Perspectives on free and open source software. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 3–22, at

Josh Lerner and Jena Tirole, 2002. “Some simple economics of open source,” Journal of Industrial Economics, volume 50, number 2, pp. 197–234.

Nicolas Maire, 2008. “Using volunteer computing to simulate the epidemiology and control of malaria:,” In: M.H.W. Weber (editor). Distributed & grid computing — Science made transparent for everyone: Principles, applications and supporting communities. Marburg:

Ismael Peña–López, 2005. “E–learning for development: A model,” ICTlogy Working Paper Series, number 1, at

Amanda Ross, Melissa Penny, Nicolas Maire, Alain Studer, Ilona Carneiro, David Schellenberg, Brian Greenwood, Marcel Tanner, and Thomas Smith, 2008. “Modelling the epidemiological impact of intermittent preventive treatment against malaria in infants,” PLoS ONE, volume 3, number 7, at

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Dedi, 2000. “Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions,” Contemporary Educational Psychology volume 25, number 1, pp. 54–67.

Louis F.G. Sarmenta, “Bayanihan: Web–based volunteer computing using Java,” Proceedings of the Second International Conference on World Wide Computing and Its Applications (WWCA ’98; Tsukuba, Japan, 3–4 March 1998), Lecture Notes in Computer Science, number 1368, pp. 444–461.

World Health Organization, 2008. World malaria report 2008, at


Appendix I: List of other @home projects mentioned by volunteers

ABC@home, Almeregrid, APS@home, Aqua@home, Artificial Intelligence System, BCL@Home, BOINC Alpha Test, BOINC Simap, BOINC test, BRATS@Home, Cels@Home, Cosmology@Home, Docking@Home, Enigma@home, Folding@home, Freehal@home, Genetic Life, Hydrogen@Home, Ibercivis, Leiden Classical, Lhc@Home, Magnetism@Home, Milkyway@home, Mindmodeling, Nqueens@home project, Orbit@home, Poem@home, Predictor@home, Prime Grid, Proteins, Qah@home, QMC@home, Ralph@home, Ramsey, Rectilinear Crossing Number, Rieselsieve@home, RND, Satisfaction, SETI@Home Beta Test, Search Graz, SHA–1x, Sheti, SIMAP, Spinhenge@home, Sudoku, Superlink, Superlinkattechnion, SZTAKI Desktop Grid, The Lattice Project, Ufluids, UH Second Computing, Virtual Prairie, Vtu, Wanless2, Wcg@home, Yoyo@home.


Appendix II: Suggestions for improvements

Respondents made a range of suggestions. We have classified them into 12 categories and summarized the main suggestions.

1. Software and interface improvements

  • User–friendly: Improve software in such a way that it is easier to install, configure and use, with a more user–friendly interface, usable by “ordinary” users.
  • Compatible: Make the software platform independent and compatible with any operating system (OS), as well as different video cards.
  • Work units: Provide work units that can adapt depending on the size of the machine. Smaller packets should be provided as an option in order to enable faster completion of individual tasks.
  • Stability: Improve stability although it is not too bad!
  • Adapt to the computer: Make sure that the computer is not slowed down because of too much RAM usage (automatic leveling of the amount of processing power used depending on the processor’s capacity and temperature (especially important for notebook computers).
  • Automatic updates: Enable BOINC to automatically update; non–proficient users never check for newer versions.
  • One account, multiple projects: Provide one account that gives the user the option to run as many projects as he would like (selection of projects from a list), rather than individual accounts for each project.
  • Multiprocessing: BOINC should handle multiprocessing.

2. Hardware improvements

  • Encourage research: Encourage research around hardware to resolve issues related to it (e.g., graphics card and processing unit compatibility, cooling system, etc.).
  • Server: Improve the capacity of the servers running BOINC applications.
  • Collaborations with hardware manufacturers: Convince manufacturers of processors (e.g., Intel, AMD) and notebooks to design proper cooling systems that actually work.

3. Software and interface improvements

  • Improved infrastructure: Procure more funding for the infrastructure of the systems. SETI@home, for example, seems to be maxing out its bandwidth, causing delays in downloading new work units and uploading completed ones.
  • Placeholder: Create placeholders for stopped programs, so that users can pick up where they left off.
  • CPU power donation control: Provide more control over how the computer is being used in order to not run the CPU over a certain temperature. Give the option to provide 50 percent rather than 100 percent.
  • Credit policy: Put in place “credit–police” to make sure that no project is grabbing the power from the others by granting too high credits.
  • No small updates: Stop small upgrades that are buggy and do not seem to improve anything. Inform about the difference between the old and new version.
  • Improved user platform: Create an improved end–customer platform (graphics, options).
  • Screen savers: Provide screen savers for each of the projects.
  • Better sharing of participants: Better sharing of participant computers between the projects. If a project can use video cards to speed things up, use only compatible computers for these projects.
  • GPU computation suspension: GPU computation should be suspended when a game is started, many people would just uninstall BOINC if it impairs their computer usage.
  • Interaction with client and server: If I am downloading an 18 MB database file, why not keep that file on the hard drive and keep accessing it, instead of re–downloading the whole thing.
  • Linking: Link the projects with the users through the manager right away instead of having them go through all the separate sections and sites.
  • Efficiency vs. reliability: When a project such as climate prediction takes thousands of hours to complete I get a little nervous that it won’t be able to upload and I will have wasted all that computing. Gambling days or even weeks of computing is less scary than gambling months of computing.

4. Overview and statistics

  • Status report: Update a centralized status report Web site from all projects, which should include not just statistics but also progress reports for individual projects.
  • More graphics: Better integration of statistics into the BOINC client.

5. Training and education

  • Importance of education: Education is also critical, especially with so many people paranoid of viruses and so many more that have never heard of this kind of project.

6. More information about what is going on behind the scenes

  • More news: I want more news of what’s going on behind the scenes and what the results have produced in a format that’s understandable for the layman.
  • Info about remaining time: Some of the projects don’t estimate time remaining very well. For a while, I knew to divide the estimated remaining time by three to get a better estimate of actual remaining time. And if I can divide by three, so can the programmer!
  • Updates: Send e–mail messages every month to keep me informed on new projects, or on projects I do not know about.
  • Information and feedback: Tell people about the research that comes of it. Better feedback/knowledge of what was being achieved. Do the individual results outweigh their impact on climate change (i.e., carbon dioxide from electricity generation)?
  • Translation: Giving some model of “speech”, in different languages, to forward to contacts/schools.
  • The cause: Publicize widely–supported ideals behind the projects (i.e., finding a cure for cancer) to attract non–technical users.

7. Raising awareness

  • Get new users: Contact universities/schools and ask them to contribute to scientific research by running BOINC as a background task when their lab computers are idle and unused for any other purpose. That alone would give BOINC thousands more cores.
  • Raise awareness about the system: Show people that volunteer computing does not compromise security of local area networks in professional/business environment.
  • Marketing: Better marketing, projects that can have a more immediate impact on society, especially in third world economies.

8. Rewards

  • Tangible rewards: Provide some sort of tangible reward. Not necessarily cash (that would be nice), but maybe stuff donated by someone (corporate entities or a philanthropist) with deep pockets. Or perhaps credit for higher education tuition.
  • Bring more fun for volunteers: Create game running in the background.
  • Tax reduction: Tax credit for the energy we donate!
  • Some prize incentives: Provide incentives for volunteers (e.g., prizes, awards, money or lottery tickets).
  • Variable scoring: Some projects may need to offer more credit to attract more volunteers.
  • Importance of credits: Remember volunteers are not being paid or compensated for any of their work — so what is the harm in letting them have a credit race?

9. Make it a community

  • Community spirit: Make it more of a community by bringing developers closer to end users in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the issues that arise during implementation. A faster release cycle and simpler access to optimized binaries on a variety of platforms would also be highly welcome among those who donate CPU cycles.

10. Better user manuals and documentation

  • Offer written documentation: Show some messages (news) as part of the Bionic work screen to show how this is contributing to life on earth. Have there been tangible benefits from the use of CPU time versus electrical costs of running each of the projects.
  • Funding for projects and documentation: Better funding and project documentation/science from project leaders.

11. Promotion

  • Publicity: Advertise much more about. Provide more information to a broader public.
  • Word of mouth: Get governments, schools, universities, NGOs and other organizations, etc. to promote volunteer computing. Even private businesses could run it on their office computers and maybe advertise their involvement on their products.
  • Untapped computer power lies in universities and schools: A vast amount of untapped computer power lies in universities and high schools. ‘My high school alone has over 300 computers, and I believe it is a fair assumption that universities have even more. However, when browsing through profiles and groups, you rarely see schools.’
  • Link to UC Berkeley: Advertise that the project is based at UC Berkeley.


Editorial history

Paper received 13 December 2009; revised 29 December 2009; accepted 16 January 2010.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Motivations of cybervolunteers in an applied distributed computing environment: as an example
by Viola Krebs.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 2 - 1 February 2010

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