Boston programmer crowdsources bitcoin ‘mining’ for charity

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A Boston developer has launched an online project called Compute for Humanity with the goal of enabling people to give to charity by offering up processor power on their home computers instead of cash.

The creator is 24-year-old Jacob Evelyn, a Yale graduate with a day job at ed-tech startup Panorama Education, who built software that would mine cryptocurrencies remotely.

“Mining” is an activity that takes place when a cryptocurrency transaction occurs. It’s somewhat akin to solving a math problem, and the entity that successfully solves it is rewarded with a small amount of cryptocurrency.

But mining is typically hard work for regular home computers. Evelyn’s approach approach at Compute for Humanity is to distribute the load over multiple volunteer PCs so no single computer will feel the heft.

This crowdsourcing approach was inspired by other so-called “distributed computing” projects like Seti@Home which allows home computers to participate in the search for extraterrestrial life, and Stanford’s Folding@Home, which studies protein folding errors in a bid to understand diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

In addition, he wanted it to be user-friendly, “so easy to use that my 95-year-old grandma can use it.” And in fact, he reports, she does.

Visitors to the Compute for Humanity website can download a application that Evelyn created. The program runs in the background, using the computer’s processor to solve algorithms, which generates cryptocurrency when successful. Those are exchanged for dollars, and then donated to the charity that you pick.

The three charities initially part of the project are: Pencils of Promise, a New York-based nonprofit, San Francisco healthcare nonprofit Watsi, and GlobalGiving, a crowdfunding community for nonprofits.

Evelyn’s project isn’t the only one attempting to mine digital currencies for good.

A project called CleanWaterCoin that was based in San Clemente, Calif., but closed in June 2014, mines coins that will help bring clean water to people who can’t access it.

Mining for Charity, which also has been shuttered due to “high maintenance costs and lack of active developers,” also claimed to provide an application that could harness your computer’s power to mine bitcoin — but also allowed people to donate money or bitcoin themselves. According to the website, it was started by the German Association for Young Protection.

“What appears to set Compute for Humanity apart is that it isn’t fixed to just one cryptocurrency,” said Ethan Heilman, a Boston University research fellow who is studying cryptocurrencies.

But others are doubtful about the impact that it could make.

“You’re better off donating the money,” Gerald Dwyer, a professor of economics at Clemson University in South Carolina who studies cryptocurrencies.

For one, mining is a computationally intensive activity that racks up electricity costs, he said, so raising even a small amount of money would take a while.

Then there’s competition from professional “mining pools” — dedicated teams of people with special equipment dedicated to getting first dibs on the mining algorithms, and racing to solve them for profit. Even for such professional “mining pools” said Dwyer, “If you want a bitcoin, it’s cheaper to buy one than to mine one.”

However, he pointed out, if adopted on a wide scale, there’s a chance that the technique could invite contributions from people who may not ordinarily make donations — even if they paid in computing power rather than cash.

For everyone, American Red Cross and Save the Children are among the charities who are taking donations of bitcoin directly.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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