Alumni Profile: Jonathan Brier

Social computing

Jonathan Brier’s (MSI '12) vision of volunteerism goes far beyond well-meaning people donating time and skills to make the world a better place. He wants their computers to volunteer as well.

“Most computers use about one-tenth of their computing power at any given time,” says Jonathan. “I want to help people to use that excess capacity to serve the public good.” The 2012 MSI graduate in social computing is hoping to carve a career out of the very new fields of citizen science and voluntary computing.

Today, when almost everyone carries a computer in his backpack or pocket in the form of a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, the tools exist for millions of citizens to become amateur scientists through crowdsourcing.

From amateur astronomers scanning the night sky for new planets, to the Great Backyard Bird Count, to monitoring radio waves for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, hundreds of thousands of people around the globe are providing observations that greatly extend the reach of modern science.

In addition, through volunteer computing, people can donate the spare capacity on their home computers to run programs in the background that aggregate networks to form super-computers capable of analyzing the masses of data now available to science.

Jonathan’s interest in citizen science developed during his years at Michigan State University, where he took a variety of classes to discover his vocation. He began studying electrical engineering, took a U-turn into philosophy, followed by a detour into business before arriving at his final destination, a BS in Media and Communication Technology. But he notes that all these stops along the way represent facets of citizen science.

It was the classes he took at MSU with Cliff Lampe (PhD ’06) that drew him to UMSI to study social computing. (Lampe joined the UMSI faculty in 2011.) Additional inspiration came from attending the second annual Citizen Cyberscience Summit in London to network with leaders in this emerging field. In August, he was invited to NASA’s Mars Science Library in Pasadena to observe the landing of the newest Mars rover, Curiosity.

He’s passionate about using the skills he gained at UMSI for public service. In fact, he earmarked his donation to the school’s annual fund to support service day activities. “I think it’s essential for anyone at UMSI to participate in volunteer activities,” he says. “And they should be contributing the unique skills they have developed at UMSI – those are so valuable to non-profit organizations.” He spent his Alternative Spring Break doing social media consulting for the Adler Planetarium in 2010 and continues to provide volunteer consulting services to other non-profits, including The Charity Engine and GridRepublic.

Currently, Jonathan is a research intern at UMSI, working with Professor Tom Finholt on the TeraGrid XD, an infrastructure designed to provide researchers and educators with the ability to work with extremely large amounts of digital information.

And then, there are all those idle computers just sitting around at home doing nothing, when they could be tapped for public good. Jonathan has his eye on you.