Red Balloons, $40,000 and MIT Smarts

In case you were wondering who won the $40K I mentioned in my previous post, here are the results as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. The winners set up an information gathering pyramid. Each balloon was allotted $4000. The first person to spot one would be awarded $2000, with smaller payments down the information chain. Any leftover money, after payment to spotters and their friends, would be donated to charity. Pretty good idea – and maybe that’s why they won 😀

Ready, set, Twitter ... the first group to locate all 10 balloons won $US40,000.

Red balloons and red herrings as scientific tracking turns to Twitter

Ready, set, Twitter … the first group to locate all 10 balloons won $US40,000. Photo: DARPA

HOW quickly can people use online social networks to solve a problem of national scope? On Saturday US defence boffins aimed to find out.

The answer: eight hours and 56 minutes, at least when the problem involves $US40,000 and a bunch of red balloons.

In the network challenge, launched by the US Defence Advance Research Projects Agency and tied to the 40th anniversary of the internet, the researchers placed 10 weather balloons in public places around the country. The first team to submit the balloons’ geographic co-ordinates would get the cash. Ready, set, Twitter.

More than 4000 teams participated. More than a few interesting things were revealed about the human psyche. ”It’s a huge game theory simulation,” said the agency’s Norman Whitaker. The only way to win the hunt was to find the location of every balloon but a savvy participant would withhold his sighting until he had gathered the other nine locations, or disseminated false information to throw others off the trail.

Over the weekend Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with offers to sell co-ordinates of claimed sightings. There was much excitement over the red balloon in Providence, Rhode Island. But there was no such thing – just a Photoshopped decoy.

The winning team was spearheaded by Riley Crane, a postdoctoral research fellow at MIT’s Media Lab, whose team set up an information-gathering pyramid. Each balloon was allotted $4000. The first person to spot one would be awarded $2000, with smaller payments down the information chain. Any leftover money, after payment to spotters and their friends, would be donated to charity.

Mr Crane says the team’s decision to spread the wealth was instrumental to its success, as it gave people both an incentive to share good information and a feeling of investment in the process. He was less interested in the monetary prize than in the potential for social research.

”On the science side we’re scratching the surface of this tremendous new system” of social networks, he said. ”With this data set we have the potential to understand how to face – and exploit – the challenges that come with living in this interconnected world.”

The practical possibilities of the Network Challenge go far beyond a research lab, as the powers of social networks are well documented already.

Mr Crane, pondering the applications that might result from the data about information dispersal collected this weekend, said: ”Could we design an alert system to help us find missing children? Could we redesign the incentive structure for police rewards?”

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jim says:

    are there any links when this was first advertised?

  2. socialsonya says:

    Jim – I’m not sure when it was first advertised. I came across it on Twitter a week or so ago. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. ~Sonya

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