The other night, I saw an interview with Dr. Riley Crane, the recent winner of the DARPA Challenge. The whole concept was so interesting, that I did some research and wanted to share with the team.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) marked the 40th anniversary of the Internet with the DARPA Network Challenge, a competition that explored the roles the Internet and social networking and how they play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems. The challenge was to be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States. The balloons were located in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roads. The catch: teams had to use the Internet to track down the locations.
The winning team comprised of MIT researchers created what they call a “viral collaborative incentive program.” By using social networks like Twitter and Facebook, the team spread the word about the challenge and promised to give a cut of the winnings to anyone who sought out and retrieved useful information that would ultimately lead to the balloon locations. This encourages others to share the information with their networks, gather necessary information and send it back to the team. Amazingly, the group received instant interest from people all over the world and managed to track down all 10 balloons in just eight hours and 52 minutes. The success of this platform seems to be in the formula: one finite end goal and relatively no cost to participants.
What I find so interesting about this program is not only the creative use of social networking to rally participants all over the world, but the fact that this program demonstrates how social networking can encourage collaboration to solve real social problems. While finding red balloons may not be a true “real world” problem, it does show the potential for using social networking to find missing persons, catch criminals or track census data—far more important than just updating your status to tell everyone that your flight is delayed.