Media Lab team wins DARPA’s Red Balloon Challenge
Demonstrates the effectiveness of social networking to mobilize populationsCAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Network Challenge on Saturday, December 5, by being the first of 4,300 entrants to find 10 red weather balloons placed at undisclosed locations across the United States. They located the balloons in just under nine hours using social-networking technologies.
The team, which includes two postdoctoral fellows and three graduate students working in the Media Lab’s Human Dynamics research group, won a $40,000 prize, which will be distributed among the chains of participants whose input directly led to finding each of the 10 balloons; a portion of the proceeds will also be donated to charity.
“Our goal in entering this challenge,” says postdoctoral fellow Riley Crane, a member of the team, “is to understand how to mobilize the vast resources of the human network to face challenges and explore the opportunities that come with living in such a connected world. We believe we have developed a set of tools that can find the proverbial needle in a haystack.” These tools could be critical for building wide-area teams to respond to societal needs, such as finding a missing child, spreading the word about a product-safety recall, or mobilizing rescue efforts during natural disasters, such as earthquakes or tsunamis.
Team members included: graduate students Anmol Madan, Wei Pan, and Galen Pickard, along with postdoctoral fellows Manuel Cebrian and Riley Crane.
The team attributes its success to aligning the interests of the participating individuals with those of the group. It created a Web site for people to sign on, and offered a sliding scale of monetary awards. Those who directly found one of the 10 balloons were offered $2,000, with the remaining $2,000 going to charity. But according to team members, the key to their success was also rewarding those whose input directly helped to find the balloons. If, for example, you invited the person who actually found the balloon to join the network, you would receive $1,000, with $1,000 going to charity. The person who invited you would receive $500, and so on. In addition to the monetary rewards, the system also allowed all participants to see their direct impact on the social network.
The Media Lab team assembled its strategy in only four days. It launched a Web site on Thursday, December 3, and enlisted close to 5,000 participants in just 48 hours. By 6:52 pm on Saturday, December 5–only 8 hours and 52 minutes after the contest began–the team had located all 10 of the eight foot-by-eight-foot balloons, which were tethered to the ground at various locations from coast to coast.
“What was most rewarding about this was how we demonstrated the enormous potential of human networking,” says Toshiba Professor Alex (Sandy) Pentland, who heads the Human Dynamics group. “It was great that we won the contest, but more significantly, this exercise showed how building the proper incentives into a viral collaboration can quickly harness a large population to work together to address broad societal needs. It has helped us better understand how information spreads and why people cooperate.”
The team, whose fields of expertise span computational social science, behavioral economics, social epidemiology, mathematics, and computer science, followed strict privacy policies to ensure that all participants’ information remained secure. In addition, the team will review its process for both identifying the winning participants and the distribution of the Challenge prize money with MIT’s Audit Division to ensure integrity and fairness. Those who will share in the prize money will vote on which charities will be awarded the remaining prize money.
The Challenge, which was announced in October, celebrates the 40th anniversary of ARPANet, the precursor to the Internet.