Behind MIT’s DARPA Weather Balloon challenge win

MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team

As many of you know, the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team (part of the MIT Media Lab) won the race to locate the DARPA Red Weather Balloon Challenge.    Their system was a reverse Ponzi scheme where those finding the balloon got $2000, and those progressively farther back the invite chain in finding those people got progressively lower payouts;  the surplus got donated to charity.  (Because the payoffs were cut in 1/2 with every additional degree of separation from the balloon finder, there is no way that MIT could owe more than $4000 per balloon, even if path links to MIT were very long, and MIT assumed that many of the path lengths would be short.)

MIT team members reported that they sent out 2 million SMS messages as one of their strategies but that was a complete bust as far as finding the balloons.  Twitter and Facebook on the other hand were far more effective.  They are going to be subsequently distilling their findings on effective viral communication and sharing it at an appropriate venue.

Their victory was a victory of human connections (“social capital“) over number crunching.  A Google Team was racing them using number crunching and image recognition techniques (e.g., crawling the web in real time for images of red balloons) and had spotted 9 of the 10 balloons when the MIT Team found 10.  The MIT Team noted that the balloon finders were using Google Map to determine the coordinates of their balloon sighting (to report to the MIT team) and Google could have captured that information and used it for their own proprietary team but didn’t.

See a blog post about the basic architecture of the MIT reward structure.  DARPA’s network challenge obviously has implications for how to effectively and rapidly spread information in the event of an attack, although clearly the task here (spotting a red balloon) is infinitely easier than other possible challenges which are less observable to the the naked eye (infectious diseases or biological attacks) or actions who cause is less clear (a plane crashing for instance).

DARPA noted how the challenge explored “how broad-scope problems can be tackled using social networking tools. The Challenge explores basic research issues such as mobilization, collaboration, and trust in diverse social networking constructs and could serve to fuel innovation across a wide spectrum of applications.”

Read more here.

One response to “Behind MIT’s DARPA Weather Balloon challenge win

  1. very interesting writeup — would like to know more

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