The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Flash the message…ten red balloons

December 7, 2009

DARPA’s recent balloon challenge. In case you missed it, DARPA placed ten 8-foot red balloons around the country on Friday and issued a challenge to groups to be the first to identify the correct location of all of them. The winning group received $40k.

Here’s how DARPA defined the challenge:

a competition that will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems. The challenge is 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 will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roads.

The MIT team developed a web site to develop an expansive social networking structure with financial incentives to participate:

Have all your friends sign up using your personalized invitation. If anyone you invite, or anyone they invite, or anyone they invite (…and so on) win money, then so will you!

We’re giving $2000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all — we’re also giving $1000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on….

DARPA said the point of the exercise was to observe strategies for social networking and to determine the reliability and credibility of social networking information. More than 4,000 groups participated and it only took the MIT group nine-hours to identify the correct location of all ten balloons.

The results demonstrate that credible monitoring and reporting do flow through social networks — and the right mix of technology, organization, and incentives can produce impressively quick results. But, I’m curious what you all think this means? DARPA representatives said this was a bit of a fishing exercise and that they weren’t sure exactly what they were looking for or where the data would lead them — but I wonder how you all would interpret this event and what DARPA might conclude from it?

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.