Gustavo Ballvé on December 6th, 2009
Corporate Strategy, Food for thought, Home, Media, Science, Tech

DARPA, the US military agency that 40 years ago created ARPANet (that spawned the Internet), organized a very interesting contest that ended with an MIT team as winners of the US$ 40,000 prize. The contest? DARPA would “plant” 10 red weather balloons anywhere in the continental United States and the first team to find (with photographic evidence) all of them would win the contest. The objective? To find out how people collaborate online, but most importantly, how information spreads virally through social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. The winning team took “less than 9 hours” to locate all 10 balloons – unthinkable maybe even 5 years ago… And the implications are quite interesting.

The way MIT built its incentive system to recruit people to its “team” is part of the story, of course. They were clever enough to mix both “ego-boost” and “cold, hard cash” incentives (since they would donate some of the proceeds to charity). Other teams apparently had either just the feel-good or just the greedy incentives. Of course, the losing teams complain that they had been working for a while when the MIT Team came out of nowhere and, given the famous backers, got a lot of traditional press attention, giving them a leg up on recruiting “balloon spotters”. Well, it seems good media contacts do play a major role in this part of the challenge, so DARPA probably got a lesson from that as well.

Speculations abound on what DARPA could have learned from this, but whether this will help the US capture the “terrorist that can’t be named” is beyond our scope. What we’re interested in is the wealth of data on crowd-sourcing and information dissemination generated by this contest. We’ve posted before on the subject of Crowdsourcing and the implications on Media, Online Services, Search, Hyper-local advertising, Retailing, Services in general (links below). Here’s hoping the MIT Media Lab team will write a comprehensive paper on this challenge and shed some light on this trend.


With lure of cash, MIT wins Pentagon prize – NY Times (free registration required) on the contest winners – Dec. 6th ’09

“Crowdsourcing” revisited – Our own take on crowdsourcing and its potential shortcomings – Nov. 19th ’09

Netflix’s smart crowdsourcing initiative – Our take on the Netflix contest – Sept. 22nd ’09

MIT’s 2-day course on crowdsourcing – Classes in 2010 for this $2,600, 2-day course called Intelligent Organizations: Collaboration and the Future of Work.

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