What weather balloons teach us about social networking

If you listened to today’s episode of Science Friday on NPR, you already know this, but it’s still very cool! To mark the Internet’s 40th anniversary, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a contest, offering a US $40,000 prize to the first team to correctly submit the physical locations of 10 weather balloons moored in public places around the U.S. DARPA correctly surmised that teams would rely on various Web-based strategies, from iPhone apps to Twitter to Facebook, to find the balloons.

The winning team, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (disclosure: my husband’s alma mater, although he had nothing to do with the balloon-finding contest) Media Lab’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, combined a social networking and financial incentives system to obtain the coordinates of all 10 balloons in just nine hours. The team, made up of post-docs and grad students, took just four days to devise and implement their strategy of trackable, personalized referring URLs and financial incentives ($2,000 to the person who  submitted the balloon’s coordinates, $1,000 to the person who referred that person into the network, $500 to the person who referred the referrer, and so on down the line). You can read all about it here.

Obviously for those of us who proudly bear the “geek” label, this contest has a lot of interesting implications. Not least of these is the ways in which this collective problem-solving method could be applied to other “hunting” problems, such as finding missing people, locating rescue equipment needed in natural disasters, etc. Definitely worth a Friday-afternoon read!

One Response to “What weather balloons teach us about social networking”
  1. Ammie Casillas February 6, 2010

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