The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) last week ran a competition that involved identifying the location of 10 fixed red balloons throughout the United States. It was an exercise designed to see how people can self-organize on the Internet and how information disseminates through social and viral networks. As the DARPA Network Challenge homepage states:
To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, DARPA has announced the DARPA Network 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.
With $40,000 in prize money a number of teams were quickly organised including MIT, 10 Red Balloons, and The Open Red Balloon Project, and within 9 hours of the balloons being positioned the MIT team had successfully identified their locations.
The Google Maps API was used quite extensively by the teams, with MIT and The Open Red Balloon Project both creating custom Google Maps applications to mark the balloons locations. This goes to show how quickly open API's can be employed when solving fairly complex problems. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter were also used.
It was an interesting experiment which showed that despite the large number of false sightings (as the map of balloon location guesses from The Open Red Balloon Project above shows), that the Internet can be successfully used to collate information from a huge number of people over a wide area in a very short time.