A team of students from MIT’s Media Lab has won a competition to see how long it would take people using social networking sites to determine the locations of 10 weather balloons released around the country.

The competition was run by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency to see how social media could be used to solve problems on a national scale. It involved participants using sites like Twitter and Facebook to find and submit the co-ordinates of the 10 balloons, which had been placed at secret locations around the country, in exchange for a $40,000 prize.

More than 4,000 individuals and teams entered, but the MIT entry found all 10 balloons in just under nine hours using a pyramid scheme where each balloon was worth $4,000. The first person to spot the balloon would be given $2,000, while the people that referred them to the team would be given a smaller amount. This incentive system allowed them to get around problems of individuals who had seen the balloons not wanting to share the information with others.

Riley Crane, a postdoctoral research fellow at MIT’s Media Lab, led the team, and he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was “less interested in the monetary prize than in the potential for social research”.

He said: “On the science side, we’re scratching the surface of this tremendous new system of social networks. With this data set, we have the potential to understand how to face – and exploit – the challenges that come with living in this interconnected world.”

Crane suggested that the methods used during the competition could have other uses, such as an alert system to help police find missing children or a redesigned incentive structure for police rewards.

7 December 2009 | By James Verrinder


One Response

  1. Hi there, I noticed your blog through Google while trying to find Weather Balloons and your post caught my curiosity .

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