99 (Minus 89) Red Balloons

40 years ago, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency created Arpanet, which digitally connected Stanford and UCLA, making it the forerunner of the Internet.  To celebrate its anniversary, DARPA decided, in its researcherly way, to perform an experiment to see how well the Internet, crowdsourcing and social networking can solve what they call “broad-scope, time critical problems”, where trust is a big factor. To that end, last Saturday they planted ten big red weather balloons across the United States and offered $40K to the person or team that could find them all first.  The organization was hoping that the contest would “foster fresh thinking and encourage technologists to discover new, collaborative ways to approach problems that were not dreamt of 40 years ago.”  More than 900 submissions were sent in, representing over 4000 people.  Some of these teams developed iPhone apps, some searched Twitter, some offered money to others who could send in real information.  There were wikis and blogs and web sites and Facebook groups. Some just drove aimlessly around the country searching the skies. The search ended the next day, when the team from MIT was the first to locate all ten. The winning team used a combination of the above strategies by soliciting information from the public and paying for it in staggered amounts. Good, original leads were worth $4,000, corroboration was worth $2,000, and any remaining money was donated to charity. DARPA will be speaking with them and with other teams to find out what worked and what didn’t. Their press release ends with a quote:

 We need a renaissance of wonder. We need to renew, in our hearts and in our souls, the deathless dream, the eternal poetry, the perennial sense that life is miracle and magic. — E. Merrill Root

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