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Balloon hunt goes viral


  Ten balloons like this one will be put up to kick off the DARPA Network Challenge on Saturday.

More than 300 teams have signed up for this weekend's DARPA Network Challenge, a $40,000 balloon hunt organized by the Pentagon's think tank to study how social networking works. And one of the things that has come out of the experiment is that you could earn some of the prize money yourself, just by being in the right place at the right time.

The idea is simple: The first team to report the locations of 10 weather balloons put up across the nation on Saturday wins the prize. But the social-networking strategy can get devilishly complex ... or just plain devilish.

"The most innovative ideas we probably haven't heard about yet, because there is an incentive to keep them secret," said Peter Lee, director of the Transformational Convergence Technology Office ("Tick-toe") at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA is known for delving into way-out ideas, ranging from robo-cars to teleportation. It's no wonder that Michael Belfiore's newly published book about the agency is titled "The Department of Mad Scientists." This latest challenge, however, is so un-crazy it just might work.

For one thing, the contest is a great way to celebrate the 40th birthday of the Internet, which began as a military project funded by DARPA's predecessor, the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"In the 40 years since this breakthrough, the Internet has become an integral part of society and the global economy. The DARPA Network Challenge explores the unprecedented ability of the Internet to bring people together to solve tough problems," the agency's director, Regina Dugan, said in the news release announcing the contest.

Ten clown-red weather balloons, each measuring 8 feet wide, will be raised on Saturday morning at publicly accessible locations around the continental United States. They'll be visible from surrounding roadways during daylight hours. Then, at the end of the day, they'll be taken down.

The $40,000 prize goes to the first participant to identify the latitude and the longitude of all 10 balloons. If no one reports all 10 of the locations by Dec. 14, then the "firstest with the mostest" will win the prize - as long as they get at least five locations right. Check out the official rules and the FAQ for the definitive word.

DARPA expects that schoolkids, geocaching fans, Slashdotting gearheads and just plain folks will participate in the experiment - and that network experts inside and outside the government will learn a lot about the state of the art when it comes to online collaboration.

It's not too late to register for the contest, but you can also play along by helping an existing team. The Red Balloon Wiki lists teams as well as suggested strategies for winning the prize. And that's where the devilish part can come into play.

"It's almost not enough to say 'We're just going to form a Facebook group,'" Lee told me. "What's really interesting is that teams have to come up with some way of mobilizing. ... How do you incentivize people to work toward this common goal when there's some small amount of prize money that you're going after?"

For DARPA, that's one of the most interesting aspects of the experiment. Some teams appeal to the common good, by saying that the money will be donated to charity. That could motivate the folks associated with a charitable cause to assist in the search, just as the friends and families of AIDS patients or cancer patients take on marathons to support their cause.

Other teams offer payoffs, either in the form of brownie points for the most diligent spotters or cash awards for making a confirmed sighting. Depending on the team and the circumstances, helping out a team could earn you $100 to $4,000.

"Another set of teams seem to be not working toward mobilization at all, but are trying to develop technology to mine the information on the Internet in some clever way," Lee said.

Trickery, secrecy and deception may also be used to throw off rivals. Mssv.net's Adrian Hon says that putting up fake balloons, making false reports or even destroying balloons after they're found will likely be part of the game. "I predict a veritable firehose of false positives being entered into the Network Challenge," he wrote.

Whom do you trust? How do you reward your collaborators without encouraging misinformation and double-crossing? How do you take advantage of open information systems without disclosing too much to potential rivals? All these questions have obvious implications for the military, and for international civil society as well.

Collaborative networks are already coming into play on national security issues. Lee pointed to North Korea Uncovered, which uses crowdsourcing to shed more light on one of the most secret corners of the earth, as an example of the genre.

"We're learning more and more every day about social networks - how they form, how communities grow and how they change over time," Lee told me. "It's become a very interesting field of research ... but when it's a competition, the dynamic changes." DARPA wants to see how rivalries and payoffs affect collaboration and trust.

"You can think of this as just the first experiment along these lines, and we might see more," Lee said.

The agency has already found out how quickly information bazaars can spring up. Lee mentioned that some weather balloons have been raised already to test out the procedures for Saturday's deployment. "The first time we did that, immediately someone was offering to sell the information about that balloon on Craigslist," he said.

DARPA isn't using any super-secret snoopware to keep tabs on the competitors. "That's something that we absolutely cannot do," Lee said. "So we just do what any other person like you can do."

DARPA researchers will be monitoring the traffic on Craigslist and other Web sites as well as on social networking channels such as Twitter and Facebook. They'll be consulting with outside researchers who are using specialized software to study the challenge as a scientific network phenomenon. And after the contest is over, "we'll actually phone up and interview up to 50 of the best competitors," Lee said. "We're hoping they'll be proud enough and excited enough to tell us how they approached the problem."

One thing's for sure: This kind of experiment couldn't be done without the Internet. Merely getting out the word about the challenge on a timely basis would have been a stretch back in 1969.

"You would need to be married to Walter Cronkite's niece to have a chance," Lee joked. "The cost of a one-minute telephone call from D.C. to Denver in today's dollars would have been $6.60. Unless you were expert with a sextant, you wouldn't be able to report the latitude-longitude coordinates accurately."

For better or worse, times have changed. "Now, only 40 years later, anyone is able to do this," Lee said.

Update for 8:35 p.m. ET Dec. 5: Congratulations to the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team for winning the contest! This was an interesting experiment in information dissemination as well as disinformation insemination.

Keep tabs on the contest via Twitter. We'll let you know how it all turns out afterward. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."