Chasing Balloons and Studying Social Networks

Stephen DeAngelis

December 11, 2009

A 1956 French film entitled Le ballon rouge won numerous awards (including the Golden Palm at Cannes and an Academy Award) for telling the tale of a red balloon with a life of its own that follows a little boy around the streets of Paris. In late November, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a contest that also involved red balloons and an award [“Looking for Balloons and Insights to Online Behavior,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 2 December 2009]. Instead of a red balloon trailing a little boy around Paris, the DARPA contest promised a $40,000 prize “to the first person or group to determine the locations of 10 red balloons that [were going to be placed somewhere in] the continental United States.” Markoff explains:

“The apparent frivolity of the challenge is only on the surface. This is not a game invented by some eccentric Web Midas. … The goal is to learn more about social behavior in computer networks and how large computer-connected teams use their resources and connections to compete. There is also an invention being celebrated. Peter Lee, a computer scientist and one of the Darpa directors organizing the contest, said Dec. 5 would be the 40th anniversary of the day when the first four nodes of the Arpanet — the experimental military-sponsored computer network that was the forerunner of today’s Internet — were connected.”

To learn more about DARPA and its role in developing the Internet, read my blogs entitled Happy Birthday DARPA and Happy Birthday World Wide Web. Markoff explains that the red balloon contest was not the first challenge sponsored by DARPA. He continues:

“Darpa has previously sponsored three ‘grand challenges’ in an effort to advance the technology for autonomous vehicles. In the second one, in 2005, a Stanford University team won $2 million when its roboticized Volkswagen Touareg was the quickest to navigate a 131-mile course through California desert.”

This latest grand challenge keeps DARPA involved in networking research. Although the Internet has proven to be of great benefit, not all of DARPA’s networking research has been greeted warmly. Markoff reports that concerns about privacy were raised after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when DARPA “created a program to use data-mining technologies to identify potential terrorists.” The latest challenge, however, has raised more amusement than fear. He goes on to discuss some of the speculation about potential team tactics that went around the Agency ahead of the contest.

“Dr. Lee said he was not certain what to expect in the tactics that teams might use to track down the balloons, which will be visible from public roadways for a single day. Some groups are developing software applications. Dr. Lee said he also expected large teams of spotters and even the possibility that some groups might use subterfuge like disseminating false information. Other groups may try to pay for information, he said, noting that even during a brief experiment the agency ran with a balloon near its headquarters, information on the location was offered for sale on Craigslist.”

Registration for the contest remained open until the day of the contest and it resulted in more than 4000 teams competing for the prize money. The winning team turned out to be from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [“Spy vs. spy on Facebook,” by Monica Hesse, Washington Post, 7 December 2009]. Hesse reports:

“On Saturday [5 December], the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency set out to learn how quickly people could use online social networks to solve a problem of national scope. The answer: 8 hours 56 minutes, at least when said problem involves $40,000 and a bunch of red balloons. In DARPA’s Network Challenge, tied to the 40-year anniversary of the Internet, the Department of Defense’s research arm placed 10 weather balloons in public places around the country. The first team to locate and submit the balloons’ correct geographic coordinates would get the cash prize. Ready, set, Twitter! More than 4,000 teams participated. More than a few interesting things were revealed about the human psyche. ‘It’s a huge game-theory simulation,’ says Norman Whitaker of DARPA’s Transformational Convergence Technology Office. The only way to win the hunt was to find the location of every balloon, but a savvy participant would withhold his sighting until he’d amassed the other nine locations, or disseminated false information to throw others off the trail.”

Much of the speculation concerning tactics proved to be accurate as teams used a number of those tactics during the actual hunt for the balloons. Hesse continues:

“Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook were all abuzz with offers to sell coordinates for alleged sightings. There was much excitement over the red balloon in Providence, R.I. There was no red balloon in Providence — just a Photoshopped decoy circulated by a conniving player. The winning team was spearheaded by Riley Crane, a postdoctoral research fellow at MIT’s Media Lab. MIT’s team set up an elaborate information-gathering pyramid. Each balloon was allotted $4,000. The first person to spot one would be awarded $2,000, while the people who referred them to the team would get smaller amounts based on where they fell on the info chain. Any leftover money, after payment to spotters and their friends, will be donated to charity.”

I have noted in previous blogs that innovative people are not always motivated by money. The fact that the MIT team was willing to share the wealth and keep none of winnings for itself reinforces the notion that innovative people are often more motivated as much by the desire to solve problems as the desire to get rich. Hesse continues:

“Crane says that the team’s decision to spread the wealth was instrumental to its success, as it gave people an incentive to share good information, and a feeling of investment in the process. He was less interested in the monetary prize than in the potential for social research. ‘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.’ The practical possibilities of the Network Challenge go far beyond a research lab. Already the powers of social networks are well documented: Earlier this year, information about violence in Iran continued to be dispersed through Twitter even after traditional news sources were squelched. Crane wonders what types of applications might result from data about information dispersal collected this weekend: ‘Could we design an alert system to help us find missing children? Could we redesign the incentive structure for police rewards?'”

Of course, DARPA officials are also interested in analyzing the data gathered during the contest and they “plan to meet with participants … to debrief them on their strategies.” Hesse notes that “not everyone believes their motives are pure. After all, what would an intersection between the government and the Internet be without a few conspiracy theories?” One conspiracy theory advocate believed the contest was all a big ruse to discover a lost “balloon with something very important in it.” When Hesse asked DARPA’s Dr. Whitaker to respond to the conspiracy theory, he responded straight-faced, “That is an amazing story.” As far as I know, DARPA didn’t ask for any of their balloons back. For more on why DARPA and other scientists are interested in social networks, see my entitled The Social Media Revolution.