Department of Defense Gains Social Networking Insight

Earlier this month, the research and development branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, known as DARPA, launched the Network Challenge, a competition that demonstrates the value of social networks as “highly effective tools for rapidly gathering and disseminating very precise information,” according to Larry Greenemeier, tech editor for Scientific American.

Lance Whitney, blogger for CNET, sums up the contest:

The DARPA Network Challenge will award $40,000 to the first person who can identify the latitudes and longitudes of 10 red weather balloons positioned at different parts of the sky across the continental United States… Since no one person can identify all 10 balloons across the States in one day, challengers will need to rely on social networks to team up with others to pinpoint the locations of the balloons.

DARPADARPA’s goal was to gain insight into how people can use social media to share and distribute sensitive and timely information. The nature of the contest — i.e. locating 10 red balloons — was in no way critical or sensitive, but the strategies and tools employed could certainly have important real-world applications.

I wrote a few weeks ago about an African nonprofit called Ushahidi, which created a digital platform for users to send real-time mobile, email and web updates informing people about episodes of violence and other crises as they occur anywhere in the world.

If a small organization like Ushahidi — made up mostly of volunteers — can utilize real-time social media communications to help keep civilians away from riots, lootings and other acts of violence during the post-election crisis in Kenya, imagine what DARPA and the Department of Defense can do.

SOURCE: “Inflated Expectations: Crowd-Sourcing Comes of Age in the DARPA Network Challenge,” 12/21/09
SOURCE: “DARPA’s latest challenge: Locate these 10 balloons,” 12/1/09
Photo courtesy of djuggler, used under its Creative Commons license.

About David Reich

David Reich is co-founder and CEO of SixEstate, blending a background in traditional marketing and public relations with over 5 years of experience managing hundreds of online marketing campaigns for all kinds of organizations -- from small businesses and nonprofits to public companies. David is responsible for keeping SixEstate and its clients at the forefront of the rapidly evolving search and content marketing landscape. Connect with David on Twitter, Google+ or via email.


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  1. UPDATE: I should not be surprised that the winner of this contest is a colleague, Dr. Riley Crain, an M.I.T. researcher who studies collective behavior. I first heard about Crain’s work through Peter Gloor, an M.I.T. Sloan Management researcher and author of Coolhunting and Coolfarming — two books about tapping the wisdom of crowds.

    Crain’s team located all the balloons in about 9 hours to collect the prize. Part of their method was to offer a proportional share of the winnings to those who recruited the people who found the balloons, not just to the finders.

    Gloor’s work helped point the way by discovering that crowdsourcing works much better when there is real money on the line (“skin in the game”). Even a small financial incentive vastly improves a crowd’s efforts and accuracy.

    Another fascinating finding of Gloor’s work is that groups with non-experts are more accurate than groups made entirely of experts or entirely of non-experts. It seems that experts have too much skin in the game, and it tends to make them biased. Gloor discusses these issues in a video from my Tulane University Internet PR class at the Internet Public Relations channel on Kyte TV: