Lessons Learned From DARPA Balloon Challenge

from the it's-amazing-what-people-can-do dept

By now, you've probably heard that a team from MIT won the DARPA balloon challenge, whereby DARPA put 10 red balloons in the air around the country and wanted to see what people could do to find all 10 balloons. The rules were pretty loose, and the team at MIT took all of nine hours or so to locate all ten balloons, through an interesting "crowdsourcing" method. They basically quickly set themselves up as a clearinghouse of information, and made it easily shareable across different social networking platforms, and employed something of an affiliate program to encourage people to get their friends to sign up with the MIT team as well. If you signed up people who helped find the balloons, you got some of the prize money according to your friend network, and so on down through the social pyramid. The team claims that what was most important was the recursive nature of the pyramid, which gave people incentive to participate, even if they knew they couldn't find the balloons.

While some other DARPA challenges, like the autonomous vehicle challenge (to get a totally driverless vehicle to drive a few hundred miles with no help), are cool but seem limited in terms of application outside of the core area it was built for, this one actually does seem to hold a lot of useful lessons that can be picked up on right away, and which can be applied across a lot of different business, policy, IT, public good and many other areas. Some of the key elements:
  • Recognize that there's power in numbers: Recognize that for certain projects, you need a lot of different minds (and eyes) working on things, and that certain tasks shouldn't just be done by "the one best" individual.
  • Make it easy for more people to participate: Once you realize that you need a lot of people, you need to make it easy for them to participate.
  • Give people multiple reasons to participate: Different people have different motivations. Some people just want to belong to a successful project or a leading team to bask in the glow. Others need additional types of incentive. The MIT team offered up monetary compensation in addition to recognition for participation.
  • Give people a reason to get others involved: Sort of a corollary to recognizing the power in numbers, the MIT team worked hard to give people incentive not just to participate and to promote their participation, but also to recruit others to the team as well. This even made it so those who couldn't help finding the balloons directly could still participate in better finding the people who could find the balloons.
  • Align incentives properly: Make sure that everyone is driving towards the same goal, and that the incentives work on top of one another to all push towards that same goal.
  • Look beyond your immediate "group": One of the coolest things I thought about the MIT group was that there was nothing in there that limited it to MIT or the folks at MIT. They immediately recognized that it made the most sense to reach out to folks beyond their immediate circle, which is what helped them get the people they needed involved quickly.
Now, a lot of these may sound obvious, but it's often important to remind yourself of these basic concepts, and it's impressive to see how well (and how fast) these worked in the case of the MIT balloon team. I could see these lessons being applied in a lot of other areas as well. There is a separate issue that the team hasn't discussed yet, but promises to eventually: which is that it also had to deal with a number of bogus entries -- including at least some from a competing team trying to throw the MIT team off the scent. Finding out how they got around such problems would also be quite interesting in terms of better managing these sorts of group efforts.

Filed Under: balloons, challenge, crowdsourcing, darpa challenge, incentives, mit, teamwork

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  1. identicon
    mryakima, 9 Dec 2009 @ 11:49pm

    Now "they" have found the tools to stop public dissent during a crisis

    So, imagine a day possibly not very far in the future, when "they" are attempting to crack down on the dissenters (Yes, that could be you and me). With the assistance of a bunch of unwitting helpers this week the powers that be have just been gifted exactly what they need to know to shut down communications among the citizens of this or any other country. This information will also be very helpful to the dictators in Iran.

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