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Reflecting on the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge

10 numbered red balloons

Credit: DARPA

Finding 10 balloons across the U.S. illustrates how the Internet has changed the way we solve highly distributed problems.

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Very interesting applications of this to Public Relations, Marketing and Crime Solving. Wow!

John Conti

CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the July 2011 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

I thank John C. Tang et al. for their analysis of the crowdsourcing strategies of three successful teams in their article "Reflecting on the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge" (Apr. 2011). Though the iSchools team might have had better data-mining algorithms, it was the MIT team that recognized and exploited financial incentives as the most effective way to be first to identify the 10 red balloons DARPA scattered across the U.S. last year.

In retrospect, the recursive incentive strategy adopted by the MIT team is used in many network-marketing situations worldwide. I first came across it almost 20 years ago when trying to sell a database management system to one of India's oldest non-banking finance companies, which happened to employ a motivated network of insurance agents throughout India. These agents were required to recruit other agents, with the initial premium for the first few months from each new account they signed up distributed hierarchically, though not in the precise geometric progression the MIT team used in the DARPA Challenge. This way, the company's senior agents, having recruited a large network, could virtually sit back and watch as the money poured in. I suppose this, too, is how most Ponzi schemes work, though, in this case, nothing illegal was involved, as is generally implied by the term.

The important takeaway from the Tang et al. analysis is that motivating people is the key to success and that money is often the most effective motivation in any given social network. Whether that is good or bad is a question that needs a totally different kind of analysis.

Prithwis Mukerjee
Kharagpur, India

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