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MIT wins DARPA's Red Balloon Challenge

MIT wins DARPA's Red Balloon Challenge

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MIT used "sophisticated" and "machine learning" algorithms as well as "complex systems theories" to identify valid balloon sightings in DARPA's Big Red Balloon Challenge. MIT was the first to find all ten balloons distributed around the nation.

What would you do to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Internet? Well, if you're the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency better known as DARPA, you get 4,000 teams to scan the nation's horizons for moored weather balloons.

DARPA, which created the precursor network to today's Internet, scattered 10 weather balloons around the country Saturday and challenged teams to establish vast viral networks of spotters to find them. Late Saturday, DARPA announced a team from MIT was the first to locate all the balloons among 4,000 teams that competed and said it will take home the $40,000 first prize.

credit:Red Balloon Challenge Facebook group

The MIT team discovered all 10 8-foot red balloons it in less than nine hours (see map below). No doubt, the MIT team was very prepared with a vast team of spotters of across the nation. "We want to find out how information spreads on the internet, and how online social networks help this spread." said MIT's FAQ to recruit spotters. Key to winning was the ability to to separate good reports of sightings from bogus ones.

"This is one of the most interesting parts to the challenge! We will use sophisticated algorithms from the field of network science and complex systems theories along with machine learning algorithms to identify valid submissions," the MIT Red Balloon Challenge FAQ said.

Indeed, the MIT team left as little chance as possible. Its heavy scientific firepower helped the team identify and discount decoys and false reports of sightings. Facebook and Twitter were key reporting tools in this viral balloon hunt. One Facebook group has hundreds of sightings reports (many false) and red balloon chitchat.

MIT had been recruiting spotters for some time and promised them $2,000 if they located a balloon first and could provide latitude and longitude coordinates. But its viral approach to recuiting spotters did not stop there.

"We're also giving $1000 to the person who invited them. Then we're giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on," MIT said in its recruitment Red Balloon Challenge Recruitment web page. So all the prize money was (or will be) given away to folks who helped find the balloons. What's left over will go to charity.

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Balloon locations Credit: DARPA

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure