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Crowdsourcing For Prize Money Wed 09 Dec 09

Applying Internet Technologies Creatively Can Generate Big Rewards

MIT_Red_Balloon_Challenge This past weekend DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) announced the winner of the Network Challenge ''to explore how broad-scope problems can be tackled using social networking tools,'' to mark the 40th anniversary of the ARPANet, pre-cursor to today’s Internet.

This was a great way to celebrate the anniversary as well as DARPA’s connection to the birth of the Internet. The winning team used social networking and demonstrated other concepts that take advantage of the power of the Internet. Oh, and team went home with a $40,000 prize.

First the challenge:

The challenge is to be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States. The balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roads.

Sounds simple doesn't it? These are big balloons, they're red and they're held in place. How hard could it be? Well, the U.S. is a pretty big place and driving around hoping to run across them wasn't likely to work. Not so easy after all.

As it turns out a couple of smart folks at MIT (there are quite a few there) figured out how to do it.  Rather than trying to find the balloons on their own, they formed a network to do it for them. 

They enlisted people from all across the country via a viral network to report any balloon sitings.  As they explain on their network page "You might not find a balloon, but one of your friends (or one of their friends (or one of their friends...and so on) might, and then you can all win."

Creating this network of people looking for the balloons is a great example of the power of crowdsourcing.  The beauty of this network is that it was viral. For the most part the MIT folks didn't know the people that belonged to it. Network members recruited other member who, in turn, recruited other members, and so on.

The other interesting thing the MIT group did was to give an incentive for people not only to report balloon sitings, but to also recruit additional network members. As they explain ''We're giving $2,000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that's not all--we're also giving $1,000 to the person who invited them. Then we're giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on.''

Ingenious. They completed the challenge in just 9 hours! There are a number of lessons to be learned from this.

Many hands lighten the load - There are many times when enlisting more resources, even on a casual basis, can be better than trying to tackle the problem by yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

The internet and related technologies present new opportunities - The Internet and social networking technologies make things possible that were unimaginable only a few years ago. Yes, this could have been done without these technologies, but not at the same speed. The old phrase, ''Time is money'' is as true now as it ever was. Speed can truly be a competitive factor.

Be creative - Although these technologies can open up new opportunities, we have to think creatively about how to use them. It isn't just about making things more efficient. It's also about doing things that couldn't be done before, doing things in a new way or using these technologies to create new products or services.

Don't forget the human element - To me the most important element of the way the MIT folks went about this was including incentives to build and engage the network. Although people are generally willing to help, we can't forget the WIIFM principle, ''What's In It For Me?'' People are the most critical element of a project’s success. Although we as IT folks like to focus on the technology, we'd be foolish to ignore the human element.

"MIT Red Balloon Challenge" photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/jasonslogic/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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