Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

What the DARPA Network Challenge Showed

November 16th, 2011 / in research horizons, Research News / by Erwin Gianchandani

DARPA Network Challenge winners: Professor Sandy Pentland, Manual Cebrian, Anmol Madan, Galen Pickard, Riley Crane, and Wei Pan (left to right) [image courtesy DARPA].As we’ve previously noted in this space, in December 2009, 10 red balloons were deployed from locations throughout the U.S. as part of the DARPA Network Challenge — a competition to “explore the roles the Interent and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems.” The challenge: to be the first to submit the coordinates of the 10 8-foot red weather balloons. And the winning team — a group of MIT students — received a $40,000 prize.

At the time, according to DARPA, “a senior analyst at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency characterized the problem as impossible” using traditional intelligence-gathering methods. But the MIT team won — and won big, completing the task in 8 hours and 52 minutes with the help of nearly 4,400 individuals who signed on through a “recursive incentive mechanism” in the 36 hours preceding the beginning of the challenge.

Just how the team did it is the subject of a recent Science article, which explores the key to mobilizing large numbers of people. The conclusion? Find out after the jump — along with a video illustrating how referral between participants of the MIT team spread on the continental U.S. before and during the DARPA challenge.

According to a MIT news story about the Science article:

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory in the MIT Media Lab, says finding the right incentive is essential to mobilizing large groups of people on a given task. With the right incentives, Pentland says people can work across social networks to accomplish goals beyond balloon searches.


“You can imagine scenarios like emergencies,” says Pentland… “‘Where’s there a power generator?’ The word goes out, and it comes back in five minutes, and half a million people have thought about it for a microsecond. That would be amazing. Or there’s a lost child, and suddenly you have 10 million eyeballs looking. You can see things like that being enormously valuable.”


Using incentives to spread information over a social network is certainly not a new idea. Referral marketing programs commonly use incentives to attract, for example, new magazine subscribers, by giving coupons to friends who refer other friends.


[But] Pentland and his team found their “recursive incentive mechanism” was far more effective than such marketing strategies. In such a system, a person doesn’t necessarily have to pass the message along to the person who subscribes to a magazine. She can gain by simply passing the message along to someone…


Erica Briscoe, a research scientist and a member of the GTRI team, says MIT’s extrinsic reward structure — promising monetary reward — helped the team generate a large social network quickly.


“I think the challenge brought up the question, ‘What kind of incentives do you need to participate?'” Briscoe says. “And it does seem their incentive scheme was more motivation for people to form that network.”


Pentland’s group is currently investigating incentive structures to mobilize large groups in other scenarios, such as disaster response and exercising.


“Humans are really social animals,” Pentland says. “We live in this web of social relationships, and a lot of what we do and the satisfaction we derive comes from the web of social relationships. So if you want to get people to coordinate or change their behavior, you have to first and foremost deal with the existing web of relationships, rather than treat people as isolated individuals.”

For more details, be sure to check out the recent Science research article, as well as the MIT news story. And read DARPA’s official project report, published a few months after the DARPA Network Challenge took place, here.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

What the DARPA Network Challenge Showed