Finding 10 balloons across the U.S. illustrates
how the Internet has changed the way
we solve highly distributed problems.
By John C. tanG, manueL CeBRian, niCKLaus a. GiaCoBe,
hyun-Woo Kim, taemie Kim, anD DouGLas “BeaKeR” WiCKeRt
on the DaRPa
ThE 2009 dARPA Red Balloon Challenge (also known
as the DARPA Network Challenge) explored how the
Internet and social networking can be used to solve
a distributed, time-critical, geo-location problem.
Teams had to find 10 red weather balloons deployed
at undisclosed locations across the continental U.S.
The first team to correctly identify the locations of
all 10 would win a $40,000 prize. A team from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) won in
less than nine hours (http://networkchallenge.darpa.
mil/). Here, we reflect on lessons learned from the
strategies used by the various teams.
The Challenge commemorated the 40th anniversary
of the first remote log-in to the ARPANet (October 29,
1969), an event widely heralded as the birth of the
Internet. The Challenge was designed to identify
how more recent developments (such
as social media and crowdsourcing)
could be used to solve challenging
problems involving distributed geo-locations. Since the Challenge was announced only about one month before
the balloons were deployed, it was not
only a timed contest to find the balloons but also a time-limited challenge
to prepare for the contest. Both the diffusion of how teams heard about the
Challenge and the solution itself demonstrated the relative effectiveness of
mass media and social media.
The surprising efficiency of applying social networks of acquaintances
to solve widely distributed tasks was
demonstrated in Stanley Milgram’s
celebrated work9 popularizing the notion of “six degrees of separation”; that
is, it typically takes no more than six intermediaries to connect any arbitrary
pair of people. Meanwhile, the Internet
and other communication technologies have emerged that increase the
ease and opportunity for connections.
These developments have enabled
crowdsourcing—aggregating bits of
information across a large number of
users to create productive value—as a
popular mechanism for creating encyclopedias of information (such as
Wikipedia) and solving other highly
The Challenge was announced at the
“40th Anniversary of the Internet” event
index.html). On December 5, 2009, at
10:00 a.m. Eastern time, 10 numbered,
eight-foot-diameter red weather balloons were deployed at moored loca-
Crowdsourcing, social networking,
and traditional media enabled teams
to quickly find 10 weather balloons
scattered across the u.s.
Besides finding the balloons,
distinguishing correct balloon sightings
from misleading claims turned out
to be an important part of the effort.
Variations in the strategies of the
competing teams reflected differences
in how social media can be tailored
to fit a given task.
PhotoGraPh courtesy oF darPa