MIT Wins $40,000 'Balloon Hunt' Thanks to Internet

Dennis Faas's picture

A government contest whereby participants were requested to spot ten weather balloons at once has been won by the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT). But MIT took the prize thanks to the help of a network of ordinary Internet users recruited under an intricate cash reward system.

The content was launched by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the same group which developed a network commonly acknowledged as the forerunner of the Internet. The idea of the contest was to see how people would use online networking to solve a problem too big for any one individual.

The challenge was simple: teams had to be the first to spot all ten red weather balloons placed around the country. Each balloon was eight-foot high, moored to the ground, and easily visible from a public highway. Of course, while they were easy to spot when you were nearby, it wasn't as if driving around the entire continental U.S. was really a viable option.

Networking, Not Balloon Hunting, The Real Key To Victory

The winning team, organized by MIT, had spotted and reported all 10 balloons in less than nine hours. It appears staff there realized the key was to not put efforts into actually looking for the balloons, but rather to build a network so big that it was sure to ultimately include people who happened to have come across the balloons.

They decided that simply trying to sign up as many helpers as possible wouldn't work, since people's only incentive for getting friends and other contacts involved was enthusiasm for the project, which likely wouldn't be enough. Instead, MIT announced that if it won, it would split the cash prize among everyone who had even the slightest role in finding a particular balloon -- or rather, finding the person who found the balloon.

To do this, the group set up a system by which each person who came to the MIT website without any prompting would get a unique link. They could then post this link on social networking sites, their own websites, or in emails. Everyone who signed up using this link would then be added to the MIT system as a contact of the person who sent them the link, then get their own link to pass on to their friends, and so on.

Cash Rewards Extend Network

Using this method, whenever anyone spotted and reported a balloon, MIT could find out who told them about the challenge, who told that person, and so on. If MIT won the contest (which of course it did), it would split the $40,000 prize in line with this network.

The person spotting each balloon won $2,000, the person who told them about the contest won $1,000, and so on to the end (or rather the start) of the chain, with any remaining cash going to charity. That gave every participant the incentive to recruit as many people as possible: in total, 4,665 people were involved in the MIT chains. (Source:

Nearly 500 groups took part in the contest. (Source:

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