How to Win the DARPA Network Challenge

Update 2 Nov: Just set up a wiki to document resources about the Network Challenge at http://redballoon.wikispaces.com – feel free to join in!

You may have heard of DARPA before – they’re the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In 1969, they created ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet, and more recently, they run the DARPA Grand Challenge, which is a competition for groups to create driverless cars.

A couple of days ago, they announced the DARPA Network Challenge to mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet. Like the Grand Challenge, it’s a simple competition: On December 5th, ten large red weather balloons will be inflated and moored at at locations across the US. The first individual to submit the latitude and longitude of all ten balloons will win $40,000.

10 Red Balloons

The purpose of the competition is to ‘explore the role the Internet and social networking plays in the timely communication, wide area team-building and urgent mobilization required to solve broad scope, time-critical problems.’ Without the internet, it’d be impossible for all but the very largest organisations – the government, the military, Google, etc. – to win this competition; but with the internet, it’s possible for millions of people across the world to collaborate on a single goal.

The Network Challenge is not the first to test the mass problem-solving abilities of online communities; open source projects see thousands of people work on extremely complex problems over long time scales. Some of the tasks in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) have brought these problems into the physical world; in I Love Bees, thousands of people answered payphones across the US.

But the Network Challenge is the first to pose such a geographically-massive task in such a small timescale. Those red balloons aren’t going to stay up forever – they’re only going to be moored for six hours. And while they’ll be moored at ‘readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roadways’, the continental United States has an area of 8 million square km and 6.5 million km of roadways (4.2 million if you’re just counting the paved ones).

It’s a deceptively simple challenge that ought to be reasonably straightforward to solve, but gets extremely difficult and time-consuming when you think things through. Online discussions about the Network Challenge seem to think that you could win this just by following Twitter hashtags and Facebook. Far from it. That might do for a few balloons in cities, but not those by a desert road that no-one ever drives down; and believe it or not, but not everyone uses Twitter – and even if someone does, that’s no guarantee they might not keep the information to themselves for bargaining.

Given this, $40,000 seems like a pittance compared to the effort involved, but the small prize money is really a key point of the competition. It’s not supposed to cover any expenses – in fact, it’s probably as small a sum as they could reach without getting insultingly low.

The reason for the small prize money is because DARPA are exploring the different kinds of motivation that can be brought to bear on this type of problem. If a team treated the Network Challenge like paid work, $40,000 would buy very little time. However, if it’s treated differently – like a game, or like a citizen-science project such as GalaxyZoo – money is basically irrelevant. And it’s those non-monetary types of motivation that DARPA will be keen to evaluate – which works, and which don’t?

So, let’s get onto the fun stuff – how do you win the DARPA Network Challenge?

(Caveat: This is all assuming that DARPA is going to make this hard. If all the balloons end up in cities or by highways, it’ll be much easier). Continue reading “How to Win the DARPA Network Challenge”