MIT wins DARPA balloon challenge

MIT team first to identify locations of 10 red balloons scattered across United States, winning a $40,000 cash prize.

A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has won $40,000 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for correctly finding the locations of 10 red balloons scattered across the U.S.


Launched on Saturday, the DARPA Network Challenge released the 10 red balloons into the air, then dared contestants to find their latitude and longitude by the end of the day. Since no one person could track down all 10 in just one day, the point of the contest was to see how participants would use the Internet and social networking to team up with others to solve the quest.

DARPA said that more than 4,300 contestants registered for the challenge, of which 218 actually submitted answers. MIT was the first and only one to get all 10 answers right, finishing the contest in just under nine hours, though a few teams got at least eight correct.

Prior to winning the contest, Team MIT explained its strategy at its DARPA challenge Web site. Interested parties could register to submit the coordinates of any balloons they spotted. All people who signed up would be given their own individual Web pages, which they could publicize using Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. A snowball effect would entice more people to join the effort. And apparently...that strategy paid off.

One contestant who managed to pinpoint eight of the 10 balloons called himself 10redballons. This person also reported that as the day progressed, most teams managed to find at least five of the balloons and had started to publish the coordinates on the Web. He also said many teams were scrambling for clues to uncover the last two balloons.

DARPA enjoys a reputation for launching offbeat research projects that it hopes will provide useful information.

"The Challenge has captured the imagination of people around the world, is rich with scientific intrigue, and, we hope, is part of a growing 'renaissance of wonder' throughout the nation," said DARPA's director Regina E. Dugan in a statement. "DARPA salutes the MIT team for successfully completing this complex task less than 9 hours after balloon launch."

DARPA kicked off the Network Challenge, marking the 40th anniversary of the Internet, to see how social networking could be used to tackle broad problems and issues. The agency said it plans to meet with MIT and other contestants to learn what strategies they used to track down the locations of the balloons.

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