Twitter, Facebook, and Ten Red Balloons: Social Network Problem Solving and Homeland Security

By Ford, Christopher M. | Homeland Security Affairs, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Twitter, Facebook, and Ten Red Balloons: Social Network Problem Solving and Homeland Security


Ford, Christopher M., Homeland Security Affairs


Introduction

On December 6, 2009, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) held a competition designed to, in their words, "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." 1 The competition required participating teams/individuals to find "10 8-foot balloons moored at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States." 2 Just before the competition opened, the balloons were surreptitiously floated at random locations in nine states, including: California, Tennessee, Florida, Delaware, Texas, Virginia, Arizona, Oregon, and Georgia. 3

The winning team, comprised of five students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), found all ten balloons in less than nine hours. Their performance roundly beat the other 4,000 participants in the challenge and shocked DARPA, which had scheduled the competition for two weeks. Incredibly, the team learned of the competition only four days before it started, and in less than two days they had a plan, a website, and more than 5,000 signed up to help them. 4 They then applied that network to an extraordinarily complex problem spanning the United States. The results were shockingly accurate and swift. The significance and potential application of their system is remarkable. In a period of less than one week, five students constructed a productive, precise, layered, networked enterprise involving thousands of citizens. This essay proposes that the U.S. federal government apply the techniques developed by the MIT team into a nation-wide program designed to address discrete security issues.

The "New" Models: Social Network Problem Solving

Naturally, the system developed for the DARPA challenge does not perfectly correlate with all homeland security challenges. For example, the system would do little to physically capture a wanted individual. The system could, however, be used to locate a wanted person. It could also be applied to assist in securing physical sites, borders, cyberspace, and infrastructure. The team leader, Dr. Riley Crane, speculated on a broad range of possible applications:

Can we use this technology we've developed to find missing children or something along those lines where there's an incentive for people to really participate and help out? Often, the police will offer a reward for finding a missing child. Can we restructure that in a way that we tap the vast resources of this network? . . . Or during an emergency, maybe we need to find 10 people in a region who can operate heavy machinery, maybe a building collapsed. 5

This approach to problem solving is potentially expansive. Indeed, the tool is so broad and powerful, that it is difficult to pigeonhole individual uses. Suffice to say, the potential application extends to any defined, discrete issue/problem.

At the core of the system is its incentive structure, which was structured to encourage the development of a large network of interested persons. DARPA offered a total of $40,000 in prize money. The MIT team allocated this evenly between each of the ten balloons, giving each a "value" of $4,000. They gave $2,000 to the person who found each balloon. This was hardly unique; most other participating teams offered some sort of reward for finding balloons. What set the MIT team apart is that they then gave a $1,000 to the person that referred the balloon finder to their website (assuming there was a referral - if there was no referral, the finder received $2,000 and the other $2,000 went to charity). Then they gave $500 to the person who referred the referrer, $250 to the person that referred them, and so on. This diffuse incentive structure essentially propagated itself over existing social networks: people were incentivized to get as many friends working for the MIT team as possible - almost like a pyramid scheme. …

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