Ten Tethered Red Balloons (Part 1)


As a company specialising in Customer Experience Management (CEM), a field of client analysis that encompasses the relatively modern medium of social networks, there is one particular question that we, at iMovo, get asked more often than any other.  This question takes many forms and variants, but effectively it asks “…but does this social media hype really work or is this just like many other marketing ploys that seek to get our organisation to believe that it is lacking behind some illusory competition? 

Admittedly, over the years we have learned to recognise the genuineness of the enquirer and given that there is always an underlying tinge of scepticism and doubt within the question, we carefully avoid reverting into sales-talk mode in order not to run the potential gamut of distrust and in this way unwillingly enhance the degree of cynicism. 

The best response, we have surprisingly discovered, is to narrate the story of the ten red balloons.  As with all good stories, it must follow the accustomed introduction, the inevitable conclusion and some factual ‘air’ in between. 


Once upon a time… as all good stories start, there was a huge American organisation called the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, but everyone preferred to call it by its acronym; DARPA.  This agency was responsible for ‘the development of emerging technologies for use by the military’ and clearly it often found itself lumbered with this rather-ominous and belligerent raison d’être.  However, over the years DARPA was responsible for the development of such exciting (albeit peaceful) creations as the Internet, speech recognition as well as virtual reality, to mention just a few technologies. 

Late in 2009, this agency decided to promote a competition which was labelled as the DARPA Network Challenge (also known as the 2009 DARPA Red Balloon Challenge) with the declared objective of ‘exploring the roles the Internet and social networking play in the real-time communications, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilisation required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems.’ 

Naturally, the challenge was ‘designed to help the military generate ideas for operating under a range of circumstances, such as natural disasters’ but just like many other DARPA experiments, before and after, this too had strong relevance within the corporate world. 


The DARPA Network Challenge was extremely simple in concept; the agency announced it intended to moor ten eight-foot, bright red, weather balloons within the same number of distinct, undisclosed and secure locations situated anywhere within the vast expanse of the United States of America.  Each balloon, DARPA assured, would be easily noticeable and accessible from the vicinity. 

The competition’s objective, whilst difficult to achieve, was relatively simple; competing teams would be expected to locate all ten balloons anywhere across the North American continent, with the winner being the one reporting the ten correct locations to DARPA in the shortest possible time.  Interestingly, the American Congress approved a winner’s cash prize of $40,000, citing DARPA’s objective of sponsoring ‘…revolutionary, high-payoff research that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their use for national security.’ 

Competition rules declared that the ten balloons were to be deployed at 10:00am (Eastern Standard Time) on December 5th, 2009, a date specifically selected to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first remote log-in to the ARPANet on October 29th, 1969, an occasion widely acknowledged as the birth of the modern-day Internet. 


Given the wide-area within which the balloons could be potentially located across the United States, DARPA wanted to assess the effectiveness of social media and crowdsourcing to rapidly collate, share and disseminate time-critical information, across a large number of people, distributed across a wide geographic area, to generate productive output.  Contributing towards compiling Wikipedia was one positive benefit of social networks and crowdsourcing, but could the same collaboration be sustained in times of national and widespread crisis? 

The competition’s rules were announced just one month before the launch, in order to intentionally curtail and limit team preparation time. DARPA was keen to assess the potential of social media and crowdsourcing to harness a group of individuals to share intelligence and knowledge in order to accomplish an assignment with unparalleled speed, accuracy and on a highly-distributed scale. 

Interest in the competition was initially relatively low, but this gradually swelled as the launch date approached.  DARPA later announced that in the week preceding the launch date, the official competition’s website increased its traffic from an average of 1,000 to 20,000 hits per day, mainly due to traditional mass media coverage. 


On December 5th, DARPA deployed the ten huge balloons from ‘readily accessible public sites where [they] would be visible from nearby roads.’  Each balloon carried a formal banner and was accompanied by a DARPA agent who would hand out an official certificate to whoever approached him and acknowledged the balloon.  The presence of a banner, and the agent, had not been announced beforehand, largely to reduce the potential of impostors and fake balloons. 

Whenever a team identified a particular balloon it was required to log into the DARPA website and submit its coordinates.  The website would then provide feedback confirming or rejecting the sighting.  Each successful sighting was recorded on the team’s online record. 

DARPA was highly doubtful any participating team would be able to identify all ten sights on the first day and the balloons were scheduled to be brought down at 5:00pm – seven hours after deployment.  However, the agency retained the right to deploy the balloons for a second day and support the ‘submission process’ for up to a week or until one of the competing teams could identify all ten locations. 

Remarkably, the winning team, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), managed to correctly identify every balloon location within eight hours, fifty-two minutes and forty-one seconds. 

What made the result even more impressive was the fact that just thirty-six hours before the launch of the balloons, the winning team had just four preliminary participants, but within those remaining hours they managed to recruit almost 5,400 active participants. 

How they managed such a feat will be described in the second part of this article.  (To be continued…)

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