UPDATE December 7, 2009: A team from MIT has won the DARPA Network Challenge to track down 10 weather balloons, as well as the $40,000 prize.
Just eight hours and 56 minutes after the start of the contest, the group from the MIT Media Laboratory Human Dynamics Group, led by physicist Riley Crane, managed to identify the location of all 10 balloons, which had been placed in public places around the US, varying from high-traffic areas, such as San Francisco's Union Square, to more off-beat locations, like a baseball field in Houston.
The team used what they described as a "recursive incentive structure" to motivate individuals to work together to track down the balloons. The New York Times explains,
The winning researchers, who specialize in studying human interactions that emerge from computer networks, set up a Web site asking people to join their team. They relied on visitors to the Web site to invite their friends. They also sent e-mail messages inviting people to participate and sent a small number of advertisements to mobile phones.
They said that they would dole out the prize money both to chains of individuals who referred people who had correct information on the balloons locations and to charities.
The Washington Post describes the trickery and competition that marked the challenge and race to find the balloons:
Over the weekend, Twitter and Facebook were all abuzz with offers to sell coordinates for alleged sightings. There was much excitement over the red balloon in Providence, R.I. There was no red balloon in Providence -- just a Photoshopped decoy circulated by a conniving player.
UPDATE December 4, 2009: DARPA's 10 red weather balloons are ready for launch, and the agency has announced that its "Network Challenge" -- a competition to discover 10 balloons in order to win a $40,000 prize -- is about to begin.
The contest will begin when the balloons launch on December 5, 2009.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Agency, has announced a competition honoring the 40th anniversary of the Internet.
The gist of the DARPA Network Challenge, which hopes to highlight how the web and social networking have improved communication, is this: find balloons, win money.
Participants must discover the exact position of 10 large, red weather balloons that DARPA will put in undisclosed locations across the US, and the first person to identify the longitude and latitude of all 10 balloons wins the $40,000 cash prize.
DARPA explains on the Network Challenge site,
To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, DARPA has announced the DARPA Network Challenge, a competition that will 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.
The challenge is to be the first to submit the locations of ten moored, 8 foot, red weather balloons located at ten fixed locations in the continental United States. Balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roadways.
According to the information on the site, you can register for the contest starting December 1, and begin submitting balloon locations starting December 5. The contest is open to people of ages and from all countries, according to the press release.