Well, that didn’t take long. By 5:00 PM DARPA had already announced a winner in their 2009 Challenge. The challenge was supposed to last through December 14, but it was obvious from early on that it wouldn’t take that much time. As shown on the map above, the balloons were located in places where it would have been hard to miss them (although there is a large wedge of the Midwest with no ballooons.) The winner was the team from MIT.
I didn’t participate in the challenge as I thought I might. However, I did check in on the progress from time-to-time on Twitter. It was interesting to watch the competition progress. Most of the Twitter traffic seemed to be from those involved in the hunt, and I saw only one from someone that seemed to have honestly stumbled upon one (…sort of, but more on that in a bit.)
As I saw reports of balloons I wondered if I shouldn’t try to find the location and report them as my own. However, I figured that if the reports were THAT public, then others would have reported them. I just decided to watch the spectacle.
I had said in my last post that there were rumors of people putting up fake balloons. It seems that creating confusion was even easier – all you need to do was send out a Tweet that you had spotted one at such-and-such a location so that you could create false reports. I almost suspect that first Tweet I saw was one of these, since the map doesn’t indicate a balloon in the reported location.
In the end, I don’t think it would have been possible for an individual to win this. It required teamwork and cooperation. In addition to the MIT, the other one that seemed to be making the most headway was the Groundspeak 10 Balloonies Team – the geocachers. They were able to confirm 8 of the 10 balloons before the contest ended.
The strategies these two teams used was quite different. The Groundspeak team relied on the goodness of their constituency. All money was going to charity, and they vowed to add $10,000 of their own money, which they would donate even if they didn’t win. The activity was perfectly suited for the geocaching crowd, so it made sense that they would do well.
The MIT Team, on the other hand, relied on greed. According to their website:
We’re giving $2000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all — we’re also giving $1000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on… (details.)
So it looks like greed won out over charity. And greed was evident in lots of places. There were paid Google ads saying things like “Earn Money! Report Balloons!” on searches for the DARPA Challenge. Flickr photos of the balloons had comments like the following added:
Email the balloon number and location to firstname.lastname@example.org, and get up to $10K if we win…
Balloon Spam had been born. Maybe it’s a good thing the challenge didn’t take very long.