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12/7/2009
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MIT Team Wins DARPA Network Challenge

In a demonstration of social networking, MIT researchers used an inverse pyramid approach to locate the coordinates for 10 red balloons in less than nine hours.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers took less than nine hours to find 10 weather balloons that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had placed randomly in public places around the United States, claiming the $40,000 contest prize.

About 4,300 teams participated in DARPA's Network Challenge over the weekend. The Pentagon will study the results to better understand how social networking can solve large-scale problems that require fast solutions.

DARPA placed the 8-foot, red balloons, all marked with numbered pennants and most with a DARPA banner, in public parks and other locations, from Miami's South Beach and San Francisco's Union Square to a tennis court in Charlottesville, Va.

Teams used various methods to identify balloon locations, from synthesizing public information to collaborating in large groups. Some tried to confuse challenge participants with false locations, including a large paper copy of a balloon in Providence, R.I.

The winning team was headed by scientist Riley Crane, who is studying social networking in a post-doctoral fellowship at M.I.T. and author of academic papers about YouTube. His team, the M.I.T. Red Balloon Challenge Team, was a collaborative effort that used an inverse pyramid model to encourage the help of others.

The team divvied the $40,000 by giving $2,000 to the first person who sent them correct coordinates for each balloon, then $1,000 to whoever invited that person to participate, $500 to whoever invited that person, and so on. Leftover funds will go to charity.

In addition to studying interaction that took place on the Web, DARPA plans to interview teams in order to understand the strategies they used to build networks and collect information.

DARPA is the government agency that developed many of the technologies that became integral to the Internet. The Network Challenge is one of a series of recent DARPA-sponsored challenges, which have included a $2 million prize for the builders of a robot car that drove itself over a 131-mile desert course in California.

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