Thursday, December 10, 2009

Haystacks, needles, and networks.

Sometimes I wonder if our recent rapid technological changes haven't quite lived up to their potential.

Then I hear about how technology can be used to solve a problem:

In less than nine hours, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab scooped a $40,000 prize by cracking DARPA's Network Challenge. They found 10 red weather balloons, which the US military research agency had tethered in public locations across the US last Saturday.

How did the MIT group succeed so quickly? Team leader Riley Crane says their incentive programme helped.

To recruit people into their network of balloon spotters, the MIT team offered to split the prize money, so that if the team won, the person who correctly identified a balloon's location got $2000. Finder fees were also offered, so that whoever referred a successful spotter would be given $1000; $500 went to the referrer of the referrer, $250 to the referrer of the referrer of the referrer, and so on, with any remainder going to charity.

"In 48 hours, we went from a team of five to a team of 5000," says Crane

A trivial problem I realize, but one that demonstrates a fundamental, and fundamentally good, aspect of the new kinds of communication and networking that were previously unavailable.

This was a zero sum game to be sure, so a strategy that increased team size reduced the size of the winnings that an individual team member would get, but it also greatly increased the chance of winning.

The metaphor of a pie is often used when talking about economic growth. With the debate often coming down to a discussion of cutting the pieces of the pie so that they are the same or nearly the same size versus increasing the overall size of the pie so that everyone's piece is bigger, even when there is great variability in the size of the individual pieces. The collaborative competition used to win this game showed how a group might actually be able to bring a whole new set of the pies to the table. Pies that previously nobody ate because the cost of making them was simply too high for one person.

If this game required that only a single person locate the balloons there is a good chance that the prize money would never be claimed. $40,000 may not get you very far if you are trying to find ten balloons scattered randomly throughout the United States. By using technology to communicate with people around the country, the team was able to include people whose cost of finding a single balloon that just happened to be in their area was much much less than the $40,000.

This team combined the need for incentives to encourage collaboration with the recognition that there are diminishing marginal costs and won. The winning team was successful by increasing the number of payouts the game had. Literally changing the rules of the game. This is something that we often hear technology is capable of, it's encouraging to see that change in action.

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