The Power Of Red Balloons Crowdsourcing

Social-distancing and staying at home recommendations have disrupted our modern life like probably none of us ever experienced before. We are sacrificing our daily routines as a collective act to stop the spread and as many mentioned, to flatten this not so pleasant curve.

As this global pandemic is there to stay for a while, I gave myself the challenge to broaden my knowledge, share my learnings and discipline myself to exercise my creative abilities everyday and turn it into a habit.

As of my first intent to do so, I’ve decided to share my first illustration, accompanied with the story that inspired it. In the quest to find balance and keep growing during this incertain time, here it goes:

I recently asked myself how as an individual, I could help in this world-wide crisis apart from following every restrictions the government is applying.

As much as I’d like to make a difference in this world, I believe this is a problem we should be solving all together, through collaboration, sharing information and global partnerships. Individuals, companies, and governments world-wide must act in a communal spirit to solve broad-scope problems, as the one we are facing right now.

A story I stumbled upon recently made me pause and reflect about how crowdsourcing and collaboration could be the key in the quest for a solution.

The story is about the DARPA Network balloon contest that was held in 2009. How the hell red balloons can help in the actual pandemic you might ask? This can seem far stretched, but you will get where I’m going I promise.

DARPA stands for Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, an organization under the U.S. Department of Defense. If you don’t know them, they basically designed and built ARPANET in the 70s, which was the first computer network (World Wide Web as we know it today).

The DARPA contest was a prize competition that aimed to explore how the Internet and social networking could play a role in solving large-scale and time-critical problems of national security, such as finding nuclear weapons or explosives. (The red balloons in this case).

They offered $40,000 to anyone or any team who could locate ten red balloons that they had placed in plain sight all across the United States. They deployed the balloons and accepted submissions for up to a week, until one team found all 10 balloons…in less than 9 hours.

Props to the MIT red Balloon challenge team!

How did they do it exactly?

The MIT team allocated 4000$ to finding each balloon and spread the word below;

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 to whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on

While many assumed the winning team would use satellite imagery, planes, sonars, radars, etc, the MIT team positioned first place without using any of these technologies. Instead, they constructed a massive ad hoc social network of collaborators and spotters, in short, they used the power of crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing is just one example of organizing our social world, our social networks, to harness the energy, expertise, and physical presence of many individuals for the benefit of all.- Daniel J. Levitin

In the case of the DARPA balloons contest, it required only 4,665 people and less than nine hours to solve the problem and acknowledge the power of obtaining information of a large number of people via the Internet.

It is fascinating to think about the untapped potential hidden in the power of crowdsourcing, collaboration and sharing information on a large scale. I’m sure we’ve only just scratched the surface on where there are wonderful opportunities still waiting to be uncovered. What if we were using technologies to create a national mobilization that could accelerate the race to find a viable vaccine? What if tech companies could harness the power of crowdsourcing to fight the pandemic?

Happily, we see many companies pivoting in their production and helping each other to find tangible solutions. One of those initiatives recently caught my attention on that matter.

This Montreal AI Tech company called Element AI adapted, in only a week, one of their products to help clinical workers and researchers find answers and discover patterns at a rapid pace. They can now navigate and run semantic searches for free on over 45,000 scholarly articles in the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset that have been released by the Allen Institute for AI for the purpose.

This is a great example of what collaboration, crowdsourcing and partnership could benefit the combat, and hopefully, help find a viable solution. From multinationals and investors to universities, businesses and individuals, I believe everyone can take leadership and reflect upon how they could work more collectively, possibly creating global partnerships and sharing their knowledge worldwide.

As much as the red balloons contest tackles a totally different type of problem, (locate weapons or explosives), there’s one lesson to be learned. If this 2009 contest could bring. 4,665 people working together and bringing light on how to solve time-critical problems with the power of crowdsourcing, we can ask ourselves how the technologies we have today could bring more humans together and gather better data to improve the network of sharing information worldwide.