Follow that Balloon – how MIT demonstrated the power of Social Media

At the start of December 2009, a section of the US Defence Department set up a very interesting competition.  They were going to release 10 weather balloons from secret locations across the USA and their challenge was that the first team to use social media to find out the correct latitude and longitude of all 10 balloons would receive prize money of $40,000. And the members of the MIT Media Lab’s Human Dynamics Laboratory decided to take up this challenge – and in the process of winning the prize, may have provided a valuable insight into how social media can be used to mobilise resources during emergencies.

The article A Social Network that Ballooned written by Larry Hardesty on the MIT News web pages explains how MIT’s Media Lab team came up with the winning approach (against 4000 other teams).  They used their expertise in using digital media to analyse and alter the behaviour of large groups of people, in particular when looking at large-scale collective problem solving.  The resulting data will be very interesting for government agencies to learn how to use social media to collect and manage resources in disasters and emergency scenarios.

The key to the winning approach was that it was based on a very simple way of motivating individuals through incentives.  Essentially the team simply offered to share the prize money between everyone that help to find a balloon across the country.  How big their share would be depended on their involvement in finding the balloon – if you provided the correct co-ordinates, you would get $2000; if you were the one that had invited that person, you got $1000; whoever invited you got $500, and so on. What was really clever about this was that the MIT Team worked out that no matter how long the chain got, the total payment would never be more than the prize money!

So if a 5-person team at MIT can mobilise people across a country as large as the USA by using social media, just think what social media could do for your business!

Find out more about the MIT Team’s Red balloon Challenge at their website or visit the MIT Human Dynamics Lab to find out more about their research into Reality Mining.

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