Think of it as a high-tech treasure hunt. The award is up to $16,500 and it goes to the first person or group of people who determine the whereabouts of up to five knights we’ve placed in public parks throughout Great Britain. Three of the knights are real – actual people dressed in shining armor – but two of them are of the cyber variety, represented by photographs that can be seen on Google Maps or Google Earth.
It may sound silly, but this is not a game; it is an experiment in time-critical social mobilization. That is, our objective is to understand more about the different ways in which large, geographically diverse teams use social media networks to organize and solve problems rapidly.
The inspiration for our grand experiment came from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s research outfit.
In 2009, DARPA sponsored the Network Challenge, a contest that awarded $40,000 to the first people to correctly identify the location of 10 red weather balloons scattered around the US. A team from the MIT Media Lab beat out about 4,300 other teams in just under nine hours using social-networking technology.
The key to the group’s success was the use of an incentive scheme to draft new team members through social media. For instance, to recruit team members, the Media Lab offered $2,000 per balloon to the first person to send the correct coordinates, and $1,000 to the original person who invited that person to the team. It also offered $500 to whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on.
Back then, I remember thinking: ‘That’s a neat experiment, but I bet it could be done better.’ So I enlisted my colleague and friend, Dr Chander Velu, a university lecturer in marketing at Cambridge Judge Business School, to help design the first-ever Worldwide Time Critical Social Mobilization Experiment.
We’ve done a few things differently. First, with the cyber-component we are able to make our experiment international, rather than solely US-based. This also adds a new and exciting element: you don’t have to leave your house in order to find the cyber knights so travel time is reduced. It also enables teams to operate unencumbered by geography. Teams can summon their resources around the world – from Topeka to Tokyo to Timbuktu – to help in the effort. Although the official photos of the knights will not be released until July 2nd, Langley Castle, the sponsor of our competition, has made an amusing video that hints at what they look like.
Second, we are making more extensive use of social media. At the time of DARPA’s Red Balloon challenge, Twitter and Facebook were not explicitly incorporated. Today it is estimated that Facebook has over 600 million users around the world, so tools to leverage Facebook are provided by us. Through the course of our experiment, we will pay special attention to how information is disseminated through social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Third, the DARPA experiment didn’t actively study the dynamics of the growth and structure of the teams; each team managed itself. Instead, we have built a central database that tracks every team so that we can observe the dynamic of teambuilding. We can monitor the team recruitment process, examine the demographic data of team composition, and observe teams’ approaches and strategies of building networks and collecting information.
I expect that teams will use all sorts of clever tactics to track down the knights. I am guessing that some teams might develop software applications. We are also interested in whether different strategies are used to search for cyber knights versus the real knights; that is, will teams focus on only one type of knight or both? Which will be easier to find? In fact, this is an emergent research area; we don’t really know ahead of time what will happen. For example, unexpected at least to me, in the DARPA challenge, some teams put up phony red balloons to try to confuse other teams.
My great hope is that we learn much more about social behavior and use of computer networks. There are many practical applications of social mobilization: from police and families using networks to find missing persons, to grassroots political organizations organizing rallies, to charities mobilizing their membership to raise money, to companies implementing viral marketing initiatives.
The fact is: people are coming up with new innovative applications of social media every day. This is a phenomenon that we don’t understand very well. We want to inspire a new generation to build on what we’re doing.
For competition guidelines and to register now, please visit: www.LangleyKnights.com
For answers to specific questions, please e-mail: LangleyKnightsInfo@LangleyCastle.com
Stuart Madnick is the John Norris Maguire Professor of Information Technology at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and a Professor of Engineering Systems at the MIT School of Engineering.