Finding Red Balloons - A social media experiment

cupcake A couple weeks ago, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) , announced a project to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Internet. And they're using balloons to do it.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Internet, DARPA has announced the DARPA Network Challenge, a competition that will explore the role the Internet and social networking plays in the timely communication, wide area team-building and urgent mobilization required to solve broad scope, time-critical problems.

The challenge is to be the first to submit the locations of ten moored, 8 foot, red weather balloons located at ten fixed locations in the continental United States. Balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roadways.  (from

Almost 18 years ago, I started an online community, BalloonHQ, that unites thousands of balloon artists from around the world. These days, the projects that get most of my attention are those that involve large communities in giant, interactive sculptures. How could I ignore this challenge created by DARPA? There's no way a single person can possibly find ten weather balloons placed around the continental US without the help of many others. Upon hearing about the project, I posted a note on asking for support to pull this off.  And now that DARPA has clarified some of the details of the challenge (DARPA network challenge FAQ), I'm turning to all of you that read my blog for assistance.

What do you need to do to participate?

This is easy. There's no way to know where the red balloons will be.  There may be one in your city, but you can't really plan for it.  All you can do is keep your eyes open on December 5, 2009.  If you see one, you can report it back to me. The balloons will only be available for a maximum of nine hours that day, weather permitting. The balloons may be released a day later if weather or some other interference is encountered.

All official network challenge balloons will be accompanied by officials with credentials that can verify that the balloon is part of the challenge. All of the balloons will also be in places that are easily accessible.  An exact location is needed to identify the balloon. If you see one, jot down GPS coordinates or an address, or a cross street, or something that gets us coordinates within one arc minute of the balloon's location.

Why should you help?

This should be a fun experiment. It will require the attentiveness of a lot of people and therefore a lot of people should be able to enjoy the fruits of a completed project. DARPA is offering a $40,000 prize to the first individual that reports the locations of all the balloons (or the largest number of them). The money should go toward a community project that everyone can enjoy. It should be a project in the spirit of the challenge. It should unite people across the country, celebrating the Internet, social media, and balloon art. Kelly Cheatle proposed a flying birthday cupcake made of balloons. I'm all for that. The $40K will go to covering the cost of creating the sculpture and housing the participating artists in the project. A good example of the project I have in mind would be the Fantastic Flying Octopus from a few years ago (as seen in the video below).


Let's give this a shot and see if we can win this challenge. It's not the winning that's important. It's doing something cool with the award that everyone can enjoy. Please help make this happen.