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DARPA balloon-hunt compo: Stand by for skulduggery

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The DARPA Network Challenge - a race to find ten large red balloons to be flown at undisclosed locations in the USA this Saturday - is beginning to take shape, with competing teams trying to marshal the legions of crowdsourced operatives necessary for a win. Meanwhile rules and details have been modified in an attempt to prevent some of the more obvious stratagems.

The contest was announced in October to celebrate DARPA's preferred 40th-anniversary-of-the-internet date. It offers a $40k prize to the individual who can first report the locations (accurate to within a mile radius) of the ten 8-foot red balloons which DARPA will fly this Saturday throughout daylight hours. All are to be located in publicly-acessible places within view of roads or highways.

The design of the compo - limited prize money, quite small balloons, all located in areas where they will be seen by ordinary members of the US population - points to crowdsourcing/social networking as the area DARPA is interested in, and indeed the agency's chief Regina Dugan has said:

"The DARPA Network Challenge explores the unprecedented ability of the Internet to bring people together to solve tough problems.”

Various strategies for bringing people together have been proposed. Some organisers, obviously enough, have promised to share the reward with those first to report correct locations - some are even promising to take no cash for themselves, perhaps theorising that the fame of a win will be worth having on its own. Others have stated that the cash will be given to named charities, or even spent "in one way or another... to help promote peace". Others offer payouts for recruiters of spotters. Yet another team promises, if it wins, to spend the entire $40k on making a "giant flying cupcake built entirely out of balloons!"

Meanwhile DARPA has tweaked the contest rules somewhat, introducing various provisions designed to thwart some obvious ploys. Originally a location had only to be accurate to within a second of arc, meaning that each submitted entry would cover a box on the map; this has now been reduced slightly to a mile and changed to a circular radius, making it harder to reliably blanket big areas using lots of submissions. The registration and submission process has also been "designed to prevent automated approaches designed to systematically guess the correct locations", too.

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