To follow-up on this post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the power of non-traditional messaging, I had the opportunity last night to meet Dr. Riley Crane, of MIT's Media Lab at a Yelp event. Crane was discussing his lab's use of social networking sites to win the DARPA Network Challenge - a $40,000 competition to locate 10 red balloons scattered throughout the US using whatever means competitors wanted to use.
Crane's team was able to locate all 10 balloons, scattered around the entirety of the US, in just under 9 hours (8 hours and 52 minutes), by turning to the enormous expertise and observation of the internet. His lab offered a financial incentive to anyone who either found one of the red balloons directly, or led the team to someone else who found a balloon. On average, Dr. Crane said that for each of the red balloons, there was a chain of four people between the folks who saw the balloon and the MIT team.
Aside from how cool the story is on its surface, I am very excited about the potential for social networks to start flexing their muscles in other ways. Dr. Crane talked about the enormous potential for systems like these (and his team was primarily using Twitter, Facebook, email, and a couple of blogs and advertisements) to find missing persons.
I want to know what kind of impact networks like these can start having for groups like HollaBack - a site dedicated to exposing street harassers by sharing their photos online via the medium of camera phones. Could we create a nationwide database of harassers? Could an idiot on the street in Chicago get recognized as the idiot he is in New York, as well?
While some experts like Crane and his team are already doing work in this area, it also makes me wonder if we're fully tapping the web for more mundane issues, like city planning. In a previous life, I was a city planning student at Boston University's Metropolitan College, and one of the major conclusions I came to during my time there was that citizen participation was vital in city planning, not only for the ideological reasons of civil society and government by the masses, but also because involving a lot of people usually results in better planning decisions.