UAE-Based Scientist from Masdar Institute Co-Publishes in Prestigious Journal

September 21, 2018

Article in ‘Science’ Journal Analyzes MIT Team’s Win at DARPA Network Challenge that Measured Crowd-Sourcing Power of Social Media Platforms

Abu Dhabi-UAE: 16 November, 2011 – Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, an independent, research-driven graduate-level university focused on advanced energy and sustainable technologies, today announced the prestigious ‘Science’ journal has published for the first time a paper co-authored by a UAE-based scientist.

The paper analyses the tactics adopted by various teams during the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Network Challenge, which measured the crowd-sourcing power of today’s social media platforms. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) Red Balloon Challenge Team was declared the winner.

As a Visiting Scholar at the MIT Human Dynamics research laboratory of Prof. Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Dr. Iyad Rahwan, Assistant Professor – Computing and Information Science, Masdar Institute, had the opportunity to help the MIT team decipher the data generated from the DARPA Network Challenge, and build mathematical models to analyze the incentive mechanism and its main features.

The M.I.T. Red Balloon Challenge Team members comprised Prof. Alex Pentland, Director of Human Dynamics Laboratory at M.I.T., Dr. Manuel Cebrian, now a research scientist at University of California, San Diego, Dr. Riley Crane, a post-doctoral fellow studying social networks at M.I.T., and M.I.T. graduate students Wei Pan, Galen Pickard, and Anmol Madan.

The first of its kind, DARPA Network Challenge was launched to mark the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Internet, and to test how it has changed the way human beings can mobilize social networks. DARPA is the government agency that developed many of the technologies that has become integral to the Internet.

Nearly 4,300 teams participated in the DARPA Network Challenge that involved locating ten weather balloons placed randomly across Continental US. Using a ‘recursive incentive mechanism’ that both spread information about the task and incentivized individuals to act, the team was able to find all ten balloons, marked with numbered pennants, in less than nine hours, and won the Challenge.

The M.I.T. Red Balloon Challenge Team was a collaborative effort that used an inverse pyramid model to encourage the help of others. The team distributed the US$40,000 winner’s purse by giving US$2,000 to the first person who sent the correct coordinates for each balloon, then US$1,000 to whoever invited that person to participate, US$500 to whoever invited that person, and so on. The balance was donated to charity.

The Science journal article analyzes the theoretical and practical properties of this mechanism and its analogy with other approaches. The authors of the article have attempted to quantify the effect of the ‘recursive incentive mechanism’ strategy, by analyzing the set of all Tweets published by people on social networking site Twitter. The number of Tweets that mention the different top performing teams were also measured.

The authors conclude that combining both charitable as well as personal incentives could result in rapid social mobilization, since the social media response was much lower for teams that used an ‘altruism-based strategy’, which promised to donate all money to charity. The article further confers that having access to a large audience is not sufficient in the absence of incentives. Citing the example of George Hotz, an IT celebrity who had 35,000 followers on Twitter, the article states that while Hotz was able to generate a huge initial burst of interest atthe DARPA Network Challenge, the number of Tweets sharply dropped subsequently. In contrast, with the ‘recursive incentive’ strategy, the M.I.T. Red Balloon Challenge Team was able to achieve a comparable number eventually, despite not having access to a large audience to begin with.

Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, President of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, said: “The joint article in the respected ‘Science’ journal on the results of the DARPA Network Challenge bears testimony to the contribution of Masdar Institute to pioneering initiatives. It also signifies a milestone towards achieving the vision of the UAE’s leadership to make the country a knowledge-based economy and an important player in the world of science, engineering and technology. Our faculty will continue to engage the community through similar initiatives.”


Dr. Iyad Rahwan, Masdar Institute, said: “Time-critical social mobilization aims to organize social networks in order to find valuable information especially during emergency scenarios such as earth quakes or the outbreak of an epidemic like bird flu. In these situations, people need to act swiftly and in a coordinated manner to find crucial information. After an earth quake, it is absolutely crucial to quickly locate an engineer who knows the whereabouts of power generators, while during an epidemic it is highly essential to rapidly identify people who showed early symptoms for treatment and quarantine.

“In both these cases, crucial information that is embedded in the network of social relationships makes a world of difference in accessing the right personnel for necessary decision-making and mobilization.”