The challenge: find the geographic coordinates of 10 red weather balloons scattered across the country, as quickly as possible. The contest, sponsored by DARPA, aimed to "explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems."It's old news now that a team from MIT found all 10 balloons in a staggering 9 hours, using the power of social networking, but the phrase in the podcast that leapt out at me was "viral collaboration." Since I've listened to the red balloon story, friends on Facebook have been reposting a YouTube video titled "Just One Dog" about a mutt in a high-kill animal shelter saved through the efforts of people enlisted through social networks. And tomorrow, friends and family of Utah resident Susan Powell, missing since early December, will begin a media blitz on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to try and draw attention to her case in an effort to locate her. The real-world ribbons tied on signposts and trees during the disappearance of Salt Lake teenager Elizabeth Smart in 2002 have eight years later become virtual ribbons online. As the Deseret News says in the lead to their story, "Friends and family of Susan Powell want the search for the missing mother of two to go viral."
It's a more than a little disconcerting to me that it's DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that's interested in the power of viral collaboration. But I thought back to the role that Twitter played in citizen reporting during the Iranian election in the summer of 2009, and I wanted to know more about how the viral power of social media was being tapped for positive change. Was this just a new buzzword, like the "crowdsourcing" of 2005? Or did it have the potential to be much more, especially in the role of citizen science?
The social networking site ScienceforCitizens.net is supposed to launch later this month. It's billing itself as Craigslist meets Match.com for Citizen Scientists. I know I'm intrigued. Until the social network for citizen scientists goes live, you can find a citizen science project through the blog of the Science Cheerleader. That's where I also found news of EpiCollect, a data gathering application originally designed for epidemiology but now allowing a diffuse network of users to contribute data points to a single Google Map. I'm picturing elementary school kids fanned out on a species inventory, snapping images of flora and fauna with Android-powered smartphones, and then being able to see the images as points on a global map. That's a kind of viral collaboration that's anything but scary.