We're donating $10,000 to the cause

The Groundspeak Lackeys entered the DARPA Balloon Network Challenge on December 5, 2009. In the end we didn't win the $40,000 for charity, but we're still donating $10,000 of our own money to DonorsChoose.org programs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

After the Challenge, What Have We Learned?

After a couple of days mulling over Saturday's challenge, I wanted to share some of the things we learned.

What Worked

  1. Geocachers - This was our not so secret sauce for the competition. Our community of GPS enthusiasts already have the travel bug, so it made sense that it would help in a spotting competition
  2. Instant Cache Notifications - We sparingly used the Instant Cache Notification feature of the site to enlist geocachers on the ground. Our ability to inform geocachers of potential balloon sites helped us verify or disprove locations.
  3. Groundspeak Lackeys - I was impressed with the strong showing of Groundspeak Lackeys (employees) willing to come in on Saturday at such short notice to work on the challenge. We had over 10 balloonies at one point in the day.
  4. Social Engineering - At one point we started calling nearby buildings to verify some balloon sightings. This worked exceptionally well as long as you said the right things. We weren't the only ones doing this since some people we called said they were called by others about the challenge.
  5. Microsoft Excel - We were showing tweets on the big screen which turned out to be pretty useless. Drew switched to his computer and put up an Excel Spreadsheet listing all of the information we knew and what we were working on. It turned out to be invaluable.
  6. Fat Tire and Banana Muffins - Beer (Thanks Sara!), enjoyed responsibly, can make a Saturday challenge much more enjoyable. Doubly so with Banana muffins (thanks Sandy!)

What Didn't Work

  1. Last Minute Planning - We found out about the challenge late Tuesday and didn't decide to participate until Thursday. Since a large part of our strategy was to enlist the aid of geocachers, it didn't give us much time to rally the troops. Many other teams had a month (or more) to prepare.
  2. Altruism - In the end, MIT's profit sharing strategy likely made the difference between us winning and losing. We did, however, receive information from Craig due to the charity we selected, so it is questionable whether we can't win with a completely altruistic goal.
  3. Lack of Good Tools - I felt a bit like John Henry during the challenge. For the most part we were relying less on creating an ad-hoc network than using our community. MIT's steam powered hammer, machine learning, didn't beat us handily but it likely made the difference.

What We Learned

The biggest is that geocachers are an asset for good.We need to find better ways to mobilize our community for fun projects like this, but also for good deeds. Like Reverse 911, we should have an opt-in system for geocachers who want to be notified of these games, of emergencies, or both. We'll be exploring this idea further in the coming months.


  1. Hey, I was working for the Nerdfighter command centre, and we found much the same. You were by far my favourite competing team, sharing your info and another for charity team. For the most part you were one step ahead of us until late in the game. Very well played, thank you for everything.
    Maybe if anything like this happens again we should team up, then we'd be unbeatable.
    As for late planning we heard about it and decided to join in on Thursday I was amazed we did so well with such an Ad-hoc network, who unlike you don't all posses GPS type knowledge.
    Once again, well played

  2. I love the idea of the challenge. I would opt-in both.

  3. Thanks for the feedback Jeremy. I know the lead we were following down here was a dead-end, but it was fun participating in the challenge just the same.

    I look forward to the next time we get to work as a community again!


  4. Fat Tire ! I am Fort Collins, co. where all the fat tire is brewed. Great beer.

    Too bad there were no balloons anywhere in the western states. Utah, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Whyomming, or any place north.

    Yes, I would love to be able to use geo caching skills for good!

  5. I love the idea of using the geocaching network in pursuit of some larger goal. We do that in terms of encouraging people to get outdoors and we have our CITO project. But this was something much different, much more powerful. With thousands of us across the world and a wonderful communication network, I could see putting us to use from time to time. I, for one, was thrilled to get a notification from Signal about a possible nearby balloon and was eager to drop everything to go check it out. And kudos to Groundspeak for donating the money. Way to go!

  6. I really think if you had rallied the troops earlier, the 10balloonies would have bagged it! You guys did an amazing job, especially considering it was a last minute decision to do it. Thanks for going ahead with your donation, that makes you all the true winners!

  7. I think it was great that Groundspeak rallied to try and pull this off but I agree the late start was probably the biggest inhibitor.

    With just a little more planning and notification to our network I think we would have won. Based on my experience in Santa Barbara we were the best represented at getting people out. I would guess the cache publishing notifications were effective at verifying balloons but our push system needed some pull as well. Getting cachers prepped before hand to be on the lookout, having cache events around the country on that day so we would be out and looking would have probably helped a lot.

    A private web site for providing leads so we weren't sharing information with other teams probably also would have helped.

    I don't think that the money reward was more effective then our charity approach. I think our network would have responded without compensation.

    Also if you could post pictures or other commentary about our finds and by whom would be nice as well. As well as any other fun stories from the day.

    It seemed like the perfect challenge for us and I was disappointed we weren't able to win.

  8. As a member of I Spy A Red Balloon, we also appreciated your competition. You guys ran a classy team. When we first found out about your team on Friday we figured you guys would be a daunting rival with all your geocaching pals. It was somewhat comforting when we were having trouble with balloon six to see it missing from your list as well :)

    Thanks for the good summary of your strategies. We're compiling a similar list and I'll post a comment when we get it up, in case you're interested.

  9. I think most of the geocacher's I've met would definitely opt-in. I certainly would. Perhaps next time something set up on a platform like FriendFeed or even better, Google Wave, would be help with the collaboration, verification and assimilation of up to the minute information. Would love to see Groundspeak become truly capable of interaction for real time situations and events. Waiting patiently as I am for Live to go live... =) Thanks for the fun!

  10. I loved this challenge. I would always opt in. I had less time knowing than you guys. I was exploring vey possibility of spying. You gys did awesome. Geocachers are always in the know an always here to help!

  11. What my have worked might be a community website. Something like Facebook or Twitter. A place where geocahers can go to connect wth othes. Sure THE geocache website is a great pace with forums and all.....but what about real time or live?

  12. Thanks Ethan! I'd love to see your post when it is ready.

  13. I wouldn't assume that anything about MIT's reverse pyramid incentive scheme is the thing that helped them win. They got a lot of name-brand recognition and serious mainstream media attention that other teams didn't get.

    I'm a big fan of your team because I think it was much more in the spirit of the challenge. DARPA decided to make the whole thing much easier than they might have by putting the balloons in major parks in major cities. If they had made the challenge more...err... challenging, then I suspect your team could have come out on top. For me your secret sauce is the combination of online communication and organizing with traditional networks of people who share a powerful common motivator: the thrill of the search!

  14. Hello Groundspeak!

    Well played on Saturday. As a fellow geocacher it was a bummer to go against you guys. I didn't realize you had a team on Wednesday after we had created ours. I wanted to share our primary learning for Team 40kforLAF. We, like you, were also charity driven. Again, well done and see you out in the wild.

  15. I wasn't completely in the loop, but I did ride my bike through TinyTown here, just in case someone placed a balloon at the Canadian border. I would have figured it out easily enough where to report such a finding. All I saw were two majestic bald eagles. Bummer, eh?

    As for the conscious community thing...sign me up. :)