MIT team thinks outside the box to snag social media prize

Winners of the State Department's TAG challenge adopted a nontraditional incentive structure to find roving jewel thieves.

On March 31, one team emerged victorious in a State Department social media contest by relying on more than just social media to net fictitious international jewel thieves.

State announced on Sunday via Twitter that Team CrowdScanner won the TAG Challenge, in which participants were asked to locate and photograph actors posing as thieves who roamed five cities for 12 hours.

Though the team is affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., none of its eight members lives there or is a U.S. citizen. Team leader Iyad Rahwan, a professor at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, ran the entire operation from his apartment in Dubai. System architect Sohan Dsouza and one other member also worked out of the United Arab Emirates, with three additional team members in the United Kingdom and one in the United States.

"We knew that, should we win this, we would manage to raise the bar for rapid mobilization through social media a significant notch higher," Rahwan told Government Executive in an email.

Even more incredibly, none of the team members was on the ground in Washington, New York City, London, Stockholm or Bratislava -- the five cities where the jewel thieves were supposed to have lurked. CrowdScanner instead employed an incentive strategy to encourage online participants to join their team: If CrowdScanner won the contest, then helpers would receive $500 for uploading an image of a thief, or $100 if a friend they referred to the team snapped the image.

CrowdScanner used a combination of traditional and social media to rope in participants instead of relying solely on Twitter as other teams did. Rahwan said an approach built entirely around social media would not have been enough to win.

The strategy worked. CrowdScanner tracked down three of the thieves by the end of the day, something no other team was able to do.

University of California at San Diego professor Manuel Cebrian, the only team member in the United States during the contest, also was a member of the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, which won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's 2009 Network Challenge.

"A lot of people wondered if the success in the DARPA Red Balloon challenge was somehow a very lucky accident," Rahwan said. "We were determined to see if we can indeed do it again."

Next, CrowdScanner plans to reconstruct exactly how the team was able to pull off its victory to learn more about the collaborative opportunities social media can afford. The $5,000 in prize money is nice, but inessential to the team.

"We were never in this for the money, but for the science and adventure," Rahwan said.