In an effort to develop new ways to understand how information is disseminated through social networks, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) placed 10 red balloons in undisclosed locations around the country and offered $40,000 to the first person or group to discover their exact coordinates.

Remarkably, it took only 8 hours and 56 minutes for the winning group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by physicist Riley Crane, to edge out 4,300 others to claim the grand prize, reports the New York Times.

While some of the balloons were placed in highly trafficked locations like Union Square in San Francisco, others were in more obscure places, such as Katy Park, a baseball field in the Houston suburbs. The other eight were found in Portland, Ore.; Miami, Fla.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Memphis, Tenn.; Atlanta, Ga.; Charlottesville, Va.; and Christiana, Del. 

Teams employed a variety of strategies to garner information from the public. Some teams offered a cut of the prize money or built iPhone applications, while others offered prizes instead of cash. A few pledged to donate the money to charity, hoping to prove that selflessness was a more successful social motivator than selfishness.

Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook were host to a constant stream of updates that made reference to the contest. Users had to sort through a hodge-podge of information and decide what source was trustworthy. Some groups disseminated misinformation in an effort to mislead or delay the competition. For instance, one major false lead tricked many teams into including Seattle, Wash., as a location of one of the balloons, when the nearest was actually a state away in Portland, Ore.

In the end, the winners at MIT won by establishing their own social networking website, which allowed users who signed up to join their team. Aside from initial e-mail messages inviting people to participate, they relied almost entirely on visitors to the site to invite their friends to join.

The researchers said they received contributions from 4,665 participants, and the prize money was doled out among chains of individuals who referred people who had correct information on the balloons' locations. The winning methodology was described by researchers as having a "recursive incentive" structure, which basically means that it rewarded people who made real contributions.

Furthermore, a significant amount of leftover prize money was given to charity.

DARPA is reaching out to the MIT team and other competitors to get a better sense of what worked and what didn't.

Predictably, the researchers are ahead of the game. They have proposed that their technique be used for many other functions, including finding criminals and missing children or halting an impending terrorist attack.