MIT team nabs 3 suspects in State's TAG Challenge, 2 go free

An MIT-affiliated team of social media Sherlocks produced a 60 percent solution to the State Department’s TAG Challenge, finding three of the five fictional international jewel thieves scattered across the United States and Europe.

The CrowdScanner team, affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but based in Dubai with team members in other countries, used its online skills to locate the “thieves” in New York, Washington and Bratislava, Slovakia, within the challenge’s 12-hour limit, State announced.

The challenge was designed to test social media’s capacity to uncover information through spreading the word and sharing data in a short amount of time. In the game, which took place March 31, thieves who have stolen a valuable diamond are holed up in five cities: the three where the MIT team “caught them” plus Stockholm and London.

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Volunteers in each of those cities played the part of the thieves, traveling to a predetermined route during the day. The contest began at 8 a.m. local time in each city. The challenge was to take a mug shot and other information provided by the TAG Challenge site and use online resources to find the thieves and post a photo of them — in a park, bus station, café or wherever — on the challenge site.

Although the CrowdScanner team didn’t locate all of the suspects within the 12-hour limit, their success did demonstrate the “international reach of social media and its potential for cross-border cooperation,” project organizer Joshua deLara said in State’s announcement.

“Here’s a remarkable fact: A team organized by individuals in the U.S., the U.K and the United Arab Emirates was able to locate an individual in Slovakia in under eight hours based only on a photograph,” deLara said. The team located the suspects in New York and Bratislava in about seven hours, and found the suspect in Washington in 11 hours.

CrowdScanner was led by Iyad Rahwan, of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Dubai, and included Manuel Cebrian of MIT, who in 2009 led the team that won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s red balloon challenge, State said.

Rahwan didn’t estimate the size of the team's network, but said there were “thousands aware and ready to submit as soon as they made a suspect sighting.”

The challenge offered $5,000 to the first team to submit pictures of all five suspects; CrowdScanner won $3,000 for finding three of them.

Although one other team found the suspect in New York and another found the suspect in Bratislava, the thieves in London and Stockholm remained on the loose.

Government agencies, which have been increasingly been monitoring social media to identify trends or possible terrorist activity, have been running contests to test online tools and social media platforms as a means of quickly finding information.

The red balloon contest, officially called the DARPA Network Challenge, asked contestants to use the Internet to find 10 weather balloons located around the United States. At the time, in 2009, intelligence professionals were skeptical, but the MIT team found them all within nine hours.

So DARPA raised the bar this year with its CLIQR Challenge, in which contestants had to find seven posters in cities around the country, each with a QR code representing an asset that response crews might need in an emergency. And DARPA ignored traditional media in promoting the contest, relying only on Twitter and other nontraditional channels. Only three of the seven posters were located.

Likewise, the TAG Challenge produced a partial but, all things considered, fairly impressive result. Interestingly, CrowdScanner went outside the lines a bit, using traditional media in addition to social networking channels, instead of relying on Twitter as other teams did, NextGov reported.

“We believe the outcome will provide plenty of ammunition for both sides of the social media debate,” challenge co-organizer Steve Miller said in State’s announcement. “No one was able to find all five individuals. There may be limits to what social media can help people accomplish in time-critical situations, or internationally.”

State said a full report on the contest will be released by May 31.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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