Shortly before noon on Feb. 23, 2012, seven mysterious quick response (QR) codes appeared on posters in cities across the United States.
The QR codes were posted with no fanfare in visible and publicly accessible areas—see photo above—and included a Twitter hashtag (#CLIQRquest), a teaser about a $40,000 prize and the logo for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
But that was enough to pique the interest of a number of tech-savvy treasure hunters and within 18 hours, the ultimate winner of the contest had used social media to locate three of the seven codes.
The codes were part of the Cash for Locating and Identifying Quick Response Codes (CLIQR) Quest, a contest set up by DARPA to test how social media might be used to deal with a natural disaster. DARPA offered $40,000 to anyone that could find all seven QR codes.
Each QR code represented a different asset that would be needed in the wake of a disaster and these were distributed throughout the continental United States to simulate how resources might be dispersed. DARPA says the seven QR codes—fuel, generator, water, vehicle, food, radio and batteries—were located in Atlanta, Washington, Orlando, Ft. Worth, Tucson, Columbus and Monterey.
The use of social media was a key part of the contest. “The CLIQR Quest aimed to understand the intricacies of using social media for large-scale communication, and DARPA expected that use of social media would be required to gather all of the codes and win,” Jay Schnitzer, director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, told Communia in an email interview.
He added, “There was, of course, an opportunity for disinformation campaigns, although there was no evidence this took place.”
DARPA chose not to publicize the contest at the outset, rather posted the codes and waited to see how information flowed through social media. “Disasters typically occur without notice,” Schnitzer said. “The CLIQR Quest was unannounced to simulate a humanitarian crisis where people are required to mobilize and network quickly to hasten recovery efforts.”
By the time the contest ended on March 8, all seven QRs were found, but no one contestant submitted all seven. The participant that found the three QRs will get a prorated chunk of the $40,000 prize.
Still, the agency says the exercise had value, despite the fact it went unsolved. “That no single CLIQR Quest participant located all seven possible QR codes shows that many dynamics of social media are not yet fully understood,” Schnitzer said. “Analysis of the experiment should provide a baseline for further research into how information spreads through social media.”
For example, in a March 16 statement discussing the contest, Schnitzer said the results could provide insights into the connections between social and traditional media: “One thing that may be proven from the CLIQR Quest is that new and traditional media are not as separate as some believe them to be. In fact, they may be mutually supportive.”
Asked about this by Communia, Schnitizer added, “Results of the CLIQR Quest are still being analyzed, but more research is needed into how, why and at what speed specific information spreads through social media.”
In the March 16 statement, DARPA said the contest raised a number of questions about using social media to solve complex problems. “How can explosive exponential growth in communication activities be predicted?” the statement asked. “How can network communication nodes best be identified (those nodes without which a hyper-connected communication network would not form)? How can individuals be mobilized and teams be formed to respond to disaster relief initiatives—as the CLIQR Quest attempted to do?”
This is not the first time DARPA has sought to study how people work together to gather information. In 2009, a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology won the DARPA Network Challenge, or Red Balloon Challenge, by being the first team to find ten red weather balloons situated at undisclosed location across the United States. Unlike the CLIQR Quest, that challenge was announced ahead of time.