Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A worldwide scavenger hunt in 90 minutes!

I helped run a really fun, informal social experiment today. When students in Scott Page's undergraduate "intro to complexity" course showed up to class, they were given a challenge: find one person from each of 60 cities around the world, and take a picture of them before the end of class.  Six teams of 15 students had 90 minutes -- and no prior warning -- to compete.

Me, proving that I live in Ann Arbor for Team Bass.
(All the teams were named after mathematicians).

We've called it Stanley Darpa, in homage to Stanley Milgrom's small world experiment, and the more recent DARPA red balloon challenge (more here). The winning teams used a combination of social networking ("My sister just moved there!"), crowdsourcing ("I'll ask all my facebook friends if they know anybody in Shanghai"), and desperate dashing around campus ("IS ANYBODY IN THIS CAFETERIA FROM FORT WAYNE?") to get as many pictures as possible.

I helped come up with the concept, but my main role was to develop the software. I built a simple django site where students could quickly upload pictures as they found them. To ramp up the excitement, I also built tools to let teams track scores and compare finds in real time.  These added a strategic dimension to the game: e.g. "Team Markov is leading -- we need to find people from their cities so they won't get so many bonus points!"

The Stanley-Darpa countdown page

In true Mission Control style, we put everything up on a projector screen and watched results roll in over the course of the class.  It was slow at first, but as teams split up and started canvassing, the competition really heated up. In the end, the six teams found people from 47 cities.  The winning team alone found 30. Surprisingly, many of the hardest cities to find were nearby: Youngstown, OH; Gull Lake, MI; Cadillac; MI.

Tomorrow, I'll try to post a link to the actual site, but first I need to scrub the pictures, to make sure that nobody gets their ID stolen.

This was really fun -- I'd love to do it  again sometime.