This Saturday, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is holding the DARPA Network Challenge. DARPA describes this $40,000 challenge as
a competition that will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems.
The rules are on the site, but the basic idea is that DARPA will deploy 10 big numbered red weather balloons with official DARPA representatives on site at various locations across the U.S., and the winner will be the one to identify the locations of these balloons. DARPA expects the winner to need to form large, geographically dispersed but communicating teams to be able to find the balloons. There's also the possibility, if "reality TV" is any indication, that some competitors will try to publish misleading information about the balloon locations. Competitors can only submit a limited number of locations, which may make it difficult to simply trust locations that are made public without some sort of confirmation. Other complications and innovative approaches may be revealed on the day of the challenge.
You could see how certain aerospace technology, such as Google Earth or other geographical information systems technology, GPS, satellite telecommuncations, and remote sensing via satellite or airplane (or balloon?) might play a role in this challenge, but the predominant technology may be social media - especially if your team can get thousands upon thousands of people looking with you. The DARPA Network Challenge Wiki covers some possible strategies. Does the space community have the social organization and enthusiasm to get thousands of participants looking for balloons as they go about their regular Saturday activities?
One of the teams registered for the Challenge is Stratofox, a highly skilled amateur "aerospace tracking & recovery team". I've seen a couple Stratofox presentations at Space Access. The team has expertise in finding balloons, but under different circumstances - tracking and recovering high-altitude balloons. They often work with small rocket entrepreneurs and researchers. They certainly play a role supporting the type of innovative work that space prize competitions seek to encourage. Here's a detailed post from Stratofox on what they're doing with the DARPA Network Challenge and how to help them (especially if you see and confirm one of the balloons): DARPA Network Challenge 2009. There are also some twitter posts about it at @ikluft.
Here are some additional general information sources for the Challenge:
Balloon hunt goes viral - Cosmic Log
Looking for Balloons and Insights to Online Behavior - New York Times: This one notes that we can expect more DARPA challenges in the future:
Dr. Lee said the agency would continue to pursue a number of large and small challenge-style contests to foster what he described as new ways to tap into pools of talented individuals and creative groups.