Finding People through Social Media

The 2012 TAG Challenge was a contest—a simulated person search—intended to shed light on the reach of social media. The winning team located "suspects" in three out of five cities in a single day.

The 2012 TAG Challenge drew competition from teams across North America, Europe, and the Middle East, as participants organized online in an effort to locate five fictitious “jewel thieves” in the U.S. and Europe.

The best performing team, the MIT-affiliated CrowdScanner, found suspects in Bratislava, Washington DC, and New York City, and submitted their photographs to the contest website by 7:17pm EST, 17 hours after the contest began.

CrowdScanner located the suspects in New York and Bratislava approximately seven hours after the contest kicked off in those cities; the suspect in Washington was located 11 hours after the contest commenced there, with just an hour remaining.

“The project demonstrates the international reach of social media and its potential for cross-border cooperation,” said project organizer Joshua deLara. “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.”

No team was able to locate two additional suspects in Stockholm and London.

CrowdScanner team leader Iyad Rahwan, of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Dubai, declined to give premature estimates of the size and distribution of his team’s network, but estimated that there were “thousands aware and ready to submit as soon as they made a suspect sighting.”

The team’s strategy was designed partly by Manuel Cebrian of MIT, who also helmed the team that won the 2009 DARPA red balloon challenge. As with the DARPA challenge, the winning team’s strategy used chained recruitment incentives to build a vast network of spotters.

The TAG Challenge offered $5,000 to the first team to submit pictures of all five suspects. As CrowdScanner only located three out of five suspects, they will receive a prorated award of $3,000.

A number of other teams participated in the competition, including the DC-based Tag Team, Louisiana-based Team Rave, and GreenTagTeam, a team affiliated with Ben Gurion University in Israel. Each team relied on slightly different strategies. Tag Team was able to successfully locate the suspect in New York, while Team Rave nabbed the suspect in Bratislava.

“We believe the outcome will provide plenty of ammunition for both sides of the social media debate,” said challenge co-organizer Steve Miller. “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.”

The TAG Challenge was organized by graduate students from six countries, the result of a series of conferences on social media and transatlantic security. The project was funded by Young Leaders Dialogue with America, a program of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Prague, and administered by the Institute of International Education.

According to TAG Challenge organizers, a full project report, examining strategies and possible applications for law enforcement and public safety, will be released by May 31.

Click here for more information on the TAG Challenge.

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