DARPA Wants You to Be Its Hackathon Guinea Pig

By Arikia Milikan

If living in a college dorm for two months while you’re prodded by government officials in a “short-fuse, crucible-style environment” is your idea of summer fun, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would like a word with you. Oh, and there’s $50,000 to be earned if you can help them algorithmically crack the problems they’ve run into while trying to interpret the massive amounts of surveillance data the Pentagon is now capable of collecting.

Darpa, partnered with George Mason University, announced Tuesday that it is now accepting proposals for the Innovation House Study, a challenge that aims to attract top civilian geeks to attack the problem of efficiently wading through and extracting useful information (such as people, places, things and activities) from massive piles of visual and geospatial data.

If your typical hackathon is the equivalent of a sprint around the track, this challenge is like one of those hundred-mile death races. “This is an experiment in rapid, break-through development,” said Tod Levitt, principal investigator for Innovation House. “The goal is to speed radically innovative solutions obtained by radically decreasing the timeline allowed but opening the gate wide on the technology target.”

Levitt claims the topic of the Innovation House challenge doesn’t have anything to do with the Pentagon’s struggle to find relevant information in the loads of street-level video feeds, cellphone data, and drone data. But the military sure wouldn’t mind an elegant algorithmic solution to those issues. Currently, the Air Force alone employs more than 5,000 people just to monitor feeds from its surveillance drones.

The Innovation House challenge is the latest in a series of Darpa challenges that beckon civilians to lend their genius to the Pentagon. Previous challenges have pushed participants to solve problems with self-driving cars, create humanoid robots, re-assemble shredded paper into the original document, locate red weather balloons using social networking tools, and create the spy drone of the future.


The contests have had mixed success. Not one of the 140 teams that competed in the recent drone experiment were able to meet all the technical requirements of the competition. Then again, it took Darpa a couple of “Grand