Crowdsourcing Disobedience

Scalable Cooperation / MIT Media Lab

The MIT Media Lab is rewarding responsible disobedience, and we’re calling on you to help track down those who challenge the norms or laws for the good of society.

By Iyad Rahwan, Sohan Dsouza, Manuel Cebrian

How do you find people who are defying rules to change the world for the better? At the Media Lab, driven by our antidisciplinary mission, we’ve been seeking, nurturing, and learning from talented iconoclasts since we opened our doors 32 years ago. But as the world becomes more complex and fast-paced, we realize the inherent limitations of brick-and-mortar institutions for such a search. So now, the Lab is launching the Disobedience Award to find and reward people who’ve challenged the status quo to benefit us all. To do that, we’re relying on a global-scale crowdsourced campaign, and we’re drawing on our own experiences of similar quests in the past.

Lessons from the past

On March 31, 2012, before we joined the Lab, we took part in the "Tag Challenge," an open international competition to locate five make-believe jewel thieves in a simulated search across five different cities in North America and Europe. The contest—organized by political science graduate students based in Washington DC and funded by the US State Department—was designed to test whether social media could be mobilized to achieve a time-sensitive law-enforcement objective.

Teams from around the world competing to find these mock suspects had only two pieces of information: the name of the city where each suspect was expected to be hiding (released one month in advance) and a single mugshot of each “thief” (released at 8:00am local time on the day of the search). The suspect in each city had to be located and identified by 8:00pm local time, at which point the challenge would end.

The three of us, along with several collaborators, called ourselves “Team Crowdscanner.” We were a tiny group of computer scientists crammed inside an even tinier kitchen on the outskirts of Dubai. What chance did we have of finding a random person in New York, London, Washington, Stockholm, or Bratislava?

Actually, our chances were pretty good: Three years before, in the DARPA Network Challenge, we’d successfully mobilized volunteers via social networks to find ten red weather balloons across the United States—an achievement considered impossible by US intelligence. 

So, we tapped into that previous victory to help us locate the simulated jewel thieves in the Tag Challenge. We used an incentive scheme to encourage volunteers to search for the suspect if they happened to live in the same city—if successful, the volunteers would get a share of the US$5,000 reward. But this was not enough: We also gave volunteers incentives to recruit their friends for the task. Even if volunteers could not find the make-believe thief themselves, or if they lived in a different city, they’d get a share of the reward if they recruited a friend who located the suspect.

This approach resulted in the discovery of three of the five mock suspects. We were surprised, because finding someone on the other side of the world within 12 hours, using only their mugshot and a city name, was tough. It was a much harder undertaking than when a team (which included Manuel, and later Iyad for analysis) located ten large weather balloons—in one country, with far more reward money to offer as incentive—and won the DARPA Network Challenge, beating a multitude of teams worldwide.

Join the "disobedience" search today

Now, we are raising the bar a few notches higher. We want to find something that is hard to define, let alone locate: ethical disobedience.

We’re recruiting you to help us find a living person or group who embodies “responsible disobedience.” That is, people who have effectively harnessed responsible disobedience to challenge our norms, rules, or laws to improve the lives of those around them, to move society forward. The person or group chosen for the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award will receive a US$250,000 prize. As the award page explains, “We’re seeking both expected and unexpected nominees. This could include—but isn’t limited to—those engaged in scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate.”

Today’s institutions—be they academic, public, or business institutions— are frequently unable to encourage disobedience. Instead, public institutions usually aim to maintain societal stability, while businesses exploit it. The result? Both tend to catch the last wave of disobedient action, by which time it’s been accepted and perhaps isn’t even disruptive any more.

This is where we need your help, either through nominating a person or group, or through enlisting your social circle in the process. The nomination deadline is May 1. As we did in the Tag Challenge and the Red Balloon Challenge, the MIT Media Lab will reward you for both actions, since they are both crucial:

  1. If you are the first person to nominate someone who wins the Disobedience Award, we will fly you to Boston to attend the award ceremony on July 21 at the MIT Media Lab.
  2. If you recruit others to make nominations, and one of them is the first nominator of the Disobedience Award winner, we will also fly you to attend the award ceremony in July.

We're definitely not offering the incentive of the trip to the Media Lab because we're short on nominations: we currently have over 2,500! If you've already nominated a person or group, or recruited someone to make a nomination, you're already in the running for the chance to get the trip to the Media Lab. If we receive multiple nominations for the same person or group, we’ll use the time and date stamp collected from the nomination form submission to choose the first nomination–the same for those who recruit nominators. 

We are not just interested in the person or group who wins the award—we are also curious to learn more about how we could identify the winner. You may not know these people yourself, but you may well know individuals or groups who have inspired (or “infected”) you to be disobedient yourself, and then we’ll ask them to tell us who inspired them in turn, until we reach the root of the network. It's like "contact tracing" an infection until we find patient zero. We know social networks can help us locate people in remote cities based on their pictures. But can they solve the much harder challenge of locating persons or groups who are the “patient zero” of responsible disobedience? 

Help us find out. 

Iyad Rahwan is head of the Scalable Cooperation group at the Media Lab. Sohan Dsouza is a research assistant and Manuel Cebrian is a research affiliate, both are in Scalable Cooperation. This blog post was originally published on the Media Lab website.

Learn more about the Media Lab’s Disobedience Award and see a timeline of disobedience for good in the history of humanity.

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