Many studies have attempted to analyse how people exchange ideas and collaborate using information and communication technology tools. A new experiment seeks to find out how this might work in countries where these tools are not so widely available.

What is the potential of social networks in countries such as India where only 10% of the population has access to the Internet? This is what a group of researchers at Microsoft Research India, based in Bangalore, are trying to find out. On 1 February they launched a competition called the Whodunit? Challenge, ‘Whodunit’ being an expression often used to denote a detective novel. The aim of the contest is to get Indians to use their mobile phones, combined with some traditional face-to-face contact, to crack a fictional mystery case with the help of five clues. As only one clue will be sent to any one phone number, people will need to work as a team. Follow the Crowd, the blog, posts that the project aims to “understand how people in the developing countries harness ICTs and social computation to collaborate across geographically dispersed populations and solve time-critical problems.”

Using mobile devices to save money

The principle is simple: anyone wishing to participate in the challenge must phone the number given, let it ring once, and then hang up, so that a ‘missed call’ is recorded. This is to ensure that people taking part in the game don’t find themselves out of pocket. Rajan Vaish, a PhD student at the University of California, explains that “People in India try not to waste money on calls. That’s why the culture of the missed call is so important.” The caller will then receive via SMS one of the five clues to the mystery which answer the questions Who? What? Where? When? and Why? Clues are sent randomly to callers and the system will only send one message to each phone number so, in order to collect the five clues needed to win, competitors will have to band together and share messages. One important aspect of the competition is that some of the five clues will be sent out only very rarely, which means that each team will need access to many phones so as to make enough calls to receive all the clues.

Pooled efforts could be applied to person-searches

From a statistical point of view Rajan Vaish estimates that a team will need to make about 500 calls to obtain the full set of clues and so solve the mystery. When a similar experiment was run in 2009 in the US, the winning team organised their efforts around a website and email. “Neither service is widely available in India, so competitors may have to rely on social networks that revolve around work or places of study,” suggests Rajan Vaish, pointing out that people who interact with many individuals, such as rickshaw drivers, could do well at this game. Language is another factor, as India has several hundred. However, participation is likely to be widespread, as the first team to solve the mystery case will win the equivalent of around $2,000 – i.e. about double the country’s average annual income. The researchers hope that some of the techniques the competitors use could be deployed by, for example, city authorities seeking to involve large numbers of people in a search, perhaps for a missing person or a fugitive.