By John D. Sutter, CNN

(CNN) — For being such a secretive and sometimes-frightening agency, DARPA also knows how to have a lot of fun with technology. In 2009, you may recall, DARPA, a branch of the U.S. Defense Department, set loose 10 red weatherballoons all over the contiguous United States and then paid $40,000 to the team that used social media to be the first to locate all of the balloons. What made the challenge so awesome was that no one person could possibly solve that puzzle alone. They had to use the Internet to do so.

A team from MIT (shocking, right?) won that contest in less than 9 hours.

Now the agency has launched a new project involving a global hunt for QR Codes. The “CLIQR Quest Challenge” started on February 23 and continues until Thursday at noon. DARPA says the contest is designed to “advance the understanding of social media and the Internet, and explore the role the Internet and social networking plays in the timely communication, wide area team-building and urgent mobilization required to solve broad scope, time-critical problems.” The blog TechCrunch saw right through that government-speak and declared, more or less, that DARPA was preparing to crowdsource the aftermath of the apocolypse:

Say the Mayans are right, and a meteor or some other catastrophe strikes the Earth sometime later this year. Assuming we’re not all wiped out by the impact, emergency services worldwide are going to need to do some serious canvassing to assess damage, resources, and form a picture of the disaster.

DARPA is running a little game, called CLIQRQuest, to look into how such a network of people might do such a task. But instead of asking people to snap pictures of reservoirs and hospitals, they’re giving cash prizes for finding QR codes.

DARPA distributed QR codes – those black-and-white boxes – all over the continental United States. These were displayed until recently in “conspicuously displayed in easily visible and readily accessible public locations,” DARPA says. QR codes that are part of the contest are marked with a small DARPA logo and a Twitter hashtag: #CLIQRquest. Each code represents a resource that would be crucial during a disaster – food, water, stuff like that. Players are supposed to find people all over the U.S. who have located these resources. To win, you must find all of the available QR codes. DARPA doesn’t say how many of these codes are out there, and it’s extra-confusing when you consider that QR codes are (perhaps annoyingly) all over the place these days. The QR codes were taken out of the physical environment on February 26, DARPA says. The challenge now is for individuals to assemble information about the codes that were spotted out in the world.

Here’s more on why the agency thinks the contest is important:

In time of crises, we must ensure that the right resources make it to the right area in the right time. Delays in finding those resources cost more than time and money, delays cost lives. Finding the most efficient method of resource identification and delivery is paramount. It is a capability with clear relevance and importance to the military when it is called upon for assistance and existing data sources and social network analysis are not sufficient for accomplishing this task.