2013-01-03

Co.Exist

An Amber Alert For Social Media Helps Find Missing Kids

Canada’s Most Valuable Social Network connects people online to the latest information about kidnapped children, so that the word can spread as quickly as possible, helping to widen the search.

I’ve written before about digital translations of the old strategy of putting a missing child’s photo on a milk carton: For example, the work of European nonprofits asking businesses to donate their 404-error page to display information on missing children. In Canada, a collaboration between The Missing Children’s Society and advertising agency Grey is taking a different approach to the same problem, helping locate a handful of missing children this year by providing alerts to the public through donated Facebook and Twtter status updates as soon as the kids go missing. Fittingly, it’s called The World’s Most Valuable Social Network (WMVSN).

“If you look at traditional efforts for finding missing kids, they really haven’t evolved relative to technology,” says Patrick Scissons, chief creative officer of advertising agency Grey Canada in Toronto (one of Fast Company's most innovative companies in 2010) who helped devise the project. “We still by and large rely on traditional posters, amber alerts on outdoor billboards over the freeway: The means to connect and help find missing kids is pretty traditional and old fashioned.”

The way WMVSN works is simple. When a child goes missing, social media users who have signed up to donate their status automatically share an update about the kidnapping: “All the critical information that you would normally expect: photo, location,” and description of what the child was wearing, says Scissons. Particiants decide whether to receive Canada-wide alerts or just ones from their province. And the tool only kicks into gear when the case is considered to be more dangerous or extreme, out of respect for the social media accounts of those who have volunteered their status.

Since the tool launched on International Missing Children’s Day on May 25, it’s been used about 10 times, resulting in the succesful recovery of six children. “In one of the cases it was a runaway that didn’t realize the impact that they had made until they had seen their face show up all over Facebook” says Scissons. In another case, someone with critical information about the disappearance saw the update and alerted the authorities.

The work was, of course, a pro-bono project by Grey. Scissons says that usually when advertising companies are asked by a nonprofit to help out, they respond by creating a campaign. Grey opted to develop a tool first--now they’re working on a more traditional campaign to spur signups and a number of spin-off tools as well, including a search engine that will provide info on missing kids rather than ads, and Pinterest boards that will provide images relevant to missing children, like photos of the clothing or items they might have had at the time.

The need for help is real. Nearly 50,000 kids go missing in Canada each year.

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