By Michael Hainsworth
The first 24 hours after a child disappears are the most critical. For the more than 30,000 children who are reported missing each year, the vast majority of them are found within a day. “Every minute they’re not in a safe place, that’s too long,” says Amanda Pick, CEO of the Missing Children Society of Canada (MCSC). Many of us are old enough to remember how milk cartons and posters on poles were used in the search for missing children. We still use posters today, and MCSC has gone high tech with its Child Search Network app which connects people through social media, digital marketers, in addition to traditional media. “Now we have the ability to take that same poster and share it with a million people in seconds and be very targeted,” Pick adds.
“Is this not the best use-case of social media sharing that any of us have ever heard of?” Amanda Pick, CEO, Missing Children Society of Canada
The Child Search network includes the recently released Rescu app which immediately disseminates geolocation-based information about missing persons cases once activated by police, who have adopted the platform nationwide to augment the AMBER alert system. Because of the stringent requirements for AMBER alerts, 99% of cases didn’t have a national platform for amplification before MCSC collaborated on its creation in collaboration with Microsoft, Esri and their police and community stakeholders. It also allows users to share case information and submit tips.
These innovative tools are already at the disposal of police and the public but they may have a major upgrade in their future.
Anthony Bartolo, Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft, has been working with MCSC to take investigations to a whole new level. “Everybody has a smartphone, right?” Bartolo points out. “Kids as young as Grade 4 and Grade 5, if not younger, are running around with smartphones now. In capturing that information, it allows for future proofing a child and having the information to find them very quickly.”
After working with MCSC to move its data to the cloud, Bartolo shifted to researching how the big data generated by social media could be leveraged to uncover clues and cues for investigators as to the whereabouts of a missing child. He notes that more than 70% of abductions that occur happen through romantic intent. Therefore, Bartolo has been teaching cognitive services to understand inflections, tone, and word play in conversations and photographs that trigger the algorithm to flag a potential lead. That’s a huge challenge, he points out, because different things mean different things to different people across the country and around the globe.
Pick calls AI-assisted case files “one of the most exciting things” she’s ever been involved in. “Is this not the best use-case of social media sharing that any of us have ever heard of? Definitely,” she states emphatically. “Our children have a digital identity. Their comfort level, who they’re online with, that’s second nature to them.” To be able to collect that information and use it for the purposes of an investigation is quite powerful. While it is a compelling use case, it’s also a legal minefield both Bartolo and Pick are navigating carefully. Social media users have rights, and it’s critical that AI not infringe on them, which is why the functionality would be available on an opt-in basis
It took a decade for MCSC to achieve unanimous support for the Child Search Network ,working with police to fill the gap in response between an AMBER Alert activation and the thousands of other missing child cases that didn’t meet the AMBER criteria. Now, nothing is standing in MCSC’s way as they look at the next generation of technology solutions, which have already completed proof of concepts, and how they can create a safer future for our children. Pick prognosticates, “I see a future where we have no missing children because we’ve all come together. I see a future where technology keeps our children safe and protects them by minimizing the risk that they once faced.”
Become part of the virtual search party and download the Rescu app today.