How Microsoft, Google and the MCSC Are Finding Missing Children

Can an app help save a child's life?

January 10, 2017

By Dominika Lirette

Amanda Pick is on a mission to build an army of  ‘virtual volunteers,’ and she has made some unlikely allies along the way to do so. At an unprecedented event held December 12 at the Microsoft head offices in Vancouver, representatives from Microsoft and Google joined forces with the non-profit, Missing Children Society of Canada (MCSC) to present the technologies they have been working on to help protect children in Canada. Pick, who is the CEO of MCSC, says that the society is using technology to spread awareness faster when a child is reported missing.

“Out of over 45,000 children that are reported missing, there was six Amber Alerts for the country, because the threshold is so high,” says Pick about last year’s statistics. The MCSC along with its board members from both Microsoft and Google, are working to change that—despite being competitors in the tech industry. “When global technology leaders come together and unite efforts it speaks to the powerful opportunity we have to use technology and partnership to find missing children and keep all children safe,” says Pick.

“We provide the society with financial support,” says Colin McKay, board member and head of Google Canada’s public policy and government relations. “More importantly, it’s a personal commitment on my part to working with Amanda and her team to really help her take that society from being a charitable endeavour to something that has real impact on a national level.”

When Pick first started with the MCSC in Calgary, she asked a question that changed the organization’s future: “‘How do we bring awareness to these cases as soon as the children go missing?’ And they pointed to a bookshelf of posters,” she says. Realizing how outdated their methods were, in 2012, the MCSC collaborated with advertising company Grey to create the Most Valuable Network (MVN). The network, according to Pick, is the first of it’s kind in the world. It allows Canadians to go onto the MCSC website and donate their social media feeds to help spread awareness when a child goes missing.

“Donating means you give us access, not to your personal information, but you approve MCSC posting immediately on your newsfeed,” says Pick. For example, if a child goes missing and you have donated your feed, the MCSC sends out an alert message that will automatically post to your Facebook or Twitter as if you posted it yourself. “The only time that information is pushed to our network and the people that are working to help us, is when police ask us,” adds Pick.

The system has proven so popular, that in 2014, it nearly crashed because the network didn’t have the capacity to handle all of the traffic—so they turned to Microsoft for help. “They helped us rebuild the platform to 2.0. And then the really amazing part was, they took Most Valuable Network and then put it on their cloud Azure,” says Pick. “Which suddenly allowed us scalability. It allowed every Canadian to get involved and we never had to worry if the system couldn’t keep up with the amount of people that wanted to help.” With Microsoft’s technology, the MCSC has been able to target their push notifications to people located in the areas most relevant to each case. “Right now, because it’s geographically specific, people are getting anywhere between four to six of these on their social feeds per year. So, you’re not getting an overwhelming number,” says MCSC COO Tricia Bailey.

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Another technology that the MCSC has launched is an app called Code Search developed by Strut Creative. The app is used by the MCSC’s corporate partners who provide them financial support and resources. When a child goes missing, employees of their corporate partners, such as West Jet and Enmax, receive more detailed notifications of the missing child, in hopes that they will be able to identify them.

Strut Creative’s Aaron Salus says that this approach has been supported by the police. “We have over 20 law enforcement partners who have already signed on and are on our waiting list. They want to bring this program into their community,” says Salus.”The only reason we can’t right now is we don’t have the funds to do it.” Mario Harel, President of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police also spoke at the event to show his support for this new technology.

“Our biggest task on the Code Search front is to get corporate partners who have dispersed networks,” says Salus. He says the MCSC is hoping to sign on more transportation networks and fast food chains since they are likely places where a missing child could be spotted.

And with this new technology, Salus thinks they may be able to do that. “We’ve basically created an army of virtual volunteers across Canada—it’s never been done before.”

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