Online 'Amber Alert' Tech for Missing Kids

The Amber Alert program helps locate missing children by spreading information on a state-by-state basis.

Although it's not a national law, the program can be a powerful weapon if implemented within the first 48 hours of a disappearance. But what happens when the alert runs out and the children have not been found? Technology, apparently, can step in.

According to FBI statistics, approximately 800,000 children disappear each year, and only a fraction of them return home. The stories in the news every day, as depressing and sometimes horrifying as they are, often serve a dual purpose: to inform, and to spread the information and, more importantly, the image of the missing child to as large an audience as possible. Another way to accomplish this goal of quick dissemination of information is through the use of technology.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is no stranger to high-tech. Two years ago, the non-profit organization created a program that encourages parents to take digital photos of their children. It even convinced large retailers, such as Toys "R" Us, to get involved by helping to take these photos and burn them to a disc for parents to keep — free of charge. These recent electronic images could prove incredibly valuable in identifying missing children and helping to bring them home.

When an image of a missing child is displayed on television and distributed to law enforcement agencies around the country, the impact can be significant. The NCMEC reports that of missing children whose image is shown, one in six is found. The NCMEC began to wonder what the effect would be if the brief images shown on television during Amber Alerts were more pervasive. So the organization joined forces with Webroot Software Inc., a privacy/security software company, to develop a solution. The result is the free Missing Kids Online Alerts (MKOA) utility.

Success in Simplicity

I've been looking at the utility for months, first as a beta and now in its final form (the NCMEC launched the utility on January 4). MKOA is, without a doubt, one of the simplest applications I have ever come across. It even looks simple, with one window and a few oversized buttons. At first, I thought this apparent lack of functionality — essentially only three functions — would be a problem. As it turns out, its simplicity is key to the utility's ultimate success. Webroot CEO David Moll, whose company built the utility and hosts the back-end servers free of charge, said, "NCMEC was concerned that the people who would get most involved would be [the] least tech-savvy, so they wanted it dead simple." I'd say they succeeded. I defy anyone to take more than five minutes to figure out how to use this application.

Webroot executives explained how the system works: Case managers at the NCMEC add alerts via a Web-based interface. The interface accepts manual input or an XML feed from the NCMEC's database. The alert then goes to a set of distribution servers, and the alert information is added to the database. The system uses the ZIP code and radius fields to calculate all regions eligible for receiving the alert. The alert then arrives on all MKOA clients running on systems that match the eligible ZIP codes.

Installation of the MKOA utility takes a few minutes, during which you are asked for your name, e-mail address and ZIP code. While some may balk at providing this personal information, users can be assured that Webroot and the NCMEC will not be selling it to any third parties. They use the e-mail to send you alert notifications (which you can opt out of) and, more significantly, the ZIP code to target your alerts. Without this info, the NCMEC would have two choices: flood the utility with missing children information for all of the United States or not send any alerts at all.

Get Involved

Once installed, the MKOA utility runs quietly in your desktop's task tray. The interface has three large buttons: "Current Alert," "Alert Lists" and "Missing Kids Web Site." The Current Alert pulls the most recent alert for your ZIP code into the main viewing window. Current Alert includes a photo of the missing child, physical characteristics, and information about where and when the child disappeared. In cases in which the abductor is known (for example, when a parent takes a child because of a custody dispute), his or her photo is included as well. The second button, Alert Lists, displays all alerts (if there's more than one), and the third button loads the NCMEC Web site into the main window.

The utility is more than just a way to learn about the latest alerts; you can act on them, too. Each listing includes phone numbers for the NCMEC and the local police department. You can also print the listing. There's an e-mail option as well, but oddly, it only lets you send the alert to someone you know, not to local authorities. If you think you've seen a missing child or you have some information, you can return to a listing and call in your tip; the listing remains posted until the child is found.

I was impressed with the MKOA utility, but I can imagine some enhancements. I would like, for example, to be have the option of listing more than one ZIP code in my preferences. This could come in handy if you live in one ZIP and work in another. I think I'd also like to get an alert when a child is found and returned home.

Overall, this is an easy way for people around the country to expand the Amber Alert idea and possibly make a difference through, of all things, technology. Who knew?

Webroot estimates that more than 100,000 copies are in use today, but that's just a fraction of what's needed to make a viable, nationwide network for returning missing children to their homes.

Interested? Webroot and the NCMEC are letting us host the utility at the PC Magazine Web site,

Click here to download the program. (FREE registration required.)

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