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.

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