When 16-year-old Jessica Lawrence disappeared last week in Athens, Ohio, one of the first things the local sheriff did was log onto his Facebook account.
Within hours of posting details of her disappearance Sheriff Patrick Kelly was up 300 friends on Facebook, mainly high school students, and many members of the small university town were busy posting supportive comments and sharing information in an effort to bring the high school student home.
Today, Facebook announced a program that it hopes will help to mobilize concerned citizens like those in Athens, Ohio even further.
The company is partnering with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to launch Amber Alerts for Facebook, which will allow users to sign up for missing children notifications specific to their state. This is the latest effort from the Amber Alert Program, which is a partnership between law-enforcement and broadcasters started in the 1990s to help quickly locate abducted children.
Facebook users will now be able to follow Amber Alert pages for their states, and news of missing children nearby will then show up in their news feed. Organizers hope the partnership will harness Facebook's more than 500 million users to help locate some of the 800,000 children reported missing each year.
"We try to be as innovative in safety as we are in any other aspect of our business," said Andrew Noyes, Facebook's public policy communications manager. Facebook will be rolling out the new partnership with status updates on Facebook's pages following a press conference in Alexandria, Virginia.
Burghardt Tenderich, an expert in information technology at USC's Annenberg School, pointed out that organizations like Facebook have huge resources for helping police efforts.
"In many cases they know exactly where you are and where you were," he said, adding that he can imagine social media companies taking this a step further into public service announcements, like alerting members to national disasters. "There's a richness of data that these organizations could collect and use."
Luckily, Sheriff Kelly and his team were able to locate Lawrence, a successful student and cheerleader, through a satellite that traced her cell phone. As it turned out, Lawrence wasn't abducted as many had feared. She had taken off in her car under pressure from school, according to Kelly. News of her safety prompted Facebook responses from about 200 people on the sheriff's page.
"Facebook is an excellent tool to get the word out," Kelly said. "I'm finding that most people don't subscribe to a newspaper here. This is a way that I can get it to them."
Wesley Lowery, a junior at Ohio University who writes for the school paper, said that the community has embraced Kelly's use of Facebook, using it to post news tips and ask for updates. Lowery has Kelly's Facebook updates sent directly to his cell phone.
"It's a small town, everybody knows someone. When someone's missing it, it's not just 'someone,'" Lowery said.