Blue Line

Missing children alerts go high-tech

December 1, 2014  By Tom Rataj

Etan Kalil Patz, 6, left his lower Manhattan home the morning of May 25, 1979 to catch a school bus – and disappeared. Despite massive publicity and several arrests, he was never found. <1>

This case was one of the most publicized missing children cases of its time. It is credited with helping launch the missing children’s awareness movement, spurring new legislation to deal with missing and abducted children and new methods to help track children and deal with their abductors, including family members.

One of the most revolutionary new tools to come out of this public awareness movement was the original “Milk Carton” campaign, launched in 1984. It featured photos and information about missing or abducted children printed on the sides of paper milk cartons.

It’s unclear which American dairy started the campaign, and whether Etan was the first missing child to be featured, but the program ran successfully until the late 1980’s. It inspired other missing children awareness campaigns, including pictures and information on the sides of transport trucks.


The Missing Children Society of Canada (MCSC) was established in 1986 to help locate missing children and reunite them with their families. The non-profit organization works in conjunction with law enforcement agencies across Canada, using retired police officers to help conduct and assist with investigations.

It also provides emergency response services to families and produces public awareness campaigns about missing children.

{Launch event}

The MCSC officially launched a new multi-faceted series of high-tech programs and services Nov. 10, 2014 collectively called “Milk-Carton 2.0”.

The launch event was held in the lobby of Toronto Police headquarters along with partners BlackBerry Canada, Strut Creative, Rally Engine, the Marketwired Network, WestJet, Tervita and Tarpon.

The program was inspired by the emergence and widespread adoption and use of the Internet, particularly mobile Internet connected devices such as smartphones. Their persistent Internet connectivity allows information about missing children to be sent quickly to subscribers.

Since mobile devices can be located via GPS and cellular networks, some components of Milk Carton 2.0 are able to quickly broadcast missing children information using geo-targeting and other technologies.
Geo-targeting allows the program operator to quickly target subscribers based on how close they are to the area where the child went missing. The size of the geo-targeting perimeter can be dynamically changed based on the circumstances of the case and the number of users in the area.

Created by marketing agency Grey Canada, Milk Carton 2.0 has several components which work together to quickly broadcast missing children case information to the widest possible and most effective audience.

About 50,000 children are reported missing in Canada annually so there is much work to be done.

{The World’s Most Valuable Project}

Originally launched in 2012, this component is one of the simplest parts of the whole project. It allows FaceBook, Twitter and FourSquare users to “donate” their social media feeds. They simply visit the MCSC web site and sign up by selecting an area and the social media feed to donate. The MCSC is then granted permission to post missing children information to the donators’ feeds.

All friends or followers see the missing child post on the donators feed, potentially quickly spreading the word. The posts can easily be shared, retweeted or otherwise reposted. A typical social media donator will see just five or six posts per year so they don’t need to worry about being overwhelmed by constant alerts.

Another component, the “World’s Most Valuable Search Engine,” replaces the usual advertising banners on the right side of the Google web site with information on missing children.

The third component, “World’s Most Valuable Pinboard,” leverages Pinterest (a popular “visual discovery tool” that allows people to share images of ideas and projects), allowing users to subscribe to pin-boards about missing children in Canada.

MCSC can quickly add new pins and subscribers are instantly notified. The PinBoard is also useful because it displays information about older cases, including children who went missing and were never found and may have grown-up. The PinBoard can also display case and suspect information for missing children that were never found or later found dead.

The final component of the most valuable project is the MCSC BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) channel. As with the donated social-media feeds, BBM users that follow MCSC will be quickly notified when a child is reported missing in their area. BBM channels are a new social-media feature that allows subscribers to communicate and follow subjects and companies of interest.

BBM has greatly increased its potential reach now that is available to iOS, Android and Windows Phone users. There are now more than 160 million individual users worldwide, with some 80 million active on a monthly basis.

{CodeSearch Network}

This is a mobile app-based network used by corporations to allow their smartphone equipped local employees to quickly become extra eyes and ears when a child goes missing. It was originally developed by Strut Creative, a Calgary based multidisciplinary agency.

The company donated the program so it is available free to all Canadian law enforcement agencies. The Calgary and Toronto police services have already adopted it. WestJet is a corporate sponsor and partner to MCSC and also participates.

The complimentary smartphone app is available for both legacy and OS10 BlackBerry, iPhone and Android devices but not Windows Phone.

CodeSearch uses geo-targeting technology to quickly reach out to corporate employees about new missing persons cases. The program was found to have market-potential so it was spun-off into a new product and service known as Rally Engine.

In the corporate environment, Rally Engine is used as a crisis communications and management product. It uses a web-based front-end that easily allows organizations to quickly and effectively communicate with employees, using the valuable context of real-time location and individual user profiles.

The product could be valuable to law enforcement agencies, allowing them to rapidly contact off-duty personnel to manage emergencies or other crisis. Personnel with special skills or qualifications can be identified in the database, allowing specialists to be called in to manage a particular situation.

Another part of the MCSC rapid-response partner network is Marketwired Network, a “social communications” company that does state-of-the-art social-media monitoring, analytics and other related programs and services. It is able to rapidly push missing children alerts to every media outlet in the country through both traditional and digital media methods.


<1> Interestingly the Etan Patz case was reopened in 2010 and self-confessed suspect Pedro Hernandez was eventually charged with second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping. His confession was ruled admissible in late November 2014. The trial was scheduled to begin January 5, 2015.

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