Advice on Developing A Missing Persons System

This post was written with Willow Brugh to summarize our advice for coders wanting to create a new reunification application. 

When a disaster occurs, whether fast like an earthquake or slow like a drought or war, people go missing. As outsiders wishing to contribute to restoring the stability of our worlds, the desire to reunite friends and loved ones through the technology we know so well can be tempting. Making use of our knowledge of social platforms, geotagging, and databases is far easier than addressing the long-term systemic injustices which allow these crises to affect entire populations in the way they do, after all. But let’s say a typhoon has just made landfall, or that there’s a sudden influx of refugees from a drought-blighted country, and you and a group of your friends have gathered to see what you can do about it. This is beautiful — we need to learn how to work in solidarity with those in other geographies. But it’s also a delicate space. This particular post is about whether or not you should build that missing persons app, or spend your time contributing to something like Google Person Finder, OpenStreetMap, Sahana, or Standby Task Force instead.

The missing persons/reunification domain of humanitarian response is not just about people logging themselves so as to be find-able by those missing them. It’s also about those individuals being protected during the process, having support in finding those they’ve been separated from, and the infrastructure which surrounds these actions. Software has a lot to contribute to connection, information security, and sorting through indexes, but missing persons is a delicate space with real humans in the mix.

This is an inhabited space

There are already missing persons tools and organizations which have been vetted for capacity and integrity for follow-through and security. Here are the few most successfully used ones: American Red Cross’ Safe and Well, Google Person Finder, Sahana, Refugees United, International Committee of the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, National Library of Medicine’s People Locator, and Facebook’s Safety Check. Please offer to help improve and maintain these existing tools. For example, Google Person Finder is has a Github repository if you are looking for a place to start.

However, we also understand that the world changes. We gain access to new technologies, there are new clever people in the world, and our understanding of situations change. There is always room for improvement in this space, just as any other. Want to do something substantively “better” or different than what the existing tools and organizations already do? Here’s what you need to know:

A component, not a solution

The software-based frontend and backing database are a TINY FRACTION of the overall system of missing persons reunification efforts. People are sometimes missing for a reason, possibly because of political unrest, domestic violence, or displacement. If your platform publishes photos of someone or their geographic location, will someone try to come after them? Can you protect their physical and emotional well-being? There are national and international laws in place to protect such individuals, especially children, and your component of the system must be in alignment with those laws (or have a damn good and intentional reason for not being as such). Ethically, you should also respect an individual’s desire or need for privacy. In the Missing Persons Community of Interest, organizations handling missing persons data are reviewed by external parties for their ability to perform long-term maintenance and protection of said data. You and your tool will need to undergo the same rigor before being launched.

Complications versus easing interaction

Your goal is to make finding loved ones easier, right? Think about how many tools are already in play (see “This is an inhabited space” section above), and what adding one more to the mix would be like. Every new missing persons platform is another point of decision-making stress on the missing persons and those seeking them. Imagine being asked for personal information about yourself while under extreme duress over and over and over again.. or having to repeatedly enter in the details of someone you love and are deeply worried about while on a desperate search for them. The listed existing tools have gone through (and in some cases, are still working out) data sharing flows to reduce these stressors while still maintaining their commitments to privacy and security of the data they hold. If you launch your tool, you’ll need to adhere to the same levels of empathy, respect, privacy, and sharing. (Side note, please don’t start a “uniting platform,” either, lest we get here. That’s what sharing standards are about.) With this in mind, there is already a standard (soon to be adopted into OASIS), People Finder Interchange Format which was created for storing and exchanging information about missing individuals.

We look forward to your heartfelt, well-thought out contributions to this space.

Tim and Willow

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