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Technology takes the search for a missing child to a new level


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This article was reprinted with permission from the Missing Children Society of Canada. More info at

A lot has changed since the search for a missing child included printing the information on the back of a milk carton.

But what hasn’t changed is the need to spread that information as far as possible, so everyone in the community can help police bring that child to safety.

“If we have a missing child, that is a community issue,” says Superintendent Cliff O’Brien of the Calgary Police Service.

O’Brien has been working with the Missing Children Society of Canada since 2010 when CEO Amanda Pick approached Calgary Police with technology that would make informing the community about a missing child faster than ever before.

The technology had been developed for and donated to the Society, or MCSC, and centred around the idea that information from police could be shared through social media and also via a mobile app. In both cases, MCSC would work with police using those tools to alert people about a missing child.

“When I first heard what she was proposing, it made sense,” says O’Brien, who is in charge of Criminal Operations, Technical Support Division.

He could see the value for police in getting communication support from an agency such as MCSC.

The concept of social media sharing included allowing users to 'donate' their social media feeds to MCSC.

In doing so, they agreed that information from police about AMBER Alerts or Urgent Missing Child Alerts in their area would immediately be sent to their Facebook friends and Twitter followers.

The idea for a mobile app started after a Calgary-based oil company wanted to become more actively involved with MCSC than just donating money, Pick says.

The app was built to be downloaded to mobile devices by interested employees and used when police needed help in a child search. The app’s ability to geo-locate users made it possible to target people with information shared by police, such as pictures, licence plate numbers and other descriptions vital in a search.

Features of the new app were especially interesting to police and soon Calgary police were working closely with MCSC to refine the way the technology would be used, help that Pick says was invaluable in the evolution of the agency’s search service.

Today, the app and the social media arm of the technology fall under an umbrella MCSC calls its Most Valuable Network.

O’Brien has been on board all along and speaks to law enforcement whenever possible about the value of MCSC and the Most Valuable Network. He has one particular success story from 2014.

The case, he says, involves a 14-year-old Calgary girl who was befriended online by a 31-year-old predator, posing as someone who would become her boyfriend. He lured her away and the pair headed west to Vancouver.

Using MCSC and its Most Valuable Network, police sent critical information about the pair to people from Calgary to Vancouver, including photos and descriptions.

It was because of social media that the pair became aware that they were the subject of a search. The predator became so paranoid, O’Brien says, they returned from Vancouver to Calgary and sought help from friends to hide, but were eventually turned in to police.

O’Brien says there’s no question that the Most Valuable Network played a critical role in getting that girl back safely.

Pick makes clear that the role of MCSC is to empower police, in part, by giving them access to every connection possible.

“It takes one person in the right place at the right time who can then help.”

The Calgary-based Missing Children Society of Canada celebrated 30 years of operation as a non-profit organization in 2016, but a lot has changed since Pick took over in 2010.

It has found partners across Canada in companies including West Jet, Via Rail and TransCanada Corporation, whose employees are using the app. And technology companies such as Microsoft, Google and Blackberry have contributed to its success.

And in 2014, MCSC was endorsed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Board of Directors. In addition to the support from Calgary Police, it has been endorsed by police associations in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

Despite that, “MCSC is still very grassroots,” Pick says. It functions with a very small staff on an operating budget of less than $1M per year.

Regardless of the constant struggle for money, the organization has big ambitions.

One goal is to have MCSC used by every police organization in the country, Pick says.

O’Brien says working with MCSC is something that makes sense for law enforcement facing increasing challenges with time and money as technology continues to advance.

“All the heavy lifting … has already been done.”

It’s a cost-effective tool that allows police to retain control of the information, he says.

“It will push out what law enforcement wants to push out.”

Statistics collected in 2016 showed that more than 45,000 children went missing across Canada, with 34,000 classified as endangered youths.

Abductions are listed at 183 and of those 183, less than 10 were classified as Amber Alerts.

“Everybody understands that regardless of the circumstances when a child goes missing, we want them back,” O’Brien says.

Using tools such as MCSC’s Most Valuable Network is one way police have to reach that goal, he says.

O’Brien and Pick, who often travel together to share the story of Missing Children Society of Canada, have some lofty ambitions.

They want to steal the time and anonymity a perpetrator needs when a child is abducted, by having an increasing number of people connected to the Most Valuable Network.

“When MCSC and their tools are brought into a jurisdiction … I think it’s a clear message to offenders that you are not going to touch children,” O’Brien says.

Pick is determined to see the tools get into the hands of every person in Canada.

“That’s the game-changing moment in time.” To learn more about the Missing Children Society of Canada, go to

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