A Role for Technology in Helping Find Missing Children
by John Penn
posted on 03-31-2020
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) was founded in 1984, following several cases of child abduction that caught the nation’s attention. At the time, police could access a national database to track and record information on stolen cars, guns and even horses, but a comparable system didn’t exist for missing children. NCMEC was created to become a central hub for distributing information whenever a child is missing. The staff provides law enforcement with information to guide their search (such as a child with special needs), while alerting the public and being a resource for families. In the last 35 years, the nonprofit organization has received more than 4.9 million calls, circulated billions of photos and assisted law enforcement in the recovery of more than 319,000 missing children.
If we go back to the 1980s, one of the early distribution channels for NCMEC was on the side of a milk carton. Although relatively short lived, the program raised awareness on the impact of an informed public. In the years to come, as the Internet took a major role in facilitating sexual exploitation of children, NCMEC knew it had to evolve. Even as a critical non-profit, the organization had to compete for consumer mind share. A high bar had been set by other industries, and NCMEC had to reimagine its utility in the digital world. During this juncture, Adobe had the opportunity to join NCMEC as a technology partner via the Adobe Experience Cloud. The close collaboration has shown how inventive uses of technology can play a role in how critical information is disseminated.
Refreshing the public face
Adobe and NCMEC have collaborated for well over a decade. The early engagement was rooted in Adobe creative tools (such as Photoshop) that assisted in age progression, showing what a long-term missing child may look like today, and enlarging small visual details that provided leads for law enforcement. When NCMEC was ready to revamp its digital presence, it engaged a different area of Adobe’s organization via Adobe Experience Manager (AEM), a tool that let brands build and manage digital experiences on any screen from websites and mobile, to digital signage. As an organization, NCMEC had a unique set of requirements. It dealt with incredibly sensitive information, which needed to be delivered in near real-time to be effective. This also had to engage people on-the-go, making mobile an important channel. NCMEC experienced peak periods as well which could overwhelm the system, such as when natural disasters separate children from families
The old NCMEC site was riddled with problems. As the public face of the organization, it was not user friendly and could not scale during peak periods. It had to be rearchitected from top to bottom, with a backend system that could securely manage a high volume of content, along with a consumer-facing interface that was more personalized and intuitive. Adobe AEM brought incredible speed to the NCMEC operation; In times of crisis, information is centrally managed and published to every screen quickly. This is important for programs like AMBER Alerts, which have helped over 900 children come home safely. Alerts not only hit every distribution node but are geo located to target people in a specific area who would be in a position to help find the missing child. On the website itself, the revamp allowed NCMEC to serve the needs of its different audiences, spanning lawmakers and families, to educators and schools. Data informs the layouts, content and information that resonate best, and it gives visitors an easy way to locate exactly what they need.
According to Michelle DeLaune, SVP and Chief Operating Officer at NCMEC: “When people come to our website or any other digital property, we only have one chance to engage them with the right experience. NCMEC has a story of a baby who’d been abducted at three weeks old from a hospital, and she was raised by her abductor. In her 20s, aspects of her life just didn’t quite fit together, and she came to our website. She was able to find a find a baby photo that looked remarkably like her own child and reached out. We got all her information, and in collaboration with law enforcement, we were able to confirm that the photo was her. After 20 years, she was finally reunited with her biological parents. Without a website that keeps visitors engaged and on pages longer, we miss out on these kinds of opportunities. Adobe has been a valued partner to our organization from the start and had a joint passion for our work. The Adobe Experience Manager product enables us to deliver a great digital experience driven by data, where all the improvements we see in bounce rates and engagement have material impact on the work to find missing children.”
To date, the results have been incredibly encouraging. The day after launch, the bounce rate (people leaving the site) dropped from 94% to 7%. NCMEC then saw 85% of visitors clicking on content, while a more targeted experience drove page views up 52%. More than 80% of visitors now come from a mobile device as well. At the same time, over 200% more traffic was being driven to donation and fundraising pages. A partnership with Microsoft Azure ensures that the site could manage the new activity, scaling during peak periods and helping keep information secure. During Hurricane Katrina for example, activity spiked when children were separated from families, and NCMEC eventually helped locate over 5,000 children—a scenario that the site can now manage with no hiccups. NCMEC has shown that when technology is leveraged in new and inventive ways, it can have a real impact on human lives.
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Products: Photoshop, Creative Cloud