THE BLOG

How Facebook Helps Find Missing People

11/11/2015 17:21 GMT | Updated 11/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Rob*, 38, struggles with depression and problems with alcohol. Despite his age and living independently, his mum and dad stay in close contact to make sure he's coping.

One evening, not far from home, Rob ended up in an A&E department with a broken arm. He'd been taken there by local police who'd spotted him whilst on night patrol. The hospital staff did their best but Rob wasn't able to accept help and told them he was contemplating taking his own life. The A&E team did what they could, but Rob left against their best efforts.

The next day Rob's concerned parents couldn't get in touch with him and on hearing from the hospital, reported him to the police as missing, who then contacted Missing People for extra help. Our team placed posters appealing for Rob to call us in areas he might visit and appeals were placed on the Missing People website, Twitter and Facebook accounts.

It paid off. Someone who'd seen our Facebook appeal spotted someone looking like Rob. They contacted our free, 24/7 helpline 116 000 immediately and we passed the information on to the local police who swiftly located Rob, safe and well apart from his broken arm. After reuniting with his parents, his journey to accessing help and care began.

The role of social media helps people in need and also helps charities showcase their cause. Recent viral campaigns such as the ALS ice bucket challenge have ensured that the way charities harness social media becomes the news story. That campaign led to 2.4million tagged videos circulating Facebook and a massive $115 million in donations. The phenomenal success of the campaign is a great example of how the power of social media can help charities advocate for a cause, inspire and educate the public through social channels.

But Rob's story shows that it can do more than that. Over the last few years, social media appeals have become an increasingly vital part of the core work of the charity Missing People. People of all ages and backgrounds go missing up and down the UK and when they do, it touches the hearts of people everywhere. By placing appeals for missing people on social media, members of the public are able to help in the search, simply by viewing the appeal and pressing share or retweet.

We often take sightings - both to the helpline and through our social accounts - of missing people who've been recognised following a social media appeal and sometimes from the missing person themselves. It sends a powerful message that they are missed. In the case of young people especially, they might not be aware they've been reported missing until they see their appeal online.

When a child disappears and their life could be at risk, every minute is crucial to finding them safely. For the police, getting information out to the public as quickly as possible and increasing eyes and ears on the ground is vital. In 2014 we were awarded funding from players of People's Postcode Lottery which allowed us to develop the enhanced national Child Rescue Alert system, in partnership with the National Crime Agency and technology company Groupcall. Alerts are designed to be issued when a child is believed to have been abducted or their life is at immediate risk and are distributed to more than 300,000 members of the public who have signed up for free via text, email, app notifications and of course social media.

Facebook is a global community of millions and it also galvanises smaller, local communities who are connected through a shared investment in the places they live and work. With more than half of the UK population on Facebook and an already successful partnership with Child Rescue Alert's US counterpart Amber Alert under their belts, joining with Facebook on Child Rescue Alert feels like a logical step forward for this important national institution. On the rare occasions when a Child Rescue Alert is issued, a Facebook post will now appear as the second item in the news feeds of users within a designated search area, detailing any information that could result in the missing child being found. If someone has information to share or believes they have seen the missing child, they can access the number to call directly from their Facebook post.

Our recent partnership with Facebook on the Child Rescue Alert system shows that social media can do more than promote awareness of or investment in a charity. In our case, the immense reach, geo-location possibilities, culture of sharing and commitment to safety and innovation at Facebook has been an absolute game-changer for this vital and potentially life-saving system. I hope we continue to see huge social media companies identifying innovative ways to partner with charities and use their powerful platforms in the pursuit of life changing outcomes.