Flow Communications

The news that Facebook and the South African Police Service (SAPS) have teamed up to issue Amber Alerts for missing children in the country is pretty big news. It combines the harrowing struggle to locate a missing child with a social network that has an immense reach.

Here are some interesting facts about the Amber Alerts initiative:

1. Facebook can go where no other medium can

There is an argument to be made that this development could see missing children alerts go out more effectively than ever before. A Facebook alert gets on the screens of people in the area where a child is missing, in real time. Another medium that can do that is radio, but a radio can’t send you a photo.

Facebook is by a long stretch the biggest social media network in the world. In South Africa, the most recent statistics show it’s in the top three. This means circulating a missing child alert on Facebook could potentially reach far more people more quickly and more relevantly than any other intervention.

2. The aim is to get an alert out within 15 minutes of receiving the information from police

The process seems a pretty simple one. A parent reports a child missing to the SAPS. If the child is under 18, and is believed to be in danger, the SAPS produces a poster with the child’s photo and important information such as what the child was last seen wearing, and emails it to the Facebook security team.

The security centre team pops it in an alert and pushes out the notification to people who are geolocated in the area where the child has gone missing.

Flowstars have been receiving these Amber Alerts for several weeks. Says writer Christina Kennedy: “The alerts started popping up on my timeline on the very same day I heard about the service. It’s a fantastic way to get the word out quickly that a child has gone missing, as we all know that time is critical in cases like these. It could mean the difference between a happy ending and a tragic one.”

3. The Facebook staffer heading up this global initiative is a former FBI agent

You heard us correctly – an ex-FBI agent. Check out Emily Vacher’s LinkedIn bio here

According to media reports, Vacher was in Sandton for the launch. Here’s the interview she did with IOL.

She says it’s really important for parents to act quickly when a child goes missing.

“I know sometimes parents will say, ‘Oh, he’ll turn up.’ Because every minute is so critical, it’s so much more important that a parent alerts the police, even if it’s a mistake … this is what could save their lives.”

4. There is a sad story behind the Amber Alerts idea

These days, the “amber” part of “amber alert” is seen as an acronym that stands for “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response”. But it is actually named for a nine-year old girl, Amber Hagerman, who was abducted and murdered in 1996 in Arlington, Texas. The tragic case led to legislation that eventually resulted in the creation of the system in the United States, which distributes alerts via radio and TV stations, and text messages.

The Facebook Amber Alert was launched in 2015. In 2015, the Google-owned driving app, Waze, announced it would be integrating Amber Alerts into its app in the US.

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