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Technology is key in the fight against child trafficking

by Gavin Portnoy | National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
Thursday, 29 March 2018 12:45 GMT

A boy is silhouetted against the sun at a circular courtyard at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington June 9, 2011. Temperatures in the area are expected to exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). REUTERS/Jim Young

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This intersection of technology, business and social stewardship is a powerful demonstration of industries coming together to tackle tough challenges

Not long after we opened our doors at The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) 34 years ago, we were known as “the milk carton people” for an early campaign that featured photos of missing children on milk cartons. Getting a missing child’s face in front of people who may recognize them – and quickly – is a major challenge. The power of social media has been a game changer.

As a nonprofit organization, however, our technology capabilities were limited in the ability to harness the internet and get this vital information to targeted areas in the United States. Our website was outdated, and the databases that supported it could not accommodate the vast amount of information used to track missing children. These challenges limited our ability to not only bring missing children home, but to proactively get safety information to families.

Now, thanks to our technology partners, including Adobe and Microsoft, we have an updated website and new tools to drive more people to it. The software they donated provides photos and information about missing children, including age-progressed photos to help people recognize children years after they’ve gone missing and to enhance image-matching capabilities. The ability to increase website and mobile device traffic, visibility, personalization and engagement allows us to target specific communities with messages about missing children in their areas.

As a result, we’re finding more missing children through social media.

Engagement on the website and in our various campaigns is up by a large percentage with page views rising 47.9 percent in the first three months alone. We’ve increased traffic to our donation and fundraising pages by 218 percent. More importantly, visitors are spending more and more time on our website now as well, which means more people are searching for missing children, downloading our prevention materials and becoming aware of our issues and mission.

Last year alone, the FBI received more than 460,000 reports of missing children. Most of those children made it home quickly and safely. But the largest number of missing children are runaways, who are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking and other dangers. We’re also seeing another growing category of missing children: children with special needs. Nearly half of these children will wander from safe environments, increasingly with deadly consequences. Finding these children quickly is vital.

This intersection of technology, business and social stewardship is a powerful demonstration of industries coming together to apply their efforts to tackle tough challenges and evolving crimes against children. National Missing Children’s Day is approaching on May 25, but it’s critical to raise awareness not only on this day, but every day. Adobe and Microsoft are joining us in our efforts to bring more children home, and we’re calling on others to join us in this fight.

Gavin Portnoy, is vice president of Strategic Advancement and Partnerships at NCMEC.