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GIS for good: Helping find missing children faster

For decades, geographic information system (GIS) technology has been enabling location intelligence, which offers new insights for organizations. From analyzing crime to enhancing the imagery output of drones, GIS offers seemingly endless opportunities for innovation.

One of the key areas where GIS has become an invaluable resource is the nonprofit sector. The technology offers numerous advantages, such as aiding organizations in optimizing their development strategies and resource allocation, or better communicating their mission to the public. One such example of an organization leveraging GIS technology in its mission of reuniting families is the Missing Children Society of Canada (MCSC). MCSC is a nonprofit based in Calgary, Alberta that has been working since 1986 in assisting police and families in active and ongoing searches for missing children.

And their work is not easy. Every year, thousands of children go missing in Canada. In 2018 alone, there were over 40,000 missing children cases reported to the police, with only less than 1% of those cases issued as Amber Alerts. MCSC needed a solution to efficiently share information, spread awareness and engage the community in the search for missing children.

For years, MCSC’s team relied on homegrown systems and manual workflows to support their work. Through a group of volunteers, they developed an app that allowed them to share information on missing children cases with police agencies and other partners across the country. However, the app was supported by legacy technology that has been discontinued.

Through a partnership with Esri Canada, MCSC has implemented a new system that is transforming the way it collects, manages and shares information on missing children.

“Communicating through geography is extremely powerful,” says Amanda Pick, CEO, Missing Children Society of Canada. “With the new solution, we’re able to share information with the police and the public through easy-to-understand dynamic maps and push alerts to people in specific locations, even down to a street.”

The new system makes use of an array of Esri and other technologies to provide a secure platform for collaboration, both within and outside of the organization. Let’s take a look at them.

  1. ArcGIS Hub - MCSC is using ArcGIS Hub as a platform for engagement centered around the initiative to find missing children and reunite families. It provides the capability to create ArcGIS Hub sites to share content including datasets, story maps, videos and project updates to relevant teams or public data with the community.
    1. ArcGIS Hub sites was used to build the web application MCSC rescu (, which the public can use to search missing children cases and register to receive SMS alerts on new missing children in their area. MCSC rescu is continually updated with information on missing children in Canada. Its users can view open and active cases by region via interactive story maps and submit tips on cases to police through the web app. Since MCSC rescu is a web app, no download is required. It is accessible via any browser and across desktop and mobile devices.
    2. The solution was also used to build MCSC’s intranet site powered with ArcGIS applications to help staff perform their daily tasks, such as adding new cases and updating information on existing cases.
    3. ArcGIS Hub sites also provides a licensing mechanism, so that MCSC partners and the community can participate and collaborate on the organization’s initiative.
  1. Survey123 for ArcGIS is a simple form-centric data collection GIS app used to enter new missing children cases into ArcGIS Online by MCSC staff. It was also used to build the ‘leave a tip’ functionality within the MCSC rescu web app where the users can leave a short message or a tip they may have on a missing child. This simple yet powerful data-gathering solution makes creating, sharing and analyzing information possible in three easy steps:
    1. Ask questions: Survey123 lets MCSC staff easily create web forms and publish them into ArcGIS. They can create and publish smart forms, which support a wide variety of questions from basic (e.g. text, date, photos, etc.) to more complex types (e.g. signatures, time, notes, repeats, sketches and barcodes). This helps MCSC staff gather the most accurate information at the click of a few buttons.
    2. Get answers: Survey123 allows MCSC to capture data while online or offline. It is easily accessible on desktop or mobile devices, making the user experience as simple as possible and helping minimize errors when capturing data.
    3. Make the most informed decisions: Capturing data is just the means to an end.  With the help of ready-to-use reporting tools available in Survey123, MCSC staff can understand right away what data is being captured and analyze it to make decisions quickly.   
  1. ArcGIS StoryMaps help combine authoritative maps with narrative text, images and multimedia content.  Cases entered immediately appear in story maps for the relevant geographic region, which are accessible to police agencies. StoryMaps make it easy to harness the power of maps and geography to communicate the case information in a way that attracts attention and support.
  1. ArcGIS Online analysis tools enable the team to conduct quick analyses that can help propel the investigations in the right direction. The two tools used are:
    1. Create drive-time analysis - This creates areas that can be reached within a specified drive time or drive distance and helps find answers to pertinent questions, such as: Where can the child be taken from here within a 30-minute drive? Where can the child be taken from here within a 30-minute drive at 5:30 p.m. during rush hour? or How can the search process be improved by relaying information of the vehicle at all gas stations within a 100-km radius?
    2. Connect origins to destinations – This helps to measure the time or distance between pairs of points, such as identifying from where the tips are coming in relation to where the child went missing.

Answers to these questions can solely be sought through visualizing the output areas and can serve         as the starting point in the search process.    

  1. Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS is used to run the two ArcGIS Online analysis tools, and Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS (Developer Edition) is used to send SMS text alerts to MCSC rescu registered users via a custom widget.
  2. Webhooks for Survey123, a method of augmenting or altering the behaviour of a web page or web application with custom callbacks, along with Microsoft Flow, a service for automating workflows, is used to automatically send out alerts to social media platforms such as Twitter to ensure information is relayed in real time.
  3. Microsoft LUIS (Language Understanding Intelligence Service) is a machine learning-based service. It scrapes a set of websites for information about new missing children and auto-populates case information in ArcGIS Online. It serves as a bot gathering information, eliminating the need for MCSC staff to manually look for information, thus saving time and effort.

Two law enforcement agencies in Alberta – Calgary Police Service and TsuuT’ina Nation Police Service – were the first to adopt the MCSC rescu web app in their missing children investigations. Read more about why they joined MCSC’s initiative in this Esri Blog post: Mapping Canada's Missing Children to Quickly Reunite Them with Family.

It is said that a smart community is only as smart as its ability to protect its most vulnerable. MCSC’s digital transformation is an example of how GIS can be a powerful tool in keeping our children protected and addressing threats to public safety.  

Join the search for Canada’s missing children. Use the web app:

About the Author

Matt English is a senior GIS analyst and developer with over 20 years of experience in using Esri technology. He started his career building immersive software demonstrations and prototypes at Esri in Redlands, California and has continued to spread the love for GIS at Esri Canada’s corporate headquarters in Toronto.

Profile Photo of Matt English