Harnessing collective intelligence to find missing children
It is estimated that over 250 000 children go missing every year in the EU. Statistics on their recovery are scant, but based on data from the EU-wide 116 000 hotline, 14 % of runaways and 57 % of migrant minors reported missing in 2019 had not been found by the end of the year. The EU-supported ChildRescue project has developed a collective intelligence and stakeholder communication approach for missing children investigations. It consists of a collaborative platform and two mobile apps available for organisations, verified volunteers and the general public. “ChildRescue is being used by our piloting organisations and is already becoming instrumental in missing children investigations. The public response has exceeded our expectations, with over 22 000 app downloads,” says project coordinator Christos Ntanos from the Decision Support Systems Laboratory at the National Technical University of Athens. ChildRescue has also published a white paper on the need for a comprehensive legal framework on missing unaccompanied migrant minors in the EU.
Citizens as social sensors
To assist in missing children investigations, ChildRescue trained machine learning algorithms to find underlying patterns useful for investigations. As input, they used structured information about individual cases combined with open data from multiple sources, alongside data from similar past cases. The ChildRescue community mobile app issues real-time alerts near places of interest, such as where a child was last seen. Citizens can respond with information, including photos, exclusively accessible by the organisation involved in the case. The quality, relevance and credibility of this feedback are assessed by an algorithm. The organisation can then pass information to the police and engage its own volunteers. Team members can share real-time information through a dedicated private collaboration space. “Correct handling of sensitive data about children in distress is vital. Our solution is fully compliant with the GDPR, users’ access rights are role-dependent and personal data are encrypted. At the end of each investigation, all case data are automatically deleted from mobile devices,” explains Ntanos. “ChildRescue’s methodology and processes were continuously monitored by an independent Ethics Advisory Board.” Piloting consisted firstly of simulation exercises at the premises of each pilot organisation – Smile of the Child, Child Focus and the Hellenic Red Cross (website in Greek), resulting in feedback for the technical teams. Field-testing in Greece and Belgium used scenarios from anonymised actual cases. As well as involving the organisational teams, this included technical partners from SingularLogic, UBITECH and Suite5, supported by Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Missing Children Europe and MADE – all working online, in adherence to COVID-19 restrictions.
The web platform was released in Greece and Belgium, along with the two mobile apps, one for the general public (Android and iOS) and another for verified volunteers (Android only). The open-source code is hosted in GitHub and GitLab. “ChildRescue has already been used in over 40 cases by Child Focus in Belgium, in over 30 cases by Smile of the Child in Greece, while the Hellenic Red Cross has been using it to support 19 unaccompanied migrant minors. Being able to ease the suffering of families and children in distress is our greatest achievement, but we are equally proud to have raised public awareness about this significant humanitarian issue,” concludes Ntanos. The project’s next step is to expand its adoption to additional organisations, and to ensure its long-lasting operational and financial sustainability.
ChildRescue, minor, runaway, missing, children, citizen, police, migrant, Red Cross