Calgary first in Canada to adopt web tool for finding missing kids

Calgary will be the first city in Canada to adopt a new website and app that could be a game-changer in finding missing children.

The Calgary Police Service and Tsuut'ina Nation Police Service will adopt the web app, MCSC Rescu.

It can be continually updated with new information for missing children investigations.

The app was created for the Missing Children Society of Canada by Esri Canada, a geographic information system (GIS) provider.

How it works

The app allows users to register to receive text alerts on their cellphones, specific to cases in their area. 

"It's the real-time opportunity for Canadians to see in one network all of the missing children cases and specifically the ones that they can help within their area," said Amanda Pick, CEO of Missing Children's Society of Canada.

"The more Canadians that become involved in this, the higher the ability we have to protect a child and find a child when they go missing."

Pick said the hope is for widespread uptake among Canadians.

"It only takes one person," Pick said. "(But) the more Canadians that become involved in this, the higher the ability we have to protect a child and find a child when they go missing."

Vincent Bonnay/CBC

'A milestone'

Thousands of children are reported missing in Canada each year, but only a handful of Amber Alerts are issued, potentially leaving large numbers of people who might be able to help find them in the dark.

Judy Peterson, whose 14-year-old daughter Lindsey Nicholls went missing in 1993, described the new technology as a game-changer.

"Lindsey was 14, she would be 40," she said. "We didn't even have the internet, there was no Facebook, email, anything. So, I was going around Comox with my roll of Scotch tape and my homemade printed posters, and a box of Kleenex, trying to get the word out. So for me, this is a milestone because I truly believe that if this technology existed when Linsday went missing, we would have found her."

She encouraged all Canadians to register on the website or get the app, adding that most people can't imagine their child going missing.

"What I'm asking is, go there even for a few seconds," she said. "In that few seconds, that's a few seconds it'll take to get the app, and help other families so they don't have to go through what thousands of families across Canada have been going through."

Vincent Bonnay/CBC

Names, photographs and other relevant data about a missing child are available at the click of a mouse. Users who might have useful information can provide tips by clicking on the name or picture of the child.

RCMP data indicate more than 42,000 children were reported missing last year — the vast majority are found safe — but police activated fewer than 10 Amber Alerts due to the high threshold of urgency required to do so.

Despite their infrequency, late-night Amber Alerts via cellphones have sparked a backlash among some recipients.

The Rescu system allows alerts to be narrow-cast only to people who have signed up. Depending on circumstances, alerts can be sent to a wider area.

"This is a volunteer opportunity," Pick said. "You can enable a push notification when it makes sense for you."

Vincent Bonnay/CBC

Only cases police deem pressing are expected to become alert material, the society said. As a result, those who sign up won't be bombarded by alerts, or receive both Amber Alerts and Rescu texts.

There's no charge to users, who won't be tracked. Tipsters can stay anonymous or provide names and email addresses if they want.

Insp. Steve Burton, of Tsuut'ina Nation Police Service urged "all police agencies to get on board and start using this app so we can broaden the scope across Canada."

He said this will "allow members of the community to communicate in real-time and to get involved when children go missing."

Alex Miller, the company's president, said he expected police and social-service workers involved with missing children will also use the system.

"They currently don't have a way to easily share this information," Miller said. "(But) if you provide the tools, people will come together."