Micheal Kanada, missing persons, the police, and search engines
Earlier tonight (January 10, 2013), a friend posted a photo of a boy on Facebook, surrounded by a yellow and black striped border made to look like police crime scene tape, and overlaid with the following text (phone numbers redacted):
Have you seen me? My name is Micheal Kanada I am from Okmulgee. I was wearing a Black polo shirt, khaki pants & black backpack yesterday & was last seen around OSU-IT Campus about 6PM. If you saw him or might know where he is Please, Please call 918-xxx-xxxx, 918-xxx-xxxx, or 918-xxx-xxxx... Share this to spread the word!
The first phone number appears to be for the Okmulgee Police Department; the other two may be private numbers.
What set off alarm bells for me was the word "yesterday" with no mention of a specific date. It's the stuff of urban legends. A real crisis situation exists, an email is sent with vague or missing information about dates and places and no place to find up to date info, and people, moved by the crisis, forward it on without verifying whether the situation is true and whether it has been resolved.
(For example, a nine-year-old cancer patient named Craig Shergold wanted to set the Guinness record for greeting cards received. He did -- 16 million. That was back in 1989, but the appeal kept circulating and the cards kept coming, climbing to 350 million. Shergold was successfully treated with surgery in the US in 1991 and is now 33 years old. Read this article on Snopes to see how the ongoing circulation of this appeal and similar ones can cause real problems for the people we hope to help.)
The correct response to an appeal for help lacking key details is to do a web search for more information. Is it a hoax? Is it outdated? Or is it a current crisis? But that strategy only works if there is reliable, updated information that is tagged to be easily found by a search engine's web crawlers. That's an area where law enforcement and others involved in a crisis could do a far better job with some smart use of their existing web capability.
My attempt to find out when "Micheal Kanada" went missing was thwarted by the misspelling on the photo. Only copies of the same appeal turned up. But the fact that Google auto-suggested Okmulgee as I typed his name indicates that I wasn't the only one looking for information.
I thought to try the standard spelling for Michael and found an undated story by the Henryettan about the boys' recovery:
Missing boys found in Henryetta
Two Okmulgee teenagers reported missing earlier this week were found Wednesday morning in Henryetta, cold and tired.
The pair, Michael Austin Kanada, 13, and Dayleimion Bryan Sorrell, 14, were found near Frisco and Bollinger around 8 a.m.
A phone call alerted Henryetta police that two youths wrapped up in sheets and blankets matching their description were seen along the roadway. When police arrived, they detained the youngsters until Okmulgee County sheriff department personnel could arrive.
Both boys were said to be health despite going missing for over a day. They told authorities they walked from Okmulgee to Henryetta.
Saying "Wednesday morning" isn't even sufficient for print, much less the web. Yes, on the printed page there's a date at the top, but an article could be cut from the paper, scanned, and circulated. There's no date on the web version of the story, either. So who can tell when all this occurred.
This is why I always include the full date when I post about upcoming events, even though it must often seem superfluous to readers. Otherwise someone is going to reach that archived page via a search engine and think that "tonight" (which was really back in June 2007) is tonight in January 2013. There's also a date stamp on each blog entry.
I also found a tweet on October 9, 2012 at 3:44 pm from the Okmulgee County Sheriff's Office about the search for two boys who had gone missing:
The Okmulgee County Sheriff's Office is attempting to locate Michael Austin Kanada and Dayleimion Bryan Sorrell...
The tweet included a link to a Facebook post which has since been deleted.
I went directly to the Okmulgee County Sheriff Office's Twitter account (@OkmulgeeSO), scrolled back a ways to October, and found this tweet from October 10 at 8:08 a.m.:
The two Runaway boys have been located and are in custody at this time. Let everyone know they are okay. Thank...
That tweet led to a slightly more complete Facebook post:
The two Runaway boys have been located and are in custody at this time. Let everyone know they are okay. Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers. God Bless
Do you see the problem? The tweet and Facebook post that announces the boys' disappearance included their names, but the tweet and Facebook post announcing their recovery did not mention the boys' names. Anyone searching for information will read an official source telling them about the disappearance, but they won't find the info that says they were found and are safe.
I wonder how many phone calls the three phone numbers have had since Michael was found. I imagine he is seen at school, around his neighborhood, and around town all the time, and at least once in the while, I expect he is spotted by someone who just saw this photo posted by a friend on Facebook.
What could have been done better? What should be done next time?
Here are a few recommendations for law enforcement agencies and other interested parties to get the most out of the web:
1. If local law enforcement is looking for someone, whether a missing child, a nursing home resident gone astray, or a fugitive criminal, they should post an entry on the blog on their official website. This is going to be the official location for complete information on the subject of the search and its status, including any clues or details being released to the public. Let's call this the authoritative blog entry. It's crucial that there should be a permanent, unique web address that points to the official info in the case.
2. The title of the authoritative blog entry should include the names of the persons being sought.
3. The tags of the authoritative blog entry should include the full name of each subject, nicknames, and any misspellings that may be circulating. The entry should also be tagged with the name of the city and state and similar specific information.
4. The authoritative blog entry body should include the complete date (month, day, and year) of key events and full address information (block, street, city and state) of key places. An alert like the photo of "Micheal Kanada" may circulate for years and may circle the globe as it's passed around via email and social media.
In this case at least, a person could deduce location from the phone number and the relative uniqueness of the name Okmulgee. Imagine an appeal for a missing person from Miami or Springfield (no state) with seven digit phone numbers (no area code).
5. Any updates about the search should go in that authoritative blog entry, with the most recent status and the date and time of that status at the top of the entry, highlighted to catch the reader's attention. For example: "UPDATE October 10, 2012, 8:18 a.m.: Michael Austin Kanada and Dayleimion Bryan Sorrell have been found in Henryetta. They are fine and are in care of the Okmulgee County Sheriff's Department. Original post follows."
6. When there's a major development in the case, post a new blog entry to catch the attention of someone visiting the department's blog, following the above rules about titles, tags, specific dates, and places, but be sure to include a link back to the authoritative blog entry. At the same time, edit the authoritative blog entry to include a summary of the new development. (See 5 above.)
7. Add an easy-to-hear, easy-to-remember, and easy-to-type URL that will redirect to the authoritative blog entry. (It's called a "301 redirect," and any webmaster worth his salt will know how to set one up.) You want something that could be repeated over the phone, over the radio, on TV, and then easily typed by someone into a smartphone. Add additional redirect URLs with likely misspellings and point them to the same page.
8. When you send a press release to the media about the case, urge them to link to the authoritative blog entry and print or read on-air the easy-to-type URL.
9. Any Facebook statuses or Twitter tweets about the topic should link back to the authoritative blog entry. Encourage your fans and followers to do the same.
You can follow the same steps even if you aren't a law enforcement official. While the information will carry more weight if it's on an official website, you can create your own authoritative blog entry if the local LEOs won't or don't know how to do it. If you don't already have a blog, you can create one for free in a few minutes at www.blogger.com or www.wordpress.com.
And if you're making a heart-tugging photo to circulate on social media, include specific dates, specific places, and that easy-to-type URL to connect to the authoritative blog entry, so the curious can confirm that the case is still open before forwarding it to their friends.
When a child goes missing, search engine optimization and web server configuration are not going to be at the top of your mind. But a few simple steps can help the World Wide Web help you accomplish your search, can keep everyone informed as the search reaches the hoped-for happy conclusion, and can reduce unnecessary anxiety and concerned queries long after happily every after.
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