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Hack for Humanity Helps Missing Persons

8 March 2017 at 2:14 pm
Wendy Williams
A world-first practical guide of what to do when someone goes missing has been given a helping hand by a team of cutting-edge developers, designers, marketers and entrepreneurs volunteering to “hack for humanity”.

Wendy Williams | 8 March 2017 at 2:14 pm


Hack for Humanity Helps Missing Persons
8 March 2017 at 2:14 pm

A world-first practical guide of what to do when someone goes missing has been given a helping hand by a team of cutting-edge developers, designers, marketers and entrepreneurs volunteering to “hack for humanity”.

Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN), which was established in 2013 by Loren O’Keeffe whose brother Dan went missing in July 2011, took home the top prize at the first global Hack For Humanity hackathon weekend in Melbourne.

The event, hosted by global not for profit Girls in Tech in partnership with REA Group, set out to help local not for profits and charities address current business problems and drive technology innovation within their organisations.

O’Keeffe told Pro Bono News it was a “brilliant idea” and to have corporates like REA Group and Australia Post get behind it was really encouraging.

“It was really just a fantastic initiative where people that have the skills that are desperately needed by charities, especially small charities like ours, but often not affordable, come together and volunteer their expertise,” O’Keeffe said.

“It’s a high-energy event, it’s got lots of like-minded people that all want to share their ideas and learn from each other, and then obviously the benefits of those ideas to charities are massive.

“We need more of that sort of support for innovation in the charity sector from corporates like that, so we’re just thrilled to have been involved.”

The two-day event saw local charities present their most pressing business and technology challenges to more than 50 volunteer software developers, web designers, engineers, marketers and entrepreneurs.

The charities and volunteers then formed teams and were given 48 hours to develop a unique and innovative solution to pitch to a panel of judges including guests from REA Group, Australia Post and GiT.

GiT Australia managing director Susan Brown said she was excited to call on the technology community to address some of Australia’s most pressing social issues through creativity and code.

“At Girls in Tech, we believe when tech savvy, empowered, passionate women work together, they become a force for global change,” Brown said.

“Hack for Humanity is an opportunity for our community to step up to an important challenge, by sharing our diverse skills and expertise with local charities to create meaningful impact.”  

Missing Persons Guide imageThe winning prototype platform MPAN presented to judges was a missing persons campaign builder to help families create and share cohesive content rapidly and efficiently.  

O’Keeffe said the guide, which expedites critical processes minimising time wastage, was a world-first tool that tried to optimise efficiency “when it matters most”.

“When someone disappears time is of the essence, and in Australia alone there are over 100 people every day that are reported missing,” she said.

“So this is a tool that will help families who are distressed, they are in a frantic state, they probably don’t have, you know, means to create a really powerful and instant… marketing campaign for their loved one, to make that whole process really easy for them.”

The Missing Persons Guide was first launched in November 2013. O’Keeffe said it was the idea that started the organisation.

“I had never intended on starting a charity, I just wanted for this tool to be out there,” she said.

“It was probably after about 18 months that Dan had been missing, and other families from around the world had asked for support because they had seen the Dan Come Home campaign and I thought ok, rather than just one on one having to send the very messy word documents that I had typed up to all of these families, I really wanted to create a website that would put that information out there and allow people to create aesthetically pleasing posters, which is again so important.”

The disappearance of O’Keeffe’s brother prompted the biggest campaign of its kind.

Over 18 months, the search for Dan gained significant media attention and a captive social media audience of over 30,000.

“Dan’s last poster was shared by 150,000 people on Facebook, and that’s just unprecedented,”  O’Keeffe said.

“So to be able to sort of emulate Dan’s campaign for every other family that is in that horrible situation of not knowing where a loved one is, was really important to us.”

But she said, like “any sort of tech tool” the guide needed to be updated regularly and having the team through the hackathon was “really, really helpful.”

“Because it was November 2013, in terms of technology that is like a lifetime ago,” she said.

“It was just little improvements that needed to be made to make it even simpler for families who again, are frantic, they are not necessarily familiar with programs like Photoshop, or how to write a media release or who to send a media release to.

“So making all of those steps as easy as possible and using really friendly and compassionate language and tone so that they feel as though they are not alone and someone is going through this very same nightmare, which alleviates a lot of that overwhelming hopelessness and helplessness.

“For them to have made it two clicks less than what we originally had and just further speeding it up, given again that time is of the essence, you are in a context where everything needs to happen really, really quickly.

“We are really hoping to implement all of their changes in the live site in the next couple of weeks… we have about 30,000 users from all over the world who have already used the guide, so once it is made even better through the result of this hackathon we’ll be able to help even more people.”

O’Keeffe said the Missing Persons Guide would have made all the difference to her when Dan went missing.

“No one is ever prepared to be able to find themselves in the situation where a loved one has disappeared, so to have any sort of direction as to what to do and who to reach out to, especially when a case is deemed non-suspicious by police and they don’t necessarily have the resources to search [makes a difference],” she said.

“To be able to connect to tens of thousands of people for all of those years meant the world to our family and so that is the type of thing we are trying to emulate for everyone else, not just in Australia but all over the world, to have that kind of support that we had.”

O’Keeffe said the goal for MPAN was to “continue”.

“We’ve been going off the smell of an oily rag for the last five years but to have even made it to five years as a charity is a feat in itself,” she said.

“We’ve got a really engaged following thanks to the Dan Come Home campaign obviously and getting more and more corporates behind us has been helpful with in-kind support but we are really hoping to get funding.”

But she said missing persons was a difficult space due to the “ambiguity of it all”.

“It could be anyone that goes missing for a number of different reasons and so it is a complex realm to work in and also to try to change the minds of the public in thinking this is just a standard police issue, which it is not,” she said.

“So [we’re] trying to create a space in a very competitive not-for-profit sector for an issue that doesn’t generally associate to charity. People don’t think that missing persons is a charitable cause, they pretty much associate it to police… and Crime Stoppers and that’s why we try and use friendlier language, different colour schemes.

“Our initiatives are very much about humanising missing persons so it’s not just about their vital statistics, it is about them as a human being and how they fit into society and what they mean to their family and really trying to get the public to empathise with the thousands of Australian families that are left behind when a loved one disappears.

“It would be wonderful if we were able to get to a point of financial sustainability because I really do feel that this organisation is my brother’s legacy and I really want to keep it going as long as humanly possible.”

Sadly, Dan’s remains were found underneath his family home in March 2016, nearly five years after he went missing.

O’Keeffe said they were fortunate as a family to have “resolution”.

“It is certainly not closure and it is not the outcome that anyone was hoping for but we at least were able to bury Dan and that to a family in the predicament that we were in for four-and-a-half, almost five years means the world,” she said.

“And so we want to be able to create that for every other family. Hopefully with a much happier ending of course.

“But just to let them know that there is somewhere else to turn if the police aren’t able to help, that we have lived, personal experience therefore we can instantly relate to people who are going through that ambiguous loss.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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