Twitter Could Save Lives of Children

Twitter Some days are just weird. Today was one of those. I was a little tired today, and when I get tired, I get apathetic and a little down. I really should make sure I get enough sleep at night (hence the wine in my hand and the pillow awaiting me right now).

What could possibly bring a guy up from a sleep deprived downer? Your mom?

Well, yea. Apparently. My mother has lost her sister years ago. Literally lost. She disappeared. Because of that, she and her mother (my grandmother) have dedicated years of their lives to finding her.

This evening my mom and I played email-tag a few times. Right before she went to bed, she sent me the website for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Having lived in southern California for a few years now, I’ve seen the digital billboards on the highway pleading for people to keep an eye out for missing children. It’s sad that they are missing, but I love seeing the infrastructure being used for such things other than traffic delays.

missing and exploited childrenNow, this organization has emergency cell phone alerts and things like that, which is awesome. But why not kick these guys into the cutting edge? I could do it. You could do it. Let’s do it.

I created a twitter account called MissingChildren and subscribed via email to their alert system. I’ve made a pretty diagram below to explain how it works.

Missing Children twitter diagram

Of course, I created this diagram before I got any actual emails, so the script actually does more than it looks like. I had to do a bunch of (careful, geek speak ahead) DOM parsing of a couple different pages to get what I needed out of it along with a few other hacks here and there.

Regardless of the script complexity, the idea is simple. Check your email every now and then and post to twitter the results. My script checks every minute of every day for new emails. Each minute counts in this case, and I’m hitting my own email address, so I can take it (as opposed to hitting an RSS feed every minute, in which case I think the RSS feed owner would be slightly ticked off).

The obvious next step is to separate out the geographical areas regarding where the emails are coming from, create separate twitter accounts for each, and let people subscribe to their area.

Any suggestions on how to improve this process or the idea in general? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

If anyone’s interested in the code, just leave a comment with your email address and we’ll talk out of band.

Thanks, and please subscribe to the Missing Children twitter account today. It doesn’t hurt at all, and can do nothing but help.

Nate Ritter lives in Austin, Texas (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

16 Comments on "Twitter Could Save Lives of Children"

  1. nate says:

    Update: Thanks to @internationale‘s suggestion, I contacted the folks at to see if they’ll setup an email system similar to so we could do the same thing for them. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. Thanks for doing this, Nate! I wrote a blog post on Oh, Twitter about @missingchildren yesterday.

  3. nate says:

    Great! Thanks for the mention Marina. I appreciate it.

  4. Allyson says:

    This is awesome Nate. Great use of Twitter!

  5. Beth Kanter says:

    Awesome Nate. This is funny .. I was on a webinar the other day – an intro social media for nonprofits. And someone who works on the issue of missing children said he was having a problem figuring out how/why social media would be useful to this cause. what a great example!

  6. Nice job adding even more value to the Twitter community! After last year’s tragedy at VA Tech, Doug March asked the question: “Could Twitter have helped?” The answer to this is inevitable. Great work and good luck!

  7. Bob Uva says:

    This is great Nate! A creative use of social media (twitter) to help get the word out about missing children. I’ve been using twitter for a little while now and your work has given me motivation to do something to tie it back to humanitarian help. If you could share your code with me, I’d very much appreciate it.

  8. Nate, it was a great post and Beth Kanter picking it up was nice — it inspired me to write about my Buttons of hope photo buttons as personal billboards (search tools) to help find missing children. I hope you will check that out and if you like the idea help me spread it!

  9. nate says:

    Everyone, thank you so much for your kind words.

    Beth, thank you for the mention in your blog. I love your outlook and writings. Thanks for doing what you do (really well).

    Nick, Doug’s post definitely hits on a subject that I’ve talked on before with folks like MobileActive. And yes, it could have helped. Actually, even better than twitter is what Verizon is doing with one of the Montana universities. They’re offering an emergency SMS service to any student who registers their phone number with the university. The downside is that it’s only on the Verizon network, but that’s better than Twitter right now. If they used Twitter, it wouldn’t be restricted to Verizon, but right now Twitter is not used en masse, so either way would be fine, and either method would be better than what’s being used now (nothing).

    Bob, I’ll be very happy to share my code. Perhaps I’ll just post it up in another blog post soon, or on this website. I’ll have to remove the passwords and such, but yea, that’s no problem. Thanks for asking.

    Michael, I love your buttons of hope and your idea of tapping the other social networks with things like this. I think you just gave me another idea for a new script… I’ll have to think about it a little more, but yea, great work.

  10. Great idea. Well done.

  11. Webconomist says:

    Great concept for use of Twitter, I’ve included that in my Blog. I think Twitter is a new tool that shows how we are finding ways to manage our attention and add relevance to what we do with all this information coming at us. It is the 90-Second Economy, or the Attention Economy. It’s not the information, it’s the attention we give it.

  12. bj says:

    Do undercover officers goe underground worldwide to infiltrate the pedeophile rings to find these poor missing children? I think this is the only way.

  13. Fieke says:

    Hi Nate, I’m following @missingchildren now too although I think it’s of little use since I am located in Europe (The Netherlands). But you never know.

    My normal Twitter account is @FiekeBazelmans, but I set up a second account named @findingjoey because my halfbrother Joey disappeared in 1985, when he was 5 years old. We really want to find him because his father (whom he hasn’t seen anymore since!) is quite ill and may not have long to live, and besides that, I have never seen Joey because I was adopted and only got to know my biological father after Joey had already disappeared.

    I would like to know if you can help me find the best way of using Twitter to find Joey. Right now I’m not sure that I approaching this the best way possible. Maybe there are tools I should use or people I should follow?

    More info about Joey:

    Thanks in advance for your help! Kind regards,


  14. nate says:

    Hi Fieke, just FYI, I’m going to respond to you directly via email in a few minutes. I just wanted to make sure I mentioned that here too though.

    BJ, I’m not sure if undercover officers go underground this way, but I’m pretty sure they do. I remember seeing some TV shows that talk about doing things like that….


  15. michael says:

    Nate, I had the same idea (leveraging the power of new media to help locate missing children). Let’s talk offline, but I’d like to know if there’s any recent progress with this project and maybe an opportunity to collaborate. Cheers, Mike

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