Locating lost people using Social Media
SAR members will know all about the missing person forms included in ICS (Incident Command System). ICS form 302 is titled “Lost Person Questionnaire” and contains a field for almost every piece of information that could possibly help SAR find a missing person.
However big this form is, I am proposing that we add a few new fields to that form, or develop an entirely new social media worksheet, and the reasons are obvious.
Many people who use social media, either on purpose, or out of ignorance, are sending out information about where they are. Modern hikers are sending images, Facebook posts, Tweets, and Instagram updates, all of which can be geotagged with their latitude and longitude. And when a person is reported missing, this information can become part of the determination of their last known position, or LKP.
And as we all know, knowing the LKP can make all the difference.
Last year I wrote about a service I developed to assist search and rescue teams to locate missing people using their smart phone GPS and an SMS message. We’ve used this on our team, and with other groups on the south coast now for over a year and had some good results. Often it performs better than the ability the police have to locate a phone using network location. In fact, obtaining the missing person’s cell phone number is now among the first things we do on a task (something that is missing, by the way, from ICS 301: Subject Profile, the shorter version of 302).
What we’ve learned about the various methods of geolocation is that they are all unreliable, and they can all take some time to activate. The Police are the only ones who can access the network location, but SAR teams can now attempt to “ping” the phone using YourLo.ca/tion, and today I’ve added a few new features to that service.
Social Media based location
If you know the subjects Instagram and/or Twitter handles, you can just type them in to the service and it will provide you with a map of any geotagged posts that the user has made recently. Items are on the road map for Facebook and other social media channels soon.
These new features come with a lot of limitations of course;
- User’s security settings may prevent you from viewing their posts, hence you would be unable to see their location
- User may have turned off the geolocation features for the service
- Posts may be from earlier in the day
- User may not have posted anything recent enough to be useful
- There is no accuracy information in the feed, so any error could be large
- Time stamps are reported in UTC, convert them to your local time zone.
- Results have to be interpreted, and factored into the other things you know about the subject.
The advantage of tying this in to the YourLo.ca/tion service is that you can try the SMS/Smart phone location system and then try the social media methods fairly easily.
Users should pay close attention to the date and time which may be provided in UTM format, make sure to translate those to your local time zone. Also note that there is no accuracy information available from posts, so they could be off by a large amount, there is just no way to tell.
It’s worth noting that none of the techniques and algorithms we developed for this process are illegal, or against the published terms of service for the various social media channels, nor to they violate the terms of service for using the APIs (application programming interfaces) to those services. In other words, it’s not illegal or a “hack” to do this, it’s just a little different.
- Add a phone number to the missing person profile (ICS 301)
- Add fields for various social media channels to ICS 301 and missing person questionnaire (ICS 302)
- As part of your missing person action plan, add items to attempt to locate subject LKP via cell, smartphone, and social media
As always, I would love to hear feedback from anyone using these methods. Is there a feature you would like to add? Does something about the interface confuse you? Let me know.