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Thursday, September 27, 2012

QR Codes Used in Searches for Missing Children

Written By Hilton Collins for Government Technology News 09/27/2012 - On March 9, 2009, Stephen Watkins’ children never showed up to  their school in Newmarket, Ontario. During a weekend court-ordered visit, his ex-wife Edyta Ustaszewski, the noncustodial mother of their sons Alexander and Christopher, took them and fled the country. She escaped to the U.S. before heading to Europe, sending authorities on her trail for more than two years.

But Watkins was proactive, using modern technology to bring international attention to tragedy. He created custom quick response (QR) codes, 2-D bar codes people can scan with smartphones once they’ve installed a free code reader app. The scan takes users to websites, videos or whatever content the code maker desires. In Canada, missing kids’ pictures are printed on bills and bank statements, but Watkins went further.

Many of Watkins’ codes took viewers to a mobile Web page loaded with information about the case. The page, which is still up today, has the boys’ photos, dates of birth and physical descriptions, as well as videos of news coverage about the investigation. Links abound on Watkins’ Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blog accounts with abduction details. There are also phone numbers to missing children’s hotlines and links to organizations’ websites where people provide data about the boys’ whereabouts.

Watkins put his codes on press releases, fliers, posters and websites.

“My objective was to try to give my sons a fighting chance to be found by littering the Internet world with as many links to their photos as possible,” he said.

Authorities found Alexander and Christopher in Poland in 2011. Watkins doesn’t know if QR codes led to the discovery, but he thinks they can make an impact elsewhere. He creates codes and campaigns for cases in other countries, hoping to capitalize on widely available technology. In America for example, 14 million people scanned QR codes in June 2011, according to a comScore report.

“QR codes are still probably the best way of getting people off the page and online to a direct site,” Watkins said. 

Going Mobile and Global 

Watkins helps organizations and families use QR codes to make missing person’s posters portable. People can write information on paper posters and memorize children’s faces, but it’s easier to share the information virally if they scan a code that puts the data in their phone.

He’s partnered with Child Quest International to help the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department find Sierra LaMar, a 15-year-old who disappeared in March 2012 on her way to a bus stop in Morgan Hill, Calif. They put QR codes on posters and fliers to take the search beyond county borders.

“If my flier’s just posted in San Jose, is it going to reach L.A.? With a QR code, it will,” said Anthony Gonzalez, Child Quest’s senior operations director. “It increases shareability, awareness and time-efficiency when reporting a sighting.”

In LaMar’s case, the code takes visitors to a mobile Web page similar to the one Watkins created for his sons, but with one crucial difference: Users can tweet the page or “like” it on Facebook, extending the search to social networks. The page also has LaMar’s physical description along with photos, videos and phone numbers.

Watkins used the service to create the code and landing page for free. Users create an account to generate QR codes with adjustable appearances called vanity QR codes. People can change the color or embed photos if they don’t like the default black-and-white QR code.

Watkins embedded photos of LaMar and his sons on their QR codes to give the two campaigns a personal touch. He thought standard QR codes look too dehumanizing for missing children’s cases.

“They have a level of humanity in them because they actually have a picture of a missing individual,” Gonzalez said. “It means a lot to the searching families, but it also is very distinguishing between each one and the normal marketing QR code.”’s user interface allows the Web page owner to change site content without modifying the QR code itself. These are called dynamic QR codes because people can alter the connected media without having to discard the code, which is what’s required with static code. Many QR code generators create code permanently linked to content at the time of creation, so new code is needed if content changes. is one of several generators with the dynamic option. 

Is the Battle Uphill? 

Watkins creates QR codes for cases for free and hopes to educate the world in the process. He sometimes encounters organizations that don’t know what those QR codes are, and there can be complications when they do.

Problems can arise even when law enforcement wants to use QR codes, Watkins said. “They’re not techies,” he said. “so we want to make it as simple as possible for them.”
The resources to deploy campaigns aren’t always there either. In California, for example, Gonzalez said budget constraints impede viability.

“They don’t have the personnel and time to put somebody in a position to do it, whereas nonprofits and secondary agencies can fill those gaps for them,” he said.

Additionally, people like Watkins and organizations like Child Quest International have more freedom to try unconventional strategies that government either doesn’t have time to experiment with or doesn’t see the value in. 

Despite such issues, however, police have used QR codes successfully. The Vancouver (British Columbia) Police Department printed them on crime alert posters in 2011 to spread information about murder suspects, and the Portsmouth, N.H., police used QR codes that year to link residents to information about police programs. Portsmouth Police Chief Lou Ferland told that the codes’ possibilities were endless.

Watkins hopes working with high-profile cases will teach the world about QR codes’ benefits. “The more the media reports it, the more society will know what QR codes are,” he said, adding that years ago, he decided to use the technology when he saw people pass missing persons posters in Walmart without paying much attention.

QR codes, he said, seemed like a good way to enhance traditional methods in the search for his sons. His professional background in corporate advertising helped him understand the technology’s usefulness in outreach.

Watkins says he’s the first person to use QR codes this way, and wants the trend to pick up. According to Gonzalez, the movement hasn’t spread far beyond a few jurisdictions and organizations like the Laura Recovery Center’s campaigns in Texas.

Conflicting data on QR code adoption and awareness paints a murky picture of how much work Watkins and his allies must do to promote the technology’s application in abduction cases. 

These studies provide insight on QR codes’ popularity in North America:

In May 2011, a Mobio report said QR code scanning increased by 4,549 percent in the year’s first quarter on a year-over-year basis; yet 

A 2011 study of 500 students from 24 U.S. universities found that nearly eight in 10 didn’t even know what to do with a QR code, and 75 percent said they were unlikely to scan one in the future; and 

In March 2012, Forbes downplayed the importance of the 14 million Americans in the comScore report who scanned QR codes in June 2011, claiming they represented a mere 17 percent of the 82.2 million Americans who had smartphones in July 2012.

The story differs elsewhere. In Japan, for instance, 76 percent of those surveyed in 2009 said they knew what QR codes were and could scan them.

Despite the conflicting data, Watkins isn’t slowing down. He wants to create software that automatically generates QR codes and campaigns for North American groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in a centralized fashion, though he’s a long way from getting there.

“I’m prepared to build the software program,” he said. “I can’t fundraise and get in all that stuff until we get more of the media and society to know what QR codes are.”

[Source: September 27, 2012 By Hilton Collins]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What is Child Grooming?

Child Grooming refers to an act of deliberately establishing an emotional connection with a child to lower the child's inhibitions in preparation for child abuse. Child grooming is undertaken usually to carry out sexual abuse and other child exploitation like trafficking of children, child prostitution or the production of child pornography. 

In the U.S. child grooming is considered a federal offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2422. the provision of the section reads as:

(a) Whoever knowingly persuades, induces, entices, or coerces any individual to travel in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or Possession of the United States, to engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

(b) Whoever, using the mail or any facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States knowingly persuades, induces, entices, or coerces any individual who has not attained the age of 18 years, to engage in prostitution or any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title and imprisoned not less than 5 years and not more than 30 years. 

Protecting Your Children 

As a preventative measure, it is recommended to always pay attention to your child and the people in your child’s life. Do not yield the responsibility of your child to others without question of their character and intent. Parents should know their child’s teachers, coaches, day care providers, youth group leaders, their friends’ parents/caregivers, and other significant adults involved in their lives. Ask questions, and more questions, and more questions if needed. Stay involved and aware and make it a habit to make unannounced visits. These are the best strategies to protect your child from sexual predators. 

It is also critical that you talk to your child, using age appropriate language, about appropriate and inappropriate touch and interactions with others (relative and non-relatives; adults and other children/adolescents). Also teach your child to recognize grooming behavior. Most importantly teach them to trust you with their problems and assure them through your actions and not just your words that he can always bring his problems and concerns to you at anytime without penalty or criticism. 

If you suspect your child is being groomed, immediately limit your child’s interactions with the individual in question. In a safe and supportive environment engage your child in a conversation, using age appropriate language, regarding their relationship and interactions with the individual. If you discover that your child has been sexually victimized contact legal authorities immediately for further action.

The above recommendations can be challenging to implement and at times may feel awkward, but it is better to be safe now than sorry later.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Discussion: New Tools to Find Missing Children & Runaways Are Vitcims Too!

A recent article in the WestDesMoinesPatch.Com prompted this discussion with writer Beth Dalbey: 

Child Quest International (CQI): Technology and a variety of new resource have helped protect and locate missing children. Many things have changed, and mostly for the better. Unfortunately, we still have a serious issue with regards to our nations missing children (all missing children are victims: stranger abductions, family abductions, runaways, and throwaways) and the even uglier side of human trafficking that these children may become trapped in, especially "runaways". Working together is vital. Our communities need to be aware of the other resources available to them other then law enforcement. Law enforcement does a great job, but they cannot do it alone. The help of orgs like ours, Child Quest International, NCMEC, parents like Noreen Gosch and vigilant community members all provide and integral piece in the efforts to find those who have gone missing. The aid of social media has taken us into a new era of information dissemination. The ability to "share" information and photos across large populations and geographical areas in seconds is a tool like no other. Now, even QR codes play a role in finding children. Have You Seen Me? 

Beth Dalbey: You make a good point. Even if they are not abducted into human trafficking, runaways can end up in prostitution and pornography because it's a means to survive. 

CQI: Exactly, and far too often they (meaning runaways) fall to the bottom of the totem pole in the priority category because they are looked at as they "choose" to runaway... but what would you do if you had a father who molested you and a mother that didn't care enough to protect you? Harsh example, for a harsh reality. But the fact remains the same, when children run away from home with the intent to stay gone, it is often because they are faced with unstable family situations where leaving is the only option to them. And again, there are many reasons for runaways, but that doesn’t make them any less important. All missing children are victims in our point of view. 

Beth Dalbey: What are some of the changes society needs to make to move them up on the totem pole? 

CQI: That is not an easy answer. Awareness to the issue is definitely the first step, but from there it gets a little more complicated. We cannot just us law enforcement as the scapegoat, which is what tends to happen with a lot of families feeling like the cops “aren’t doing enough” or “don’t care”. I can’t tell you how many times we have heard that from left-behind families. But that is simply not the truth, law enforcement cares. Sadly though, they are faced with issues like homicides, stranger abductions, budget cuts, and other obstacles that hinder their ability to assist the runaway population more in-depth. The unfortunate part is that there are not a lot of resources available to these children outside of the limited law enforcement resources. And the resources that are out there are not promoted enough so that all families are aware of them. Furthermore, many are nonprofits with shrinking budgets and may one day disappear themselves! The groups that are there to help need funding to facilitate recovery operations, surveillance/investigations and reunification resources, especially since organizations like ours never charge a fee to those missing or their families for our services. But there is still more to be done. There are laws that need to be changed to make it easier for law enforcement to pick these children up and get them off the streets. Public perception of these children needs to change as well. As a community, we need to be aware of our resources and support those organizations that are making a difference in keeping hope alive for these children.