When was the last time you opened an AMBER Alert?

There was an AMBER Alert in New York/Connecticut recently. The boy that was missing is named Ariel Revello. He is 7 years old, 4'8" tall, has curly brown hair, and brown eyes. He may be in real danger, and my first instinct was to ignore the alert and open Instagram.

How did we get here?

Up until 2 hours ago, I didn’t even know what AMBER alerts were, besides things that woke me up sometimes. I assumed they were bad and related to some sort of national or local emergency, but had no idea of their significance. To better understand what AMBER Alerts are, let’s take a look at how they came to be.

On June 13, 1984, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was formed by President Ronald Reagan. This organization provided a 24-hour toll-free hotline for missing children (1-800-THE-LOST), as well as resources to raise public awareness about ways to prevent child abduction, child sexual abuse, and child pornography.

In 1996, a nine year old girl — Amber Hagerman — was abducted while riding her bike in Arlington, Texas. Four days later her body was found in a drainage ditch. This terrible event resparked the national conversation about the safety of children. In quick succession Amber’s parents formed the People Against Sex Offenders; Bill Clinton signed the Amber Hagerman Child Protection Act of 1996, creating a national sex offender registry; and the KRLD radio station in Dallas, Texas launched the first ever AMBER Alert. This alert became the standard broadcast by radio stations whenever a child had been abducted in the Dallas Metro Area.

Two years later the Child Alert Foundation created the first automated alert notification system, the Abduction Central Alert. In the case of a child abduction, law enforcement was able to automatically send faxes, emails, and pages to front line personnel within a 100 mile radius.

The next four years were filled with big wins for child safety. In 2000, the 106th Congress endorsed the AMBER Plan, which was a partnership between law enforcement agencies and media officials to respond immediately to the most serious child abduction cases. Between 2001 and 2002 both the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the FCC officially endorsed the AMBER Alert system. In late 2002, AOL became the first internet service provider to offer digital versions of the AMBER Alerts through email, pager, or mobile phone.

This flurry of action continued forward to get us to where we are now: AMBER Alerts are sent through the Wireless Emergency Alerts program. These alerts are prioritized over SMS, so there’s less chance for backup when an alert is issued. It’s not mandatory for cell phone service providers to participate in the program, but most large carriers in the United States willingly participate. Because of this participation AMBER Alerts have been hugely successful. Since the first alert went out over 800 children have been rescued and returned to their homes.

In 2014, there were 52 successful child rescues directly because of AMBER Alerts. This is an amazing number. But 186 AMBER Alerts went out.

Can we do better?

This is not an effort to by cynical or morbid, but an honest question. Can we do better? The serious nature of these alerts is undermined by the several contributing factors. While the basis for the AMBER Alert program is heart wrenching, and the initiatives by the above organizations have been amazing, I can’t help but think about the situation I ran into earlier. What led me to be so indifferent to the AMBER Alert I received on my phone?

Let’s take a look at the two notifications I received:

These two couldn’t be more different. Instagram has spent a lot of time and resources fine tuning their conversion rates. A lot of people have been involved in making sure you swipe. The AMBER alert system — on the other hand — is a very formulaic and dry approach to transmitting information. This leaves many people that might be able to provide helpful information in the dark. They don’t know what’s happening, how it relates to them, what to look for, or what to do.

What’s happening?

First and foremost, we need to address what’s going on. When a push notification is sent to a user, there is a fraction of a second to capture their attention. Therefore, context is king. Instagram handles this by using clear and simple language: [user] started following you. I’m instantly aware of why I’m looking at this notification.

Contrast that with the AMBER Alert. Any time one of these alerts is issued, there is a real human life in danger. By bringing the description of the missing child into the alert, you can start to picture the child, and you instantly know that this could be a matter of life and death:

Why am I looking at this?

The next problem to address is making this relatable. What does this have to do with me? The AMBER Alert starts with Trumbull, CT, but I don’t live in Trumbull, so why am I receiving this alert? The alert gets sent to anyone within 100 miles of the area the child was last seen in. Given that information, let’s drop the city name. This allows me to understand the more broad geographic implications of the alert. Also by dropping the city name, we make the alert easier to comprehend at a quick glance:

What should I look for?

The alert is now readable and produces a sense of empathy. It creates a picture the child in my mind, and helps establish the reason for receiving the alert. But now what do I look for? When first looking at this alert, it’s easy to skip over the license plate number because it’s not written for the general public. A quick change to this format, and I now have all the information I need about the situation:

What should I do?

The last piece that is missing in this alert is that I don’t know what to do next. The modified alert sets up context but gives no opportunity to help out. Who do I contact if I see anything? Where can I get more information? What are the next steps?

Google provides a Public Alerts System to help aid in finding missing children. Each page provides key information about the missing child, suspected kidnapper, and updates regularly when new information is available.

However, there’s no way to access this information from the AMBER Alert notification. In the United States there is over 75% smartphone penetration. This seems like a great opportunity to provide a link to more information, given that 3 out of 4 people receiving this alert will be able to open that page on their phones.

Dealing with limitations

The biggest limitation of the Wireless Emergency Alerts is that any alert can only be 90 characters long. Ideally we’d allow for multimedia messages that didn’t have this limit, but when designing for the real world limitations like this are standard. Though, this puts quite a hamper on our message, as its current character count is 199.

The first 11 characters of the message are AMBER Alert. At this point we are mainly concerned with the type of alert. Let’s cut that to just AMBER.

7 year old boy missing, brown hair, brown eyes. 4 foot 8 inches eats up another 63 characters. The main goal for this section was to humanize the alert, so with that in mind, lets shorten it to: 7 year old boy missing, 4'8". Though we lose a bit of the image of the boy, we still have enough to empathize with and want to help.

White Ford Transit Van with plates: C040379 (CT). Last seen in Connecticut is another 74 characters. There’s some extra verbiage in there we can drop, as the key things are: Last seen in CT, White Ford Van, and C040379.

We’ll use a link shortener to save characters as well, changing a link like: http://www.google.org/publicalerts/details?hl=en-US to the much shorter: http://goo.gl/luxeiP. Additionally by using a link shortener, we have a consistent character count.

Lastly, the alert can use em dashes instead of spaces and periods as separators. Using an em dash creates a scannable message while saving valuable characters.

Our reimagined alert clocks in at 88 characters:

This proposed system allows the flexibility of 2 numbers for the age, four letters for the gender, and 14 characters for the vehicle description. Ultimately, the alerts could look like this:

These alerts now work for both smartphones and less sophisticated phones.

Now we have context, the message is scannable, and it’s human. These changes may help enable all of us to become more aware when there is a real human life in danger.

Positive change to prevent real world tragedy

Design is an iterative process. This article is meant to spark conversation around a vital and important topic. The fact that we get push notifications to our phones telling us that a child is missing within hours of the incident is amazing. Many people that care deeply about this issue put thousands of hours into the AMBER Alert system. Ultimately that time was put into making the world a better and safer place.

This was all sparked by a real life situation that happened in New York/Connecticut. Luckily that alert has been called off. Until someone is able to iterate on the work of the current alerting system, please don’t dismiss or ignore these vital messages.


If you enjoyed this article, please ❤ it below. I tweet thoughts like this regularly, give me a follow @theearlcarlson :)

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