“To make the world a better place“ — how often did you hear that from companies and startups?
There are way too many entrepreneurs who say that, but are they really doing it? Or it’s just a buzzword to get your attention and sound good for the public?
I want to share a story how a small, local Latvian IT company created a project that already helps to save people’s lives and changing the way how rescuers search for missing people.
In the summer of 2017, a five-year-old boy Ivan Berladin went missing in Liepaja. On the 10th day of searching, he was found but, unfortunately with no signs of life. More than 9000 people were searching for him all over Latvia — Military, Police, Municipality police, Rescues and firefighters, volunteers, relatives, and Bezvests.lv organization but were unsuccessful.
That was the most prominent and shocking search of a missing person in Latvia’s history.
“That moved us, and we decided to help Bezvests.lv and all similar organizations with their vital mission, so it would never happen again.”
As was reported by the police Ivan died on the 7th day of the searching mission. We all had 7 days to find him alive, but the miracle didn’t happen…
How could this happen in the modern world? Why several thousands of people couldn’t find one five-year-old boy? Maybe if more people were involved, then the result could’ve been different?
People of Latvia were hurt and touched deeply by this tragedy, as well as me and Chili Labs team. I have discussed the idea with Alexandrs Orlovs and decided to contact the local volunteer organization called Bezvests.lv to develop a mobile app that can notify people in Latvia when somebody goes missing. It took less than a day to get a response from them that they like the idea and would like to meet us.
When we met with Alexandr Faminski and Anton Shishko from Bezvests.lv team, we realized that this is just the tip of the iceberg. They told us that they are in a desperate need for software that can make search operations more productive.
What went wrong
Together with Bezvests.lv we have identified possible causes why searching for Ivan was not efficient. First of all, six different organizations were involved in the rescue mission but had no single point of coordination and communication.
Organizations and rescue mission headquarters had no way of knowing whether the volunteers or other groups completed (searched the area) the searching task. If they would have software to track where people walked, it would give rescues proof and evidence that the area was searched properly.
If rescue headquarters, volunteers and police had a way to show evidence and clues on the go, it would save hundreds of hours in communication. Without a need to physically walk to show clothing and other findings to relatives in the headquarters to identify.
Lastly, rescuers were still using paper maps as the primary navigation tool and walkie talkies for groups of volunteers coordination. It was impossible to high-level view areas that were checked by search groups. That led to “blind spots” on the map. Also, the coordination between groups and information sharing was inefficient and taking too much time.
What could we do:
We realized that a mobile phone is a perfect tool for search operations, as it has a GPS tracker, internet connection, camera and a communication device in one. Plus, it’s always with you!
Chili Labs took the mission to create software that would turn your phone into searching and coordination device.
Chili Labs team knows how to make great mobile apps, but we knew nothing about searching for the missing people.
Volunteers from Bezvests.lv organization were enthusiastic and listed features that they required the most.
One more issue is the security of the data, as not all the volunteers are trustworthy. There were cases when people were performing some criminal activities and then acted like volunteers to misdirect and confuse the search party. We had to keep that in mind and prevent malicious actions.
In order to make a useful app and really help rescues in their hard work, we’ve dived into the job of rescues and found out how the search missions are performed.
The key to a successful app is a constant application to reality, it should be useful and work correctly in the right environment. As soon as iOS and Android alpha versions were ready it was decided to field test them.
Fortunately, Bezvests.lv organization performs training and education missions for their volunteers, so we went to the winter forest with them. -20C frosty day created perfect conditions to test apps efficiency and battery consumption. The test indicated lots of issues that we would never found out just be sitting in our cozy office.
Realised that there are major improvements needed for battery consumption, GPS polling times and GPS overall preciseness (later on, we had to figure out a solution on how to filter the phone requests to the closest cell tower and do not draw it as a users trail as well as improve overall data validation, aggregation and filter out incorrect coordinates from GPS modules).
As the test was performed in the woods, in most of the cases you will not have internet or it will be very poor. We have found a smart and seamless way on how to work with no or minimal internet and still have relevant & synchronized data for users and admin.
At the start of the project, we knew almost nothing about how searching for missing people is performed. During the training sessions our people learned — how to sweep the area, identify, report the clues and walk in single file, what are the conditions, blind spots, and approximations that we need to take care of.
After the real sessions with rescues, we’ve deviated from our initial plans. It helped a ton on how to make better UX and focus only on these functions that are essential for volunteers and rescues.
We’ve implemented admin panel part that helps bezvests.lv admins to overview real-time map with a high-level view of all search mission participants in order to coordinate them in an efficient way. To make sure whether they are staying on course, doing the correct task and checking the right region.
One more advantage of the platform is that it allows to see completed trails of each individual user, so administrators can have a clear view of blind spots on the map.
Finally, admins can view pins attached to exact GPS location and seen in the admin platform, so that people in headquarters can decide to narrow the search area and send more people, K9 unit, drones or extra groups to check this particular area.
For people just like you and me
While the app’s functionality is mainly for the rescues, we’ve thought of some other ways on how regular people just like you and me can help with searching for the missing people. Each person can passively help by spreading the information about a missing person.
Even more, when a person goes missing. People who are willing to help can check the surrounding areas and that will significantly increase the chances that person will be found alive.
Missing people list
The platform helps to inform app users about people who are currently reported missing or lost. The list is formed by local police or volunteer organization in order to prevent abuse of a platform.
Each profile consists of personal description, photo, identifying signs and last seen location. There is a fast reaction button, so you can act and send any available information about the missing person, such as locations, clues.
This functionality is available even to the people who downloaded the app but do not want to register. Just by opening the app, you already can help!
To those who want to contribute a bit more, the app provides the functionality to setup a notification area to get notified about missing people in your chosen location (workplace, home, etc.)
In case if a person is reported missing near the location, all people within notification area will get instant push-message with: “Person went missing near you” with image, quick information, persons identifying mark and last known location.
By informing a large number of people to just look around, the chances that the missing person will be found are much greater!
The event was covered by most major Latvian news and media organizations such as Delfi, LTV, Первый Балтийский, LNT, TV3, TvNet, LA.lv.
For media, our good friends — Tribe Riga created touching stories and photoshoots. The purpose of it was to shock people so they are aware of the problem. Photoshoots and stories were related to missing people, kidnapping and trafficking. We’ve created an informative landing page and published it as — www.bezvests.lv/app. With that, we have informed the wide audience on app existence and people will download it.
The thing that keeps us going — Bezvests.lv uses our platform for every search since it’s launch. It means that we’ve made software is useful and helps them to do their uneasy job better. There are feasible results that make us very proud:
4550 unique users
29 searches performed
5 people found alive
To The Rescue platform
When the platform was released, we’ve got huge media attention, people were mentioning their countries, volunteer organizations and inquiring do we plan to further develop it?
My facebook post about the story of this project (in Russian) exploded by shares, likes, and comments, never in my life we had so much attention.
After all that, I have started to google and read the materials provided by people.
I have understood that this app has a huge demand in the world and it can save lives not only in Latvia but worldwide. We’ve talked with all the people who worked on the project and understood that our mission is not over… It just starts.
We are in a position to help these people be found! This is how the idea of a global platform “To The Rescue” was born.
Then came pitching on the stage of TechChill in Riga, signing up of Lithuanian charity project Missing.lt and further platform functionality extension.
Integrated with Atlas drones
Personally, I believe that drones and autonomous robots are the future of missing people searching. It’s something that military and special forces are using already. Luckily, in Latvia, we have one of the most innovative autonomous drone companies in the world.
We’ve met and agreed to join forces for the good cause. Our platform supports the search of people with autonomous drones.
Drones proved very useful in rescue missions and searches. It is an efficient way on how to search people in the woods, in the night missions or searching in the fields and large territories, that is hard to search by traditional methods.
The integrated drone is equipped with a heat-detection camera, that can be used for searching people in the woods. In the night missions or searching in the fields, roads, and water. It is a hard task to search these large territories by traditional methods.
This is the real case of how drones help to find alive people. The person that was detected by the heat camera was an elderly woman with dementia, who lost in the woods. If not for the timely detection and immediate help from volunteers she would not survive the night.
Our platform supports Atlas drones, displays complete flight route, precise location on where the pin was taken, where the drone was directed and where heat cameras were pointing. Also, each rescuer can see in their mobile app drones current position on the map for the faster reaction in case of finding someone in danger.
We have huge plans for autonomous robots and drones. Neural network creation with ML, data segregation from the heat detectors, making snapshots from the drones automatically. calculate the probability that it is a person or not, in order to give the operator as much information as possible.
The next big plan would be to have a trail with a timeline and drone’s checked terrain in the admin panel. Depending on the acceleration of a drone, altitude and camera angle with an overview in time. It will be done mostly to have a retrospective where the drone went and what he did not check, in order to avoid blind spots.
SOS Button — for emergency situations
This functionality is needed by the elderly, parents, and people with special needs. In Latvia alone, there are more than 500 000 people in the age of retirement, people with dementia and children who require extra care and attention.
SOS button will allow relatives and close people to take action in case person who they care about is in danger and need help.
By holding the SOS button for 3 seconds, a person will notify the police, Bezvests.lv and a person who you trust that something is wrong and immediate help is needed.
The latest GPS location, the battery level will be transmitted and be updated every 30 sec — 5 minutes depending on phones current battery level.
How it works
First, filling in personal data about you, name, surname, age, special needs (like insulin or wheelchair), so that police and Bezvests.lv are aware of what they should take with them on a rescue mission.
Then you take a selfie to look the same as you look in real life. It’s done because we all like to have beautiful images, but here the main issue is to be recognized.
When all the data is gathered platform generates a unique link for sharing with relatives or someone who will be “in case of emergency person”, that can be shared via SMS, WhatsApp, etc.
By clicking on the link it will open the Bezvests.lv app to accept/decline to be someone’s “Emergency person” and fill in the rest of the data.
Once it’s done both people are connected and can be sure that person who you trust will take care of you if there is a need.
By the way! Thanks for reading this far, we hope you care for missing people problem the same way as we are.
You can help us by spreading this article or by telling your friends, boss, and colleagues about our platform and together we will save someone’s life.
When we established a company together with Alexander, we never imagined that we will create a charity project that is going to save lives. Even more surprising for us become the fact that there would be many developers, QA, and designers who would think the same!
Huge kudos to all people who helped us on this journey! Your energy, free time and drive are what made this project see live!
Tairs, Anatolijs, Andrejs, Sandis, Rihards, Arsens, Vjaceslavs, Anastasija, Vadims, Alex, Darja and many many more people!
Special thanks to Vjaceslavs Kreidikovs for co-authoring this article. You rock!
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