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There you are, on a day like any other, standing in a crowd. You reach for your child’s hand, but she’s gone. We all know the panic that follows and the relief when you’re reunited. But what if you’ve been separated from everyone you love and everything you know? As part of its efforts to reunite families separated along Europe’s migratory routes, the ICRC developed an innovative tool known as Trace the Face Corners.

Staying connected with loved ones: a humanitarian need

Family separation is particularly traumatic – and often enduring – for those whose lives are already disrupted by conflict, violence, displacement, and migration.

Knowing about our loved ones – that they are safe, where they are, and, hopefully, when we can see them again – is a powerful primal impulse. Recognizing this as a basic humanitarian need, the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have been helping to search for the missing and to reconnect family members separated by conflict and crisis through the Restoring Family Links (RFL) Network.

Since its creation in 1870, the RFL Network has developed a range of tracing services, and more recently, started providing some of these services online. 2013 saw the launch of the Trace the Face website for helping families separated along the migratory routes to Europe.

This online interface allows users to search through photos of those seeking missing relatives. Once a missing family member is recognized, the ICRC and National Societies assist in reconnecting the family or providing information about their situation.

Bringing the service to those who need it

For the website to be successful, both family members searching for each other need access.

However, many migrants and their families do not know about the service, lack the connectivity required to access the website, or face further barriers of literacy, language, and IT skills. To this end, the RFL Network distributes photos on posters, provides communications materials, such as postcards and leaflets, and promotes Trace the Face on social media. Despite these efforts, in 2017, the website started to lose out on visitors, with around 12,000 fewer visitors per month compared to 2016.

When ICRC RFL Regional Field Officer Martina Tuksa-Seles met with the rest of the Trace the Face coordination group, including seven National Societies, to discuss this problem, the solution soon became clear: make the Trace the Face website more accessible to migrants.

Enter Trace the Face Corners – touchscreen kiosks strategically placed at National Society reception and registration centers to bring the service closer to the people who need it.

The Corners are designed to be easily identifiable, with clear labelling in several languages, including French, English, Arabic, Pashto, Dari, and Somali. Migrants seeking missing family members are instructed how to browse through the photos, and are given the option of publishing their own photo if they wish to do so. They are guided through the process with audio and video, and for those with lower levels of literacy or familiarity with technology, Red Cross Volunteers are on hand to offer assistance.

Cooperation, feedback and an improved tool

In late 2018, nine kiosks were rolled out to National Society reception centers in Italy, Germany, and France as part of a one-year innovation pilot aiming at ensuring proximity and access to the people affected.

“During the first deployment, we noted great enthusiasm from all the teams and their readiness for continued cooperation and regular feedback in order to make the tool even better at the end of the pilot phase,” Tuksa-Seles says.

Through an iterative process responding to direct feedback from the users – the migrants themselves – the innovators are continuing to refine and improve the service to meet targeted needs, especially around privacy.

“We decided to abandon the idea of a booth surrounding a kiosk. It took too much space in the National Society centers and was not solid enough.”

Instead, alternative ways to protect privacy were put in place, including side screens and “do-not-cross” lines for the queue.

In a closely related project, the ICRC is working to further improve the efficiency of the Trace the Face website by collaborating with private sector partners to develop facial recognition algorithms that can automate searching and matching, thus speeding up the tracing process.

Currently, the Trace the Face website includes photos of around 4,900 people seeking missing loved ones, and assists in reconnecting an average of one family per week. As the website becomes more accessible and better known – in part through Trace the Face Corners – these numbers will surely grow.

We’ll keep you updated on Inspired… Watch this space!