Seizing new opportunities to improve through digitalization, the ICRC’s Central Tracing Agency (CTA) and the broader Family Links Network continue to help families around the world. For more than 150 years, it has helped restore and maintain contact among separated family members, search for the missing, and support their families, continuously adapting its means to the evolving reality. Digital technologies can play a significant role in making the services and search more accessible, faster, safer and more effective. Yet with the use of any technology, the missing persons and their families, and their protection, must remain the primary focus.
In an ever more connected world, people still lose contact and go missing. Natural disasters, armed conflict, migration and other humanitarian crises continue to cause thousands to suffer the trauma and pain of sudden separation from loved ones every year.
In 2020 alone, the Family Links Network – made up of the ICRC and National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies worldwide – registered more than 49,000 new missing persons bringing the total number registered by the Network to over 210,000. This figure is just a fraction of the reality as many go unreported.
Throughout its deep 150-year history, the CTA’s techniques and methods are continuously enhanced to better serve those who seek its assistance. One such area of opportunity is exploring digital technologies, explains the Head of CTA, Florence Anselmo.
“We are applying technology intelligently, in areas where it can ‘do more than human’, bringing us potential leads faster, or providing new directions.”, she says. “Digitalization offers tremendous potential. It is however not an end goal: technology is to be leveraged only where meaningful and where it brings value to the Family Links Network’s mission.”
New approaches; better, safer solutions
As it has evolved, technology has always played a part in the Family Links Network but mostly as a facilitator and catalyst, not as a replacement for human contact, control, or judgement. The intention is always to make it faster, safer, and easier for separated family members to obtain information on one another.
During the past century, early computer technology, radio broadcasts and mobile messaging have all been used to reconnect families faster. In recent years, the Trace the Face initiative was launched providing greater agency for persons separated as a result of migration. It allows persons looking for loved ones to have their photos uploaded to a website which can then be searched by anyone seeking to find their missing relatives, and allowing them to search through all photos already posted.
Today through its Digitalization Program, the CTA is seeking ways to further improve access to services and to streamline the search process. It is exploring how to improve the ways information is stored and analyzed, offering the CTA and its partners new ways to exchange, providing safe and secure ways of sharing data. It is taking forward concrete identified opportunities, such as leveraging artificial intelligence and facial recognition, all awhile managing the risks brought about by digitalization.
“It can seem easy to develop a digital solution but developing a digital solution which we ensure would do no harm to those we are trying to help is not as evident,” says the Program Manager Valdet Saiti. Therefore, extreme caution is employed to ensure sufficient technical, organizational, and legal safeguards for all built solutions. An approach known as ‘Data Protection by Design and by Default’ is applied every step of the way. This is congruent to the ICRC’s foundational ‘Do no harm’ principle, which is of fundamental importance for everyone part of the process.
Of course, digitalization is a means, not an end. First and foremost, the work of the CTA is about the people it serves. But new technologies certainly have the potential to improve data management and enhance collaboration across organizations and geographical borders.
“We are not trying to upend proven methods, or scrap field-based search actions, nor loosen the strict protocols being applied,” Saiti says. “Rather, it is about leveraging the potential of technology to support traditional efforts to connect families.”
Therefore, incorporating digital solutions is not only about optimizing standard processes but improving overall outcomes. The solutions are intended to complement standard field work, helping obtain answers more quickly and supporting families more reliably and securely. Crucially, critical decisions remain where they have always been: in human hands.
Access, communication, data and collaboration
While full digitalization of services is not the goal, finding a good balance between human interaction and digital solutions is at the heart of solutions developed by the CTA. Reporting the case of a missing person, adding new information or getting updates are all technically possible digitally, but there needs to be a balance between that and what is best done in direct contact with staff and volunteers.
“We must remember that this is a delicate process, and families want to have human contact and support along the way,” says Anselmo, stressing that new technology cannot replace this most fundamental need. And of course, where people do not have access to smartphones or the internet, the Family Links Network continues to offer its services in the traditional manner.
Technology also shows enormous potential in maximizing the use of existing data and connecting to external sources which might hold clues to the whereabouts or the fate of a missing person. The increasing complexity of today’s world means that information is often scattered, either geographically or across different actors. Simply put, the information could already be out there but is yet to be found.
Obtaining information requires collaboration between actors along with the technical solutions that can access, compare, and cross-check data securely and efficiently. For this reason, the CTA is developing a digital matching solution which helps connect and analyze data managed by multiple actors. Previously relying on heavy manual work, the new solution presents likely matches in a matter of seconds.
Connecting data is only one of the advantages offered. These technical solutions master multiple alphabets, compare spelling variations to match a name, and have the potential to identify possible resemblances when comparing two photos. Through smart algorithms, potential matches are brought forward. These matches are then evaluated by humans who determine the next course of action. In parallel, field workers continue to physically search, such as exploring the last known places of missing persons. The solution is expected to help guide and focus the field search, not replace it. Locating missing persons and assisting in restoring family contact stays with field workers. The value of which remains and will remain central.
While the solution is currently being tested, the CTA plans to extend it to National Societies, new external partners and data sources. It has the potential to greatly expand the scope of searched data globally.
Proper management of data being key in the search for the missing, and as part of its long-standing efforts to support States in this endeavor, CTA has developed Resolve Platform. It is a web-based solution offered to its partners – governments, experts, agencies, organizations etc. – to help them appropriately and securely record, process, store, archive and share information on missing persons and human remains. It is designed to empower and equip those tasked with searching for missing persons, as well as mortuaries or institutions tasked with managing and identifying the dead.
The Resolve Platform helps along two complementary lines: 1) to properly account for the missing and support search efforts and 2) to properly manage information on the dead and support human identification efforts. By standardizing information and offering a custom-built data sharing function, the Platform is able to ease collaboration among the relevant stakeholders. In the future, the platform will include an artificial intelligence component able to compare missing persons data with unidentified human remains and other relevant data to generate a hypothesis of identification.
Innovation in application
“None of this technology is revolutionary”, concedes Valdet Saiti, “but there is innovation in its application.”
“How we tailor it is what makes it special,” Saiti says. “Our process landscape and the rules we base our solutions on often call for high customization. In many cases, we take what exists and develop it, adjusting it to our very specific humanitarian setting.”
“What is also truly innovative is how the CTA has the potential to foster collaboration among the diverse actors in the humanitarian ecosystem, allowing further exchanges on a missing person’s case within a secure environment,” Anselmo adds.
All of these developments have a single aim: connect more families, bring more answers, and be there for those waiting for answers. For a person who has lost track of a loved one, it is about helping them restore contact. For others, it is about providing clarity on the fate or whereabouts of their loved one. For the humanitarian field worker, it is about optimizing the workflow and providing support – while maintaining the humanity of the service.
New technologies have the potential to boost the capabilities of the CTA, but it is important to recognize that, as Anselmo puts it, “the digital revolution is not going to make the issue of missing people go away. Digital tools are just tools, but with technology and people working in concert, more of the missing will be found and more of the separated reconnected.”
The ICRC Innovation Facilitation Team thanks the CTA Team for this blog contribution. For more information on the Resolve Platform, you can follow this link .