Innovation that matters, courtesy of Twitter

Yesterday, I took a brief break at work and tuned into Twitter. One of the first tweets I saw was an Amber Alert with a request to retweet it so that others would see it.

A moment later, Twitter user @Pistachio posted “Thanks @dmitrigunn and @joshlarson for help with Amber deets. Josh notes: current Amber alerts are HARD TO FIND online. This sucks.”

I took that as a challenge and consulted the oracle…err, Google…and quickly found the Amber Alert page on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children‘s website, which I tweeted, along with the URL for the page with details of the Amber Alert being broadcast (thankfully, the child has been found, so I don’t have to provide that URL any more).

@Twitteratti then wondered “@Davidsinger just struck me, are amber alerts “on” twitter? would seem like a good candidate.”

I checked the obvious Twittername, @AmberAlert, but it had been taken by someone named Amber (and had only been used once), which I mentioned in a tweet.

Then I remembered that @IkePigott had once posted about plans for using Twitter to relay details of evacuations (he works for the Red Cross), so I asked him if he knew if Amber Alerts were on Twitter. He didn’t know of anywhere, but said “@davidsinger – In fact, you could create a Yahoo Pipe that amalgamates the various Amber feeds, and make an Uber-Amber Feed for Tweeting.”

That made me go back out to the Amber Alert site to look for a feed — there wasn’t one, which seemed odd.

Then I remembered reading a Larry Magid column in the San Jose Mercury News (yes, on dead trees!) where he mentioned that he was an unpaid advisor to NCMEC. So I dropped him a quick email asking “Can you use your influence on NCMEC to create an Amber Alert RSS/Atom feed?” 20 minutes later, I got a note from him saying “I passed this on to NCMEC’s COO with a recommendation that they consider it seriously”, and this morning, I woke to another note saying “I got a note back from NCMEC. They will implement an RSS feed. More later.” (By the way, I’d never corresponded with Larry before this.)

Elapsed time, start to Larry’s first reply: 50 minutes. And the note relaying NCMEC’s “yes” came only 11 hours after that, at 3:33am Pacific Time.

I don’t think it would have been possible to make something like this happen in such a short time without social media like Twitter (yes, my correspondence with Larry was by old-fashioned email because I didn’t have his Twitter username and because I wanted to write more than 140 characters, but if we’d been in the same circle, I would have used Twitter without a second thought). The ability to collaborate in public, in real-time, was essential — as was the Amber Alert and @Pistachio’s observation that finding alerts was difficult, neither of which was directed to me.

One footnote: while this was going on, another user, @princess_belle, pointed out that there was, indeed, a Twitter account which tweeted Amber Alerts: @missingchildren; but it only had 90 followers (now 107). Much later, I found out that @NateRitter had created that account and the system to take the NCMEC’s email feed and convert it to tweets, and I urge you to read his posting about the system and why he made it.