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Russia: Networked Volunteers Save Lives of Missing Children

In September 2010, 4-year-old Liza and her aunt disappeared in a forest area outside of Moscow. Just a few weeks prior to that, fierce wildfires had destroyed forest paths and it was particularly difficult to navigate. Volunteers who found out about Liza's disappearance used the Internet to distribute an urgent call for help. A community of car drivers was the first to respond. Unfortunately, it was too late; Liza and her aunt died alone in a forest.

Liza Alert: Internet-based Volunteer Network

Liza's disappearance and a number of similar cases have triggered the creation of a more organized volunteer community. Liza's rescuers decided to establish a network whose members would engage immediately once a child was lost. The network was called Liza Alert [ru] in order to commemorate Liza, and a reference to the successful United States-based Amber Alert.

Grigoriy Sergeev, one of the network founders, explains how the network was born:

После этого случая целая группа людей начала одновременно говорить о необходимости организации чего-то, что могло бы мешать гарантированной кончине в лесу пропавших. Почему гарантированной? Потому что никто не ищет. Есть в очень малой степени участие тех, кто должен этим заниматься. Милиция прекрасно отметилась на Лизе: два дня вообще не искали, потому что был День Города, а когда искали суть поиска сводилась к работе одного-двух человек по вялому опросу населения. Это была имитация деятельности.

After this [Liza's] case a whole group of people [volunteers] started to talk about the necessity of creating something that will prevent a guaranteed death of the missing people. Why guaranteed death? Because no one is looking for them. Those who are responsible to look for them, are not active. In Liza’s case police reaction was remarkable: for two days they hadn't been looking for her because of the City Day celebrations, and once they started looking for her, the search was conducted by 2-3 people who were just questioning people if someone had seen her. It was an imitation of activity.
Saving of a child by one of Liza Alert volunteers. Photo courtesy of Liza-Alert.org

Saving of a child by one of Liza Alert volunteers. Photo courtesy of Liza-Alert.org

Lizaalert.org, the hub of the network that consists of 1,300 members, now provides information on recent cases of missing kids that need to be searched for immediately. The core of the network consists of its 50-70 most active members who are involved in search activities on a weekly basis.

There are, however, many more people that sympathize with Liza Alert; when a search is taking place, around 20,000 people visit the site every day. Many of them join the operation even if they are not registered as volunteers. Irina Vorobieva, one of the activists and a journalist at Echo Moskvy, explains the role of the Internet in the process:

Когда появляется «потеряшка» – люди выезжают на место для поисков, но основная работа идет в Интернете. Люди на сайте формируют экипажи, созваниваются, распространяют информацию о том кто пропал […] Телефоны и карты мы тоже находим в сети. Интернет – это база на которой это все возникло, построилось и работает.

When we find out about a new “lostie” [a lost person], people go to the spot to search, but major work takes place online. On the website people assemble teams, share contacts, distribute information about the missing person. […] We also find maps and phone numbers online. The Internet is where this process started, where it has been built and where it now operates.

So far, Liza Alert volunteers have conducted about 50 searches. According to Grigoriy Sergeev, one of the founders of the network, it was a response to the “vacuum of action” by the government:

Это абсолютная инициатива снизу без какого то единого центра. В результате появления этого интернет-сообщества, у многих созрело решение, посвятить значительную часть себя этим историям, чтобы дети не гибли.

It is a purely grassroots decentralized initiative. Following the emergence of this online community, many have decided to dedicate a significant part of their time to the search of these missing children, so that the kids would not die.

Main issues: scope, credibility, professionalism

Scope

To make their work efficient the volunteers initially decided to limit their scope of activity geographically and to focus solely on lost children. Otherwise, the network risked becoming overloaded since there are lots of missing people in the country.

Liza Alert activists confess it was quite difficult to act according to these limitations and after some time they expanded their scope of activities, including the search for missing elderly people:

Дедушки и бабушки – это гарантированное бездействие. Кроме 2-3 уникальных случаев, никогда полиция активно не участвовала в поисковых мероприятиях по поводу пенсионеров, которых 10 человек пропало только за последние выходные.

[Missing] elderly men and women – there is guaranteed inactivity [of the police]. Except in one or two unique cases, the police have never participated in the search of lost seniors, but during the last weekend alone we had 10 such cases.

Irina and Gregory also explain that once they get a specific alert about a missing elderly person, they are not able to say “no”, as their refusal could cost a life. At the same time, Irina and Gregory acknowledge that people engage more in the cases of missing kids, than in those of seniors.

Credibility

Liza Alert activists say they often get misleading information. False alert can negatively influence the motivation of the volunteers and cost a life in the future. Therefore they have developed a special method of checking their data:

Первично выезжает туда узкая команда, которая вообще расследует суть события и оперативно выясняет ситуацию. Если ситуация прозрачна – сразу начинается работа. Если не прозрачна – разговариваем с родителями, полицией, свидетелями, кем удается и после этого уже появляется большая  система оповещения. Если мы говорим про лесной поиск как правило через 5 часов после получения объявления у нас уже в лесу человек 20-30.

First, we have a small team that goes out to the location and investigates the nature of the event. If the situation is clear, we start working. If not, we talk with the parents, police, witnesses, everyone we can talk to, and only after that we activate our networked alert system. If we're talking about a forest search, in 5 hours after the alert we usually have 20-30 people [searching].

Professionalism of volunteers

Liza Alert volunteer during search operation. Photo by Sergey Dolya

Liza Alert volunteer during search operation. Photo by Sergey Dolya

Another issue is volunteers’ professionalism. Grigoriy says that they have developed a special set of instructions for searching, since there were no handbooks available from the official emergency services:

Изначально они относятся с большим скепсисом, но когда они видят как это происходит их шокирует организация, наличие такого штаба, количество людей, то что есть оборудование, навигаторы, компасы, рации. Честно говоря достаточно странно, что им до этого далеко. У них было больше времени, сил и средств это сделать.

In the beginning they were very skeptical, but when they saw how we work, they were shocked by how organized we are, the fact that we have mobile headquarters, people, equipment, GPS navigators, compasses and radios. Frankly speaking, it's a little strange that they're far from us [in professional terms]. They had more time, abilities and resources to do that.

Due to the networked nature of the organization, inexperienced volunteers join Liza Alert everyday. As consequence, one of the major challenges is to develop techniques for effective engagement and training of the newcomers.

Relationship and cooperation with government

The activity of Liza Alert fills the gaps that exist because authorities can't search for people efficiently. However, volunteer response is not efficient either unless it is based on cooperation with the emergency services. Data sharing and coordination of search activities could be a “win-win” solution for all sides in finding missing people. The relationships with the authorities, however, are far from being perfect:

Были ситуации когда настоятельно просили не участвовать. Ведь очень часто такие случаи спускаются  на тормозах:  «Пропал…  Ну и… А я один участковый, а там целый лес. Как я его вам найду.» Это ж надо звонить в МЧС, просить их помочь, потому что МЧС у нас не обязан заниматься поисками людей. Причем высокопоставленные сотрудники МЧС в эфире на радиостанции недавно сообщили – нет такой задачи.

There have been situations when we've been asked not to participate. Very often the brakes are applied in such cases: “He is missing… So what? I am the only policemen here, against the whole forest. How will I find him?” In this case the police are supposed to call for help from the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS), even though the ministry is not obliged to search for missing people. A high ranking official from the ministry recently said that it's not their job.

Activists have noticed positive changes, as well:

Григорий: На второй-третий день они видят как мы работают начинают подходят ближе, начинают спрашивать «А вы куда?» и начинается какое то взаимодействие. Но начинаться должно сразу.

Ирина: В той же Смоленской области где погибла девочка двух лет, в следующий раз местная полиция нам позвонила. Прям через несколько часов после того как пропал ребёнок. Еще через несколько часов мы приехали развернули там штаб и еще через несколько часов мы нашли там девочку.

Grigoriy: After 2-3 days of search they see how we work, come closer, start asking “Where are you going?” and the cooperation starts. But it should start immediately.

Irina: In the Smolensk region, where a 2-year-old girl died, the police called us within several hours after another kid went missing. Within a few hours we arrived and deployed the mobile headquarters, and within another few hours the girl was found.

In many cases, however, even previous experience is not helpful, since the authorities are just not interested in helping people. Grigoriy tells us about one such case:

В эти выходные приехали спасатели дедушки искать, зашли в лес на три часа  и вышли с тремя  полными пакетами грибов. Ну у них вообще мозг где? А родственники стоят смотрят…

Last weekend, an official rescue team came to look for an old man; they went into the forest for three hours and came out with packs full of mushrooms. Do they have a brain at all? And the relatives of the missing person were standing and watching them…

Threefold role of networked organizations

The case of Liza Alert demonstrates the triple role of networked organizations. It includes:

  1. Increasing transparency around a specific problem and putting this problem on the local and state agenda.
  2. Putting the issue on the agenda and engaging people forces the government to find solutions for a certain problem thus holding authorities accountable.
  3. If the government is not acting, people use the internet for coordination of collective actions that are able to fill the gap caused by the authorities’ lack of accountability, and solve the problem based on volunteer resources alone.

Transparency

First, the activity of Liza Alert has attracted attention to the numerous cases of missing people, as well as to the style of the authorities’ response. Irina claims that the number of deaths of missing people is close to the scale of a national disaster. The problem is that there are no official statistics, and therefore no one talks about it:

Ирина: А когда разговариваешь с спасителями, которые с нами сотрудничают, они  говорят –  «Так каждый год». Я: «А почему об этом никто не говорит». Они: «А кто – статистики нет.» Поэтому никто не видит проблемы и чудесным образом проблема превращается в ничто.

Irina: When I talk to rescuers that collaborate with us, they say, “It happens every year.” I ask them why no one is talking about it. They respond, “There are no statistics. Who will speak about it?” Therefore no one perceives it as a problem, and miraculously the problem disappears.

Accountability

The second point of the “networked triangle” is the effect networked initiatives have on the authorities’ actions. A partnership between volunteers and traditional media is especially important in this process.

Irina, a journalist herself, says media cooperation is important not only in attracting more volunteers, but also in putting pressure that could cause a shift in the police's response. The police are more likely to cooperate if journalists are around. Once, an appearance of a TV crew (invited by one of the Liza Alert volunteers) saved a boy's life. Here, Irina states there are also positive changes:

Картина реагирования полиции на пропажу детей изменилась за этот год. Потому что они слышали, читали, они знают что будет внимание, они знаю что волонтеру нельзя заткнуть рот.

The way the police are reacting to cases of missing children has changed during the last year. Since they know now that this topic will attract attention, they know that they can't shut volunteers’ mouths.

Grigoriy and Irina say that holding the authorities accountable was one of the major goals of Liza Alert's development. Vorobieva says:

Надо в регионах создать мобильные отряды даже не для того чтобы они там прочесывали лес вдесятером, а чтобы эти десять могли мобилизовать вокруг себя людей, заставить работать полицию, заставить работать МЧС. Чтобы была пружинка которая срабатывает в случае беды. Вот эту пружинку в каждом регионе нам надо сделать.

We need to create mobile units in the regions. The purpose is not even to use them for search, but so that those 10 volunteers would be able to mobilize people, and force the police and emergency services to work. It should be a catalyst that will work in case of emergency. We should create such regional catalysts.

There is also an additional layer to the potential impact of the volunteers. The purpose of Liza Alert is to develop new, more efficient models of collaboration. Sergeev says:

Идеально сделать систему аналог американской «Амбер алерт» которая реагировала бы абсолютно на все пропажи детей с вовлечением всех служб с гигантской сетевой структурой добровольцев во всех регионах которые бы реагировали поисками на исчезновения ребенка. С прекращением замалчивания этой проблемы и с оттачиванием этой системы до того чтобы она работала как часики и пропавший человек находился через два часа после пропажи.

Ideally we would like to create a replica of the American “AMBER Alert” that will respond to any missing child case and engage all possible government services as well as a huge network of volunteers in any region. This means the problem won't be silenced and the system would be perfected and work like Swiss watch, and a lost person would be found in two hours after being announced missing.

Liza Alert activists want officials to recognize that there are situations that can't be handled by the government alone and that volunteers should be appreciated not ignored. Sergeev, however, doubts the authorities’ good will, since they might be afraid of the volunteer movement growing too powerful and independent.

Self-reliance

The third aspect is self-reliance. Putting the problem on the agenda and forcing the authorities to act is not enough. Therefore, in some cases Liza Alert activists have to rely solely on themselves. The internet provides them tools and mechanisms for self-organization and coordination of collective action. It is especially important in looking for elderly people, when the network-based volunteers are often the only ones to respond.

Liza Alert activists are working on the development of professional capabilities, increasing the number of volunteers, as well as on expanding their network geographically. They claim they are ready to train volunteers in the regions. On the other hand, they want to improve their own level of expertise and study international experience. Grigoriy says:

Все это очень важно потому что у нас в стране никто этим не занимается кроме нас, а там существуют целые центры и целые системы.

It is very important since no one is doing it in our country, but there are dedicated centers and systems in other countries.

***

The more professional and powerful the volunteer movement is, the more lives it might save.

The increasing power of Liza Alert and other initiatives raises a problem that no training or experience is able to solve. Volunteers, once empowered by the feeling of saving someone's life, face the dilemma of finding a balance between personal life, work, and their volunteer activity:

Григорий: Я не могу себе позволить бесконечное занятие этим, потому что я должен кормить семью. Однако, понимая то, что пока мы этим занимаемся, многие, кто мог погибнуть, остаются живыми – нет таких весов как-то уравновесить. Это очень сложная история.

Ирина: Я знаю, кто боится, что это съест мою жизнь полностью – этого боится мой начальник и этого боится моя семья. Но, честно скажу, соблазн довольно серьезный заниматься этим фул тайм.

Во всем отряде у каждого, кто занимается поисками активно, есть большие проблемы на работе и большие проблемы дома. И то должно быть большое терпение у семьи, иначе это все плохо закончится. Он встает перед этим сложным выбором – чья-то жизнь или твоя собственная семья,  и этот выбор делает каждый раз по-разному. Но как-то этот выбор приходиться делать.

Grigoriy: I can't afford to work on this project without any limits, because I have to take care of my family. But when you realize that since you have been doing it, many people who could have died are still alive, there is no system of weights that will help you to find a balance. It's a very difficult situation.

Irina: I know there are people who are afraid that this project will entirely consume my life – those people are my boss and my family. Frankly speaking, the temptation to work on it full-time is powerful.

In our team everyone has big problems both at home and at work. And the family should have a lot of patience, otherwise everything will end badly. Everyone has a difficult choice to make – someone's life or your own family, and everyone makes a different choice. But the choice has to be made.

1 comment

  • […] out of Russia that is using online organization to find lost children. Gregory Asmolov wrote an article about this project for Global Voices, summarizing why it has been so effective: The case of Liza […]

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