Facebook to Distribute AMBER Alerts, Perhaps Other Emergency Info

In an interesting tie between government and Facebook, users will soon be able to receive AMBER (America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) Alerts on the site about children abducted in their area. The deal is made possible through a partnership between the company and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. It’s another sign that web services like Facebook and Twitter are becoming the fastest ways to disseminate information to the largest number of people.

The partnership could pave the way for Facebook becoming a medium for disseminating other types of emergency information, such as warnings about natural disasters, product recalls, violent crime, and national security.

Facebook will reveal more details about the program at a press conference being held tomorrow in Virginia on the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Amber Hagerman, whose abduction was the impetus for the AMBER Alert. The bulletins, which are traditionally distributed via television, radio, and through roadside signs, started being sent to AOL users who requested them in 2002. AMBER Alerts are available via SMS, and the Ontario, Canada Provincial Police set up a Facebook app last year to help inform locals about abductions.

The bulletins have reportedly helped save 525 children to date. Facebook previously worked with the U.K.’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center to offer an allowing people to report child predators and other inappropriate behavior on Facebook

Notifications of nearby abductions could potentially be shown as Facebook home page prompts or inserted into the news feeds of users, and could be opt-in or op-out. The news feed would be a particularly effective medium because the bulletins would be visible across different interfaces, such as mobile phones. Since AMBER Alerts often include details about the appearance and vehicles of suspected abductors, getting this information to users outside of their homes is important.

Since so many people are connected to the site, check it frequently, and it can be used to widely forward information, Facebook could become an important way of distributing emergency bulletins. There are some reports that students in lock down across the University of Texas at Austin campus used Facebook to pass along up-to-date safety information during a September 2010 shooting. In the future, it’s possible that governments and other institutions might call on Facebook to help warn people of impending tsunamis or tornados, tainted food products, fleeing suspects in violent crimes, or even terrorist attacks. If news of celebrity deaths can spread so fast, its reasonable to hope Facebook’s viral nature could also serve the public good.

Facebook recently reached an agreement with state and local agencies regarding how the government would interact with the site. The deal facilitates the creation of Pages for these agencies that could distribute community information, and also demonstrates Facebook’s willingness to cooperate with officials. The press conference with implementation details for the Facebook AMBER Alerts will be streamed at 10:30am EST on the Facebook Washington DC Page’s Livesteam app.

Update: Facebook has launched 53 AMBER Alert Pages for the United States and its territories that will distribute bulletins via the news feed. Facebook will contribute 50 million ad impressions toward promoting these Pages.