What VST does is very important to society. It's terrible not knowing what has happened to your loved ones. Since we started using this app, I am certain we have saved lives by being faster at the scene, by having a clearer view of what has happened and [being able] to search in the right direction so we can actually bring people back alive.
Veteran Search Team Uses GIS for Missing-Person Searches
Veteran Search Team
Esri Netherlands Startup Partner
Blue Team Intelligence is a consultancy that offers geospatial solutions for government agencies and private organizations to support their intelligence management and analysis.
Veteran Search Team, a nonprofit volunteer group that aids police in missing-person searches, lacked geographic intelligence tools and a communications platform.
Blue Team Intelligence developed a geospatially powered command-and-control app to support Veteran Search Team volunteers with intelligence as well as technology for planning and executing a search.
The app improves search mission efficiency and situational awareness. This saves volunteers time and improves communications between commanders at the command post and teams in the field.
In the Netherlands, an estimated 40,000 people are reported missing each year. A missing person is someone who has unexpectedly disappeared and whose status as alive or dead can't be confirmed. A person may be missing due to voluntary choices, for nonnefarious reasons such as an accident, or because of a crime.
In 2017, the Veteran Search Team (VST) foundation was formed to help police during missing-person searches. Of the 2,600 volunteers, 85 percent are veterans of the Netherlands Armed Forces, while others are former police, fire, and other uniformed professionals. The foundation aims to bring volunteers' expertise into crisis events and support police-driven search efforts, helping families find their missing loved ones.
"What VST does is very important to society. It's terrible not knowing what has happened to your loved ones," said Bas Ooink, owner of Blue Team Intelligence. "The first 24 hours are very important; you're always fighting against time when you're searching for someone."
Ooink connected with the foundation in 2018 serving as an intelligence officer. At the time, he introduced volunteers to ArcGIS technology and did geospatial analysis for them. In 2021, Ooink started Blue Team Intelligence and offered to help build an app using geographic information system (GIS) technology. The app would help with communications and organizing search efforts.
"The idea was to have them start the app, create a new project, and start planning and doing their intelligence [tasks]," said Ooink. "Now they know exactly where everybody should be and where they should start their search."
In the past, when VST volunteers gathered to begin search efforts, they used paper maps for their planning and intelligence. But paper maps couldn't provide the geographic intelligence that VST commanders needed in order to know where to search for the missing person. Also, the printed maps were easily damaged and often of poor quality. Moreover, volunteers often relied on their personal communication devices to coordinate their search efforts. These challenges made it difficult for the volunteers to have situational awareness to coordinate search efforts.
The foundation needed a digital app to help commanders and search teams communicate in the field. This app would require geographic analysis capabilities to help focus team search areas. Volunteers needed digital maps that had access to data layers like hydrology, roads, and bridges and could integrate with travel-time web maps. Also, the app's data security would be important, given that sensitive information about the missing person would be shared with VST volunteers.
Ooink leveraged ArcGIS Online, cloud-based software for creating and sharing interactive web maps, to build the foundation of the app. By using ArcGIS Online, Ooink ensured that the data security requirements were met. He also developed automated project workflows using ArcGIS API for Python.
For the web app itself, Ooink turned to ArcGIS Experience Builder, a tool that helps users create custom web apps—including layouts, content, and widgets—without extensive coding. The new app has a dashboard with maps that show data layers—including height, hydrology, soil, vegetation, and infrastructure—based on military standards. The maps also incorporated information from light detection and ranging (lidar) models; aerial imagery from ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World; and widgets like Street View Editor, which provides location context to decision-makers who are not out in the search areas with the teams.
The app's dashboard, created using ArcGIS Dashboards, contains a timeline with intelligence information and a pop-out widget with a list of items such as reported sightings of the person, last known whereabouts, and police reports. Another pop-out widget contains all the information on the missing person—their image, last known information, if they appeared on security cameras, and more.
"The widgets are actually very helpful for the situational awareness for the people in the command post. They know exactly what has happened until now with the missing person and where the missing person has been seen along the way," said Ooink.
VST commanders can also build polygons for possible search areas and then assign these areas in the web app's map to field teams. Commanders can then share this information with search teams via ArcGIS Field Maps. The Field Maps app's GPS and snail trail features help VST commanders see what areas have been surveyed. Command post staff use this information to plan out what remaining areas to search and how long it will take.
"The web app, which provides all these apps and information is for the command post to do the planning, brief the teams, and to communicate with the teams during a search," said Ooink. "And the teams themselves use Field Maps, which practically has the same views as the web version, but with less information for them so they can focus on their search and communicate with the commander in the command post."
Commanders can also create incident reports in the web app, export them, and share the reports with police forces.
For foundation staff, it is vital that they can locate a missing person. "Whether the person is alive or dead, it is important we bring someone back so their family can close this chapter and mourn if their loved one has passed," said Ooink.
Volunteers using the command-and-control app say it helps with search mission efficiency, communications between commanders in the command post and teams in the field, and situational awareness. This saves time and lives.
"Since we started using this app, I am certain we have saved lives by being faster at the scene, by having a clearer view of what has happened and [being able] to search in the right direction so we can actually bring people back alive," said Ooink.
Ooink wants to enhance the app to have offline capabilities. He also wants to use webhooks and drone images to continue improving situational awareness. Both updates would make the app easier for other sensors and would provide more analysis tools for telecom. He is also exploring using ArcGIS StoryMaps in the future to communicate the outcome of a search mission with local police forces.
"From my standpoint, this is a starting point—this app is all about communication between people in the field and people in the office," said Ooink. "There's always a discrepancy between what the people in the office see and how the people in the field experience it, and that always brings some sort of miscommunication."
In considering the future, Ooink believes the solution he created for Veteran Search Team can benefit a wide array of international search and rescue organizations as well as local police, security agencies, first responders, and intelligence-driven institutions like engineering firms.
"We can build this type of solution for any organization that needs communication between office staff and field staff," said Ooink.
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