Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest and deadliest storms in US history, overwhelmed the entire national infrastructure. Displacing almost a million Gulf Coast residents, including thousands of children, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) initially found itself as overwhelmed as the rest of the country’s public and private assistance agencies as it also tried to increase mobile connectivity–a sudden, very useful tool in the performance of its services.
Ordered by the White House through the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to be the clearinghouse for reports of missing children as well as adults in the storm’s aftermath, NCMEC’s Web site, at peak activity, recorded around a million hits per second. “It even took our missingkids.com Web site down for a time,” sighs Steve Gelfound, the organization’s IT Director. “IT operational performance now has much greater impact than ever on a wide range of important components that make any enterprise successful, including the effectiveness of its operational model and its interactions with the public,” says Margaret Tanaszi, Program Manager at IDC.
But Gelfound’s team realized its database and supporting IT infrastructure couldn’t handle the drastic uptick in the number of searches. He also knew that any amount of downtime was unacceptable under these unusual circumstances. So, as the quasi-government agency has done in the past, it turned to its technology outsourcing partners for immediate help.
Together, they not only upgraded IT capacity and increased remote database access virtually overnight, but ended up resolving 100 percent of Katrina-related missing children reports. “We found every one of them,” beams Gelfound.
Blistering Speed to Implementation
Sun Microsystems, one of the organization’s IT providers, rode to NCMEC’s rescue, installing five new servers in a matter of hours to handle the increased volume. Technical engineers from Ingres, a recent spin-off of another outsourcing provider, Computer Associates, helped load-balance NCMEC’s database so it could better handle the exorbitant number of Katrina-related searches.
A hurriedly assembled 40-person telephone operator staff began fielding calls within 24 hours “through VoIP because we didn’t have time to run the lines,” adds Gelfound. “Thank goodness we already were incorporating VoIP and wireless access into our infrastructure.”
Wireless access is a product of the Center’s relationship with Cisco, which provides remote wireless access points, switches, routers, and technical support. “This enabled us to set up a separate, parallel network for Katrina because we had volunteers who didn’t need complete access to our network,” says Gelfound.
“NCMEC can now build a mini-wall around portions of its network so others can’t get in,” according to Bruce Freilich, Presales Consulting Manager at CA.
Virtual Perfection in Finding Lost Children
Founded by Congress in 1984, NCMEC, as a 501(c)3, is the national clearinghouse for the location and recovery of missing children in the United States. It relies on contributions to support its efforts and significant funding from the Department of Justice. In addition to working with the DOJ, NCMEC is a no-cost resource for federal, state, and local law enforcement and prosecutors.
NCMEC, which works in cooperation with the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, credits its IT infrastructure through outsourced partnerships with increased child-recovery rates. In addition to its Alexandria headquarters, NCMEC has eight branch offices located in six states.
According to the nonprofit, the recovery rate for missing children was approximately 62 percent in the early 1990s. Today, NCMEC reports a closure rate on missing-child cases of 96 percent. Of the over 5,000 missing children cases from Katrina, all were resolved (100 percent “found”).
As for the missing adults, NCMEC handled them initially as the National Center for Missing Adults built its organization to parallel NCMEC’s program. When it was ready, it handed the cases over to them. “The success percentage was very high on found adults during our involvement,” says Gelfound.
He says, with that kind of success, NCMEC tends to get what it wants when it comes to technology.
“CIOs have been paying more attention to how the organization’s technology resources are contributing to an enterprise’s success,” says IDC’s Tanaszi. And because of that and his organization’s success, Gelfound says his CFO is taking a more proactive approach in securing the resources needed to keep the enterprise successful, which probably helps explain NCMEC’s outsourcing strategy.
Intimate Partnerships Keep NCMEC on IT Leading Edge
While remaining on technology’s leading edge is a critical benefit to NCMEC, its partners also benefit from the relationship in a variety of ways.
Not only is the organization extremely security conscious due to the nature of the work it does (which also includes being a clearinghouse for identifying victims of child pornography) but the IT department also has security constraints because the government and law enforcement people working there cannot have additional software installed on the machines they use, according to Gelfound.
Providers such as Cisco, Computer Associates, and Sun are just three of the outsourcing suppliers the Center calls upon to keep its network operating at peak efficiency; often on short notice.
NCMEC isn’t the only one that benefits from the partnership, according to Cisco’s Freilich, as the organization serves as a training ground and lab for providers’ engineers and other employees. “We often send new people on our team to cut their teeth there.”
Having these experts in new technology is a blessing, according to Gelfound. “If we need something custom made, it happens pretty quickly due to their proximity. Plus, their presence helps with the new technology absorption rate. At times, it impacts our strategic thinking.”
He adds that the center’s outsourcing partners yield equal benefit because “we’re also a lab for them to develop new products. It’s happened several times as a result of what they learn here.”
Lessons from the Outsourcing Journal:
- If speed to implementation is an objective, outsourcing to IT providers can shorten the cycle significantly.
- In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, three of NCMEC’s IT providers were able to drastically upgrade the organization’s network, create an entirely new “point of contact” operation within in 24 hours and find 100 percent of over 5,000 missing children.
- NCMEC’s partnership with its outsourcing providers enables it to stay on technology’s leading edge and produces an environment for these providers to develop better products and processes.