Once Was Lost (OWL) is a free app that uses realtime technology to raise awareness about missing persons cases. The app is heavily user-based, meaning it requires a number of people to join in order for it to achieve its intended purpose, which is the quick and safe location of lost loved ones. Whenever someone is reported missing on the app, an alert immediately goes out to all users in the area, meaning not only is all the vital information available, but a prompt search can be conducted.
Recently, Stories of the Unsolved was able to send a few questions over to the app’s creator, Nick Conway, and the host of its associated podcast, Drew Smith. Together, the pair shared their hopes for OWL‘s future, what they aim to accomplish with its release and how the podcast helps to further raise awareness for the cases uploaded to the app itself.
Where did the idea to create the OWL app come from, and what made you want to centre your focus around helping the missing?
Nick Conway: The idea for the app came from an experience I had while attending a large outdoor sporting event. While there, I had a brief and stressful experience of separation from my children. I found them OK, but later on recalling the event I thought there could be some type of app to help individuals in situations like mine, where in a large crowd [someone] could use that mass of people to help locate a lost person – a real-time reaction involving those closest to help recover that individual. It’s an immediate response without delay or hesitation. The recovery of a lost or missing individual requires the quickest and most widespread reaction.
Why should those with a mobile device download and use the app?
NC: Anyone with a mobile device should be prepared in [the] unwanted event they may lose a loved one. Missing, lost, abducted, runaway – anyone could be affected! Therefore, [they] should be prepared. Download and create an account, and in the worst-case scenario your loved one is lost, you can lean on the OWL network to respond to your missing person in real-time and worldwide.
For those unaware, why is it so important to get as much pertinent information out as soon as possible about a missing person, even before the police get involved and/or an AMBER or Silver Alert is issued?
NC: Information is key, and recovering that missing person as soon as possible is a matter of describing the situation and facts exactly. Response is critical and to find a lost person the reaction time is most important. OWL users can alert the network immediately and participants can be aware of those details in real-time.
There are disappearances that police will not open a missing persons investigation for, citing lack of evidence of an abduction, foul play, etc. Are users able to upload missing loved ones to the app, even if the authorities aren’t actively investigating said disappearance?
NC: The app and its alerts are user-driven. The network becomes aware of a situation when a registered member uploads an alert to the network. Immediately, we can begin sharing information on a missing person. Coordination of members could potentially help find that lost person well before local police would even care to become involved.
How has the response been to the app? Have you found many people are using it and uploading information?
NC: Reaction to the app has been positive, although it hasn’t been used to recover anyone at this point. The success of its network is dependent on growing its user base. Only with [a] significant number of users in an area can the app work effectively. Without the public, OWL cannot fly.
What made you want to start a podcast to coincide with the mobile app?
Drew Smith: I decided to start a podcast with the idea of a remote app that would alert people of a missing person in real-time, but when I searched the OWL app came up. So I decided to call Nick Conway, the owner, and we hit it off well and decided to partner. I’d do the podcast and he would run the app?
What are your overall hopes with the app and podcast?
DS: Well, we know it’s only a matter of time before we have enough people on the OWL app, so long as the word-of-mouth keeps up. That is our goal here with you and your readers as well, to hopefully reach a whole new audience of potential OWL app downloaders and podcast listeners, and maybe have a link here for them too, so they know an audio version of the cases is available to hear and they can easily get the vital OWL app.
It’s really for every demographic, as we all know someone with kids or elderly family members who may go missing, and, of course, the app is free to use 24/7, in real-time, including the podcast, which can interview the family or spokesperson right away for additional details.
We have a ton of them each year, here in Florida, as Silver Alerts. Unfortunately, with the AMBER Alert system, there are only a few people the alert system may reach that can help in [the case of] a missing elderly person as a Silver Alert or child as an AMBER Alert. AMBER Alerts have never actually found an abducted child and most people would probably be surprised by that. It’s just a very dated system that means well, but [has] too many hoops to jump through to have someone featured on an alert due to legal reasons. They don’t want to ever send anyone into a dicey situation, but we feel that just as citizen search teams are formed in an event, an OWL network of enough likeminded people would become a better search system that can be deployed as fast as you can load the vital [information] onto the app.
We don’t have anything against AMBER or Silver Alerts. We just feel there is another [method] to be used in conjunction with [them], which is what you see with OWL. We do not ever intend this to replace law enforcement. It’s just a tool that can search much faster. OWL app users can be deployed easier and swifter into a community with about a 40-mile radius of the last place the person in question was seen.
Please feel free to share any other information you feel would be good for readers to be aware of.
DS: There are over 800,000 people each year that will go missing. The vast majority are child runaways who turn into missing persons. That figure is unacceptable when a vast network of OWL users along with other systems in tandem will work. It’s just about getting the message out to the right people who are able to search in their own area if the worst occurs and someone goes missing.
People can simply just go to [the website] and sign up for the app and podcast, then you’re all set in the event your own loved one or another goes missing. We also have a Patreon page, where only $3 a month would go toward keeping the app working 24/7. This is a two-man operation between the two areas. The app is run by Nick and I do the podcast, so it’s very low budget on the production side. But we are here to help people and nothing else, so we know your readers will enjoy the perfect size shows featuring people from right here on your site, until an alert comes through that needs us in real-time, and we have had a few. We were vital in the very first case, which unfortunately turned into a very suspicious closed case of a missing Oregon man. Lots of fishy stuff going on with that, and we enjoyed working with the family.
More information about the OWL app and podcast can be found via their official website.