That Amber Alert Might Have Come From an Ad Exchange

Ad Industry Initiative Uses Impressions for Good

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AOL, AppNexus, Rocket Fuel and xAd aren't just serving up ad messages. The ad-tech companies are partnering with Epsilon-owned Conversant to distribute emergency alert notifications to desktop and mobile devices.

"I would look at this as an advancement in PSA campaigns," said Jason Bier, chief privacy officer at Conversant, who helped spearhead the Federation for Internet Alerts initiative in 2013. FIA is a collective of ad networks and exchanges that sends out weather warnings and missing-children notifications through Conversant's hub, which draws in the alert data through several publicly-available feeds from law-enforcement entities.

Smartphone users have grown accustomed to seeing these messages show up as text notifications, typically accompanied by a vibration or sound depending on their phone settings. The FIA system sends the same messages through digital and mobile ad units.

"It's just using technology for good," said Mr. Bier. Impending tornado in someone's vicinity? In that case, he said, "We'd prefer to serve that person with a tornado warning more than an ad."

The logistics are up to each partner. In one scenario, they can use their existing RTB platforms which Conversant may already connect with, and determine the amount of ad impressions they'll donate for alerts.

"We're basically flexing all our muscles simultaneously," he added. Asked why more of ad networks and exchanges are not involved, Mr. Bier responded, "None of those that we've asked has flatly said they'll never join. I think it's just a matter of time."

In addition to the National Weather Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other U.S. law enforcement organizations, the system intercepts feeds showing missing child alert information from Intrado, a 9-1-1 communications service that provides data on child abductions including children's photos, location of abduction and suspect information. It also disseminates geographically-targeted alerts from law enforcement in other countries which is standardized using the Common Alerting Protocol.

"In an emergency we can have continuity of message so networks across different publishers can distribute the same message," said Mr. Bier.

FIA was founded in 2013 by digital ad firm Conversant and media agency giant GroupM. Conversant, formerly known as Valueclick, has been sending AMBER alerts since 2011. In April 2014, the company convened with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other industry representatives to determine the best way for the digital ad industry to facilitate alert messaging in an era when smart phones are supplanting traditional communications media like telephone landlines, TV and radio. It was then that the partners began building the technology and system that would become FIA.

The result is more than 500 million geo-targeted AMBER alerts sent to more than 100 million devices about 686 abductions. The FIA also sent more than 8.5 million tornado warnings. The FIA has been named the winner of this year's Webby for public service and activism in advertising and media.

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