Putting Out Fires: Ric Elert, Conversant Help People in Need

Ric Elert, president at Conversant, serves on FIA’s board. Conversant is one of FIA’s top partners.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

And where there’s fire, there’s now geo-targeted alerts urging people to steer clear of the affected area.

Ric Elert knows the drill.

Elert, president of Conversant, a personalized digital marketing agency, has helped douse the flames on potential disasters alongside the Federation for Internet Alerts (FIA) for years.


FIA uses Conversant’s technology to locate and warn those in danger.

“Back in the old days, if the store’s on fire, everyone grabs a bucket to go help,” said Elert, who was recently named to Crain’s Chicago Tech 50, highlighting those on the cutting edge of technology. “It’s not just, ‘Where’s the firemen?’ And FIA is the easiest form of that. It’s making your capabilities available to save a kid.”

FIA began as a partnership between Conversant and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in January 2011 with the intent to prevent child abductions via geo-targeted AMBER Alerts.

“Conversant started out as personalized advertising, so we’re always big on one-to-one communication,” Elert said. “When it started, our thought was, ‘How do we give back to the community? And what are the ways to enable our precision messaging to help people?’”

Big Data, Big Results 

After roughly three months of testing, Conversant propelled FIA to go live with its first AMBER Alert, a child abduction in Florida. The results were staggering.

Within an hour of the system kicking on, FIA President Jason Bier received an unexpected phone call from the NCMEC.

“We were serving so many AMBER Alerts in Florida, we brought down their entire system,” Bier said. “So we had to stop the AMBER Alert, and this is what made us realize how powerful this thing is. It was a wakeup call.

“We turned it off, fixed the problem, cached the photo locally and took the load off of the 911 system. The child ended up being saved and everything was fine.”

Since then, stranger abductions in the U.S. have fallen to nearly zero, and FIA’s partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization to deliver weather warnings. Additional collaborations continue to transpire across the globe.

Elert, who now serves on FIA’s board, is not surprised that other associations are keen to get involved with the nonprofit.

“You want to make a better world,” Elert said. “You want it better for your kids. I serve on a lot of boards for university, high school and mentor programs. If you can help one kid be better, that kid can impact 20 people.

“A would-be child abductor knows that the minute the alert goes out on this platform, everyone will be aware of it. It’s not just helping recover the child, it’s helping prevent something — whether that’s a child abduction or an unexpected storm from wreaking havoc. And that’s the biggest thing, trying to make a better world for everyone to live in.”

Written by Logan Malloy, copywriter at Conversant.

An AppNexus Developer Helps Launch Alerts to Canada

It’s safe to say George Zhao has a full plate, but he’s yet to bite off more than he can chew.

Zhao, a client insights analyst at AppNexus, is helping the Federation for Internet Alerts (FIA) push boundaries, save lives and expand reach while moonlighting as the lead developer of the AppNexus Alert Hub, an ad-tech system that helps FIA deliver geo-targeted warnings and alerts.

“Truthfully, because (FIA) is a passion project, it often bleeds into my evenings and weekends,” Zhao said. “But I’m happy to spend time doing something that, for me, feels meaningful.”

Zhao’s work continues to be instrumental in growing FIA’s scope. For the last several months, he’s worked on bringing real-time warnings and weather alerts to Canada, a project that went live in July.

“After the first phase of integrations that were mainly directed at the National Weather Service, Canada was the next obvious choice to integrate,” Zhao said.

Setting up the expansion into Canada, however, presented some unique challenges.

One issue Zhao needed to solve was how to map Canadian locations. In the United States, the National Weather Service operated on the FIPS code system, which identifies counties and county equivalents throughout the country.

In Canada, those don’t exist.

Instead, Canada uses its own set of codes (the SGC), for which reliable conversion into Canadian Postal Codes were not available. AppNexus targets on postal codes.

“We were a little stuck on that point until (FIA President) Jason Bier was gracious enough to have the FIA budget help us procure a mapping database from Statistics Canada that we could leverage to complete that task,” Zhao said.

“We’re now covering all of Canada for a whole bunch of different alerts, which is pretty great,” he said.

The lack of mapping codes may not be an issue moving forward thanks to another addition to the platform. Zhao added the ability to target geo-fenced areas by utilizing the latitude and longitude data passed on from the CAP alert. He was able to upgrade the geo-targeting system using some “very beta parts” of AppNexus’ core platform to enable this functionality.

While this feature is only available for mobile devices sending latitude and longitude data, it should make alerting much more accurate for these devices in the future.

Zhao is especially excited about this new capability. This allows FIA to target a very local geo-area when an emergency strikes.

“It’s been a fun couple of months,” Zhao said. “At the end of it, we’ve come out with a system and made some tweaks to make it even more extensible in the future.

“I’ve always been interested in doing something meaningful that felt tangible with technology and this was the perfect opportunity. So when I had the spare bandwidth and time, I could dedicate myself to it.”

Zhao credited his managers and colleagues at AppNexus for allowing him to be flexible during work hours, enabling big launches such as the Canada project.

“Our managers and staff around the company have been super supportive with helping me allocate time to pursue this,” Zhao said. “AppNexus as a whole, and I’m not just saying this as a corporate push, we do have a genuine drive to really do these kind of projects we see good in.”