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Homeless reconnect via facial technology

China Daily by He Qi, July 12, 2017 Adjust font size:

Homeless shelters in Shanghai are using facial recognition software and new media to help reunite vagrants, beggars and lost seniors with their families.

Last week, police took Wang Yongquan, 92, to a center in Huangpu district because he appeared confused and was unable to remember his address. It took workers at the shelter just 20 minutes to identify him using a facial recognition system and contact his relatives, who lived nearby.

"We used to have to search for personal information in a handwritten book and check printed photos for matches," said Kang Qingping, a shelter worker. "Now, it's more efficient. We send 95 percent of the people home, compared with about 80 percent before."

The system was installed in mid-2015 and includes images of anyone who has sought help at the center within the past five years. Wang, who had visited four times before, was one of five people it identified this year.

"We have around 24,000 people stored in our facial recognition system," Kang said. "After uploading a photo, the system will pop up the top five matches by similarity and also include the person's information, fingerprints, history and family contacts."

The Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau runs 16 shelters across the city. Together they helped more than 20,000 people return home last year. The Huangpu shelter accounted for about half. About 6 percent were seniors and the rest were juveniles and migrant workers.

Shelters are also using the internet more, through social media and websites.

In April, Xinhua News Agency reported that the Huangpu shelter had helped a man reconnect with his family after two decades. The 72-year-old, surnamed Liang, was brought in by police and could only remember that his hometown was Taizhou, a city in Zhejiang province.

Social workers got in touch with news website Toutiao, which sent a notification to registered users in Taizhou. That led to his daughter getting in touch. After a DNA test proved positive, he was accompanied home on the train.

Liang's mother, who is 95, had said she thought she would never see her son again.

Kang, the shelter worker, said that such people are usually helped in a traditional way-listening to their accent, searching personal belongings, asking questions and cooperating with public security officers.

Before being identified, people can stay in the shelter. About 37 vagrants are there now. Among them, several are from other countries.