How Facebook helped restore family links after the Nepal earthquake

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Facebook Safety Check

Users see how many of their Facebook friends are in the affected area and how many are safe.

Following yesterday’s earthquake in Nepal, Facebook activated “Safety Check“, a feature that helps friends and relatives quickly find out whether their loved ones are safe.

Safety Check was originally launched in October 2014, and was mainly based on experiences gained during the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.

The idea is very simple: In case of a large scale emergency, Facebook can use the information it is constantly collection about its users to determine who is likely to be in the affected area. It then asks these users to confirm whether they are safe and shares that information with their friends. Alternatively, friends can also report their friends as being safe. People can also say “I’m not in the area”. In addition, the application shows whether a person him/herself or a friend has marked him/her as safe.

Safety Check is a dormant Facebook feature that is only activated when necessary. One thing that I had been curious about since the launch was how well Facebook would be able to determine whether someone was in the affected area.

According to the original press release:

“We’ll determine your location by looking at the city you have listed in your profile, your last location if you’ve opted in to the Nearby Friends product, and the city where you are using the internet.”

Facebook Safety Check

The application also shows clearly whether people have reported themselves as safe or whether others have done so for them.

Indeed I quickly heard from two former colleagues who were in Nepal: One of them lives permanently in Kathmandu but was actually on a plane when the earthquake happened. In his case, Facebook assumed he was still in Nepal, because his phone was off at the time of the quake. In the absence of current information, Facebook took his home city and/or his last location, which was at the airport, to include him in the group of affected people.

The other person I know normally lives in the UK but was in Nepal on a trip. In his case, Facebook used the IP address of his last login to estimate his location.

Why this is relevant

Anyone who has ever been in a situation where family members or close friends are in danger, knows that finding out what happened to them is one of the first things on your mind. Not knowing is not only a source of great anxiety, but it can actually be dangerous if you yourself are also close to the affected area:

Think of a father who knows that his daughter was at a shopping mall downtown when the earthquake struck. If he doesn’t know what happened to his child, he will probably run to the shopping mall to find out. By doing so he can put himself at risk and he will not be at home to look after the other children when a strong aftershock occurs. He will also try to call his daughter every 5 seconds, thereby accidentally helping to crash the phone network.

On the other hand, we have now seen in a number of disasters that internet connections frequently remain functional (if slow) even when phone and SMS networks are down – to a large part because many people open their wifi networks to let others use the internet.

Using social media is also much more efficient since one “I am safe” update will reach all of his/her friends, making multiple calls unnecessary, thus reducing the load on the telecommunications infrastructure further.

Why this is better

Of course there are also other systems to find out whether friends and family are safe. Google for example has its “Person Finder“. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has been providing tracing and restoring family links services for many years and local government authorities as well as embassies are also very much involved in these tasks.

However all of them require that a (distressed) user finds out about these services and actively registers or gets in touch with them. That is a lot to ask of someone who just survived a disasters. Facebook’s Safety Check on the other hand is part of the normal Facebook application that s/he is already familiar with. This reduces the barrier to share and receive information significantly which in turn reduces the load on the other, more sophisticated, systems like the Red Cross’ tracing program. In this way applications like Safety Check can provide clarity in many of the easy cases, freeing up resources for the difficult ones.

What are your thoughts on Safety Check? Please share them in the comments.