When natural disasters strike, people generally have two options: stay or flee.
Either way, you can bet they’re keeping their phone with them.
Facebook has been capitalizing on that behavior since last June when it
launched Disaster Maps, a feature produced by its Data for Good division. Facebook had already introduced Safety Check, which earned kudos for allowing
people in crisis zones to signal they’re safe. Soon after that widget debuted in
late 2014, however, Molly Jackman and Chaya Nayak, two public policy research
managers at Facebook, sensed that disaster responders were desperate for what
Jackman calls “better situational awareness”—real-time data that shows where
the most vulnerable people are located.
To generate Disaster Maps, Facebook takes time-stamped snapshots of users’ geographic coordinates to show where they’re moving. As a result, Disaster
Maps provide aid groups with near real-time data visualizations of how users
react as a calamity unfolds, allowing for a more dynamic response—where to
stage resources, how to evacuate those who are stuck, and how to reach folks
who check in as safe but are nonetheless uprooted.
The service gathers account signals into population heat maps, revealing
when and where people cluster via a shared dashboard that only Facebook and
vetted disaster response partners can view. Facebook app users don’t need to do
anything but have their (charged) phones with them and the location setting
activated. Their data is aggregated and anonymous: The program scrubs the exact identity associated with each signal but still tracks movement, allowing for
hourly updates on sheltering and evacuations. (If you don’t want your location
used for Disaster Maps, simply turn off location services in the Facebook app.)
So far, the tech giant and various
external relief teams have deployed
Disaster Maps during more than 100
worldwide crises that have occurred
in the past year, including hurricanes
Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the California wildfires, a cyclone in Chennai, and a volcano eruption in Bali.
The emergency supply group Direct
Relief used the feature to help guide
distribution of more than 400,000 respiration masks to various emergency-operations checkpoints during the
Southern California fires. After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, causing an island-wide blackout in late
September, both the Red Cross and
NetHope compared Facebook activity
directly before the storm with population maps and community health
information to figure out, based on
signals showing where people had
gathered, who might need help first.
“In the past, whichever voice is the
loudest makes you say, ‘Well, I need to
make sure I respond over there,’ ” says
Frank Schott, NetHope’s vice president
of global programs. “Now we can see
with great certainty which areas are
lit up [on the Disaster Maps readout]
and which aren’t.”
About a dozen nonprofits, in-
cluding the World Food Programme
and UNICEF, have committed to the
service. Unfortunately, the only way
to enhance the application is to run
more tests during actual disasters.
“It’s a back-and-forth process,” says
Facebook’s Nayak. “They’re using the
data and figuring out where it’s helpful, and then giving feedback we are
able to build into our products.”
BY BEN PAYNTER