Show­ing Res­cuers Where They’re Needed Most

Dis­as­ter Maps Face­book

Fast Company - - World-Changing Ideas - BY BEN PAYN­TER

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 emer­gen­cy­op­er­a­tions 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, in­clud­ing 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.”

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