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Facebook’s new disaster maps aim to improve how organizations respond to crises

Facebook’s new disaster maps aim to improve how organizations respond to crises


Sharing ‘aggregated, de-identified’ data

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Facebook disaster relief maps
Image via Facebook

Facebook is working with three organizations — UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the World Food Programme — on a new maps initiative that aims to improve how communities are helped after disasters.

Called disaster maps, the resource uses “aggregated, de-identified” Facebook data to provide key information organizations said would be most helpful in improving how they respond and provide relief in the immediate hours after a crisis.

Three types of maps are available. Location-density maps show where people are physically located before, during, and after a crisis, and are compared to historical records (like population estimates). Movement maps show patterns of movement over a period of hours so organizations can better predict where to direct resources. Finally, Safety Check maps display where people check in safely following a disaster, showing where help may be needed.

Facebook example of population migration following a disaster
Image via Facebook

This data could crucially change the way relief is provided in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Dale Kunce, global lead for information communication technology and analytics for the American Red Cross, tells VOA News that after a disaster, “We might know where the house is, but we don't know where the people are. Our first reaction may be to go to where the devastation happened, but maybe most people are 10 miles away, staying with families when they reported they were safe. So the place to go may be where they are.”

In the past, disaster response professionals relied on Facebook Live and other video tools to gather immediate information to help inform how and where to allocate resources. On the user side, Facebook currently offers Community Help in conjunction with Safety Check, a feature that lets users find or offer food, shelter, transportation, and other forms of aid.

The company intends to roll out disaster maps for use by governments and additional organizations in the future, promising that “all applications will be reviewed carefully by people at Facebook, including those with local expertise.”

It’s clear that Facebook has a wealth of data on users who agree to use the service, and while the announcement of sharing more user information can raise hackles for some, for now we have to take its word that the data is being shared as stated, and will help those at their most vulnerable.