Facebook’s new Disaster Maps will help relief groups find people in need when time is critical

About 2 billion people use Facebook, many through its mobile app with a location services enabled. Beyond geotagging selfies, location services will now help identify where groups of people need assistance after a natural disaster like an earthquake, fire, or flood. UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies are tapping a new Facebook service called Disaster Maps to help coordinate their response. “The first thing you need … to understand is the situation on the ground,” says Molly Jackman, a public policy research manager at Facebook. “Where are people moving? How are they evacuating? Do they need food? Do they need water?”

In 2014, Facebook introduced the Safety Check feature, but people don’t use it consistently enough to provide detailed information, says Jackman. So Facebook is adding two more layers of data to Disaster Maps: where people are at the moment (versus where they typically are), and the direction people are moving. “It can help organizations figure out where they should be thinking about sending food and water in the future,” says Jackman. What if a lot of people disappear from Facebook because internet access is knocked out? That’s also useful information, she says.

Facebook will be tracking overall numbers of people without identifying individuals, says Jackman. “What we really want is that bird’s-eye view of, how groups are moving, the patterns of movement,” she says. Facebook will expand Disaster Maps access to more organizations and even governments in the future, she says.