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Facebook Wants To Use Its Data To Identify People In Need After Disasters

Facebook’s new Community Help API will aggregate user data–from location to posts calling for a specific type of aid–and funnel it to disaster-relief organizations like the Red Cross so they can better target their aid.

Facebook Wants To Use Its Data To Identify People In Need After Disasters
[Photo: Stuart Ramson/AP Images for Facebook]

When the American Red Cross deployed to Houston after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in late August, it knew a lot of people were in need, and there was a lot of work to be done. The question was: Where to dive in first?

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At its second annual Social Good Forum on November 29 in New York, Facebook revealed a new Community Help API that will enable disaster-relief nonprofits like the Red Cross to access public Facebook data, and figure out where to target their aid.

Naomi Gleit [Photo: Stuart Ramson/AP Images for Facebook]
“The genesis for all of our disaster response work came from what we see our users doing naturally. When there’s a crisis, people come to Facebook to learn and share information, to see if their friends and family are safe, and also help with the recovery efforts,” says Naomi Gleit, Facebook’s VP of social good. Seeing the way people flocked to the platform in the aftermath of a crisis inspired Facebook to create first the Safety Check feature in 2014, which enables people to mark themselves safe during a disaster, and then, earlier this year, the “Community Help” hub–a classified-ad style section of the site where locals in an affected area can post requests for help, or offer up goods and services to those in need. The company also rolled out Disaster Maps, which uses Safety Check data and other publicly available data pulled from Facebook–location information, for instance–to develop an aggregate picture of an area after a disaster.

[Photo: Stuart Ramson/AP Images for Facebook]
Facebook provides some examples of how those features have proven helpful on the ground. After Harvey, for instance, brothers Austin and Nathan Seth saw a call for aid on Community Help and were able to rescue 20 people who hadn’t yet been reached by official disaster relief. And in Puerto Rico, Jono Anzalone of the Red Cross described how the Disaster Maps illustrated where the most severe connectivity outages were in the island, and directed his organization to install amenities like satellites there first. “In the old days, we’d have to drive around for weeks to figure out where services were needed,” he said at the Social Good Forum.

But the idea for the new Community Help API, Gleit says, was really prompted by their partners, specifically the Red Cross and NetHope, which Facebook has approached to be the first organizations to pilot the new API. “They both spoke to that a lot of times, they don’t know where to start, and they expressed to us that they wanted a way to make that easier,” Gleit says. “We have the data, the data is public, and we know who the user in need of help is, where they’re asking for help, what kind of help their asking for, and the specific post in which they’re asking for help,” she adds. For Facebook, it was just a matter of connecting all that data with the organizations that could do something with it.

After a disaster hits, Facebook will generate a single Crisis Response hub that will combine its existing post-crisis features, along with donation opportunities, to streamline post-disaster actions for users. For nonprofits, the Community Help API will act as something of a funnel for all of the data collected through Community Help.  The Community Help API will create a dataset for nonprofits, which will be able to see not only how many people are calling for a specific type of aid–food, for instance–but also, because Facebook’s posts are geotagged, where they are posting from.

While NetHope and the Red Cross will be the first to work with this data, Gleit expects it will soon scale up to more disaster-relief organizations. For now, Gleit adds, Facebook will not be sharing the contact information of the users who are posting for help with the nonprofits. “That’s such a sensitive issue,” she says. However, the nonprofits will be able to access the post itself, as well as the comments, where users in need, Gleit says, often post their phone numbers. As the API scales up, though, more contact-information sharing is something she could see Facebook making available.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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