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, 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.”