Did you see Facebook’s Safety Check feature recently? Did you use it?

Following the recent earthquake in Nepal, Facebook activated “Safety Check“, a feature that helps friends and relatives quickly find out whether their loved ones are safe. Safety Check was originally launched in October 2014 and was mainly based on experiences gained during the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.

The idea is very simple: In case of a large scale emergency, Facebook can use the information it is constantly collecting about its users to determine who is likely to be in the affected area. It then asks these users to confirm whether they are safe and shares that information with their facebook friends. Alternatively, people can also report their facebook friends as being safe and those marked safe can see who marked them. People can also say “I’m not in the area”.

Safety Check is a dormant Facebook feature that is only activated when necessary. One thing that I had been curious about since the launch was how well Facebook would be able to determine whether someone was in the affected area.

According to the original press release:
“We’ll determine your location by looking at the city you have listed in your profile, your last location if you’ve opted in to the Nearby Friends product, and the city where you are using the internet.”

Indeed I quickly heard from two former colleagues who were in Nepal: One of them lives permanently in Kathmandu but was actually on a plane when the earthquake happened. In his case, Facebook assumed he was still in Nepal, because his phone was off at the time of the quake. In the absence of current information, Facebook took his home city and/or his last location, which was at the airport, to include him in the group of affected people.
The other person I know normally lives in the UK but was in Nepal on a trip. In his case, Facebook used the IP address of his last login to estimate his location.

Users see how many of their Facebook friends are
in the affected area and how many are safe.

Why this is relevant
Anyone who has ever been in a situation where family members or close friends are in danger, knows that finding out what happened to them is one of the first things on your mind. Not knowing is not only a source of great anxiety, but it can actually be dangerous if you yourself are also close to the affected area:

Think of a father who knows that his daughter was at a shopping mall downtown when the earthquake struck. If he doesn’t know what happened to his child, he will probably run to the shopping mall to find out. By doing so he can put himself at risk and he will not be at home to look after the other children when a strong aftershock occurs. He will also try to call his daughter every 5 seconds, thereby accidentally helping to crash the phone network.

On the other hand, we have now seen in a number of disasters that internet connections frequently remain functional (if slow) even when phone and SMS networks are down – to a large part because many people open their WiFi networks to let others use the internet.
Using social media is also much more efficient since one “I am safe” update will reach all of one’s friends, making multiple calls unnecessary, thus reducing further load on the telecommunications infrastructure.

facebook safety check blogpost photo 2
The application also shows clearly whether people have
reported themselves as safe or whether others have done so for them. 

Why this is better
Of course, there are also other systems to find out whether friends and family are safe. Google, for example, has its “Person Finder“. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has been providing tracing and restoring family links services for many years and local government authorities, as well as embassies, are also very much involved in these tasks.

However all of them require that a (distressed) user finds out about these services and actively registers or gets in touch with them. That is a lot to ask of someone who just survived a disaster. Facebook’s Safety Check on the other hand is part of the normal Facebook application that most people are already familiar with. This reduces the barrier to share and receive information significantly which in turn reduces the load on the other, more sophisticated, systems like the Red Cross’ tracing program. Facebook’s Safety Check can provide clarity in many of the easy cases, freeing up resources for the difficult ones.

What do you think about Facebook’s Safety Check? Let us know by commenting below or tweeting at us @TechChange. This post originally appeared on Social Media 4 Good

Interested in learning about other ways technology is being used in disaster response? Join us in our upcoming online course on Technology for Disaster Response that begins on June 22.

About author

Timo Luege
Timo Luege, TC103: Technology for Disaster Response Facilitator

After nearly ten years of working as a journalist (online, print and radio), Timo worked four years as a Senior Communications Officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Geneva and Haiti. During this time, he also launched the IFRC’s social media activities and wrote the IFRC social media staff guidelines. He then worked as Protection Delegate for International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Liberia before starting to work as a consultant. His clients include UN agencies and NGOs. Among other things, he wrote the UNICEF “Social Media in Emergency Guidelines” and contributed to UNOCHA’s “Humanitarianism in the Network Age”. Over the last year, Timo advised UNHCR- and IFRC-led Shelter Clusters in Myanmar, Mali and most recently the Philippines on Communication and Advocacy. He blogs at Social Media for Good.

It may be difficult to see the relevance of 3D Printing beyond maker labs, but its potential to help in international development, and especially humanitarian response should be explored further.

In 2013 alone, there were more than 334 natural disasters around the world resulting in more 100,000 deaths. While the numbers decreased in 2014, in 2015 we are already seeing the devastating effect of the earthquake in Nepal. Not only do natural disasters claim lives, they also disrupt the supply chain, making it difficult for those affected to access basic goods and services. While it may not be applicable in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, 3D printing can help with recovery from a disaster by filling the gap in the supply chain.

3D printing is changing what you can produce and where you can produce it, making it a solution that could meet the needs of people after a humanitarian crisis.
Here is why:

Low cost
3D printers are no longer out of our reach. As they are becoming more sophisticated and affordable and many patents are expiring, there are now a wide range of consumer 3D printers available for purchase. Field Ready launched a pilot in Haiti where they test-manufactured a variety of umbilical clamps, enough to supply a local clinic for a month. Along with that, they also printed a prosthetic hand, items to repair and improve the printers, butterfly needle holders, screwdrivers, pipe clamps, and bottles. Being able to 3D print medical equipment on site can save costs in purchasing and transporting them from outside, allowing the funds to be used for other important resources that need to be delivered.

Not only can 3D printers manufacture basic supplies at a low cost, they are also portable so they can be easily transported anywhere there is a need. Many supplies and materials are delivered to disaster affected areas from off-site, creating wait time and possibilities of the supplies getting damaged in transit. It can be a great relief to know that you can print basic necessities like medical tools, or materials to construct a shelter on-site before more permanent supplies are delivered to you.

Immediate correction
Communication can be difficult during a crisis, and sometimes relief delivery of supplies may not fit the requirements of the needs. In this case, it takes more time and money to correct the situation. With a 3D printer, you can immediately change the design of the product you are imagining and test print multiple versions in a short time until you end up with your desired final product.

While the solutions may sound exciting, we have to be mindful of the fact that disaster-stricken places may not have resources needed to run 3D printers. Electricity, human capital, and availability of raw materials are just a few potential barriers. So, organizations like Field Ready are exploring solar powered 3D printers and have already tested a basic curriculum to teach locals how to design items and use the printers. While there is more to learn on what is possible with 3D printing, the possibilities it offers for humanitarian response are endless.

We will be exploring topics like this and other ways 3D printing is being used for social good, as well as hear from experts who are already using 3D printers in this context and can see its potential for society, in our upcoming course on 3D Printing for Social Good.

There is still time to apply, so I hope you can join us!

Photo credit: Lokesh Todi

On Saturday morning, I woke up to numerous messages on whatsapp and facebook from my friends in India asking me if my family was safe. After listening to a voicemail from a Nepali friend based in Boston, I found out about the earthquake that had hit my country. It didn’t take long after I turned on my computer to see how big the devastation was. My heart sank to my stomach and I was in tears as I mindlessly added credit to my Skype account and repeatedly dialed my parent’s mobile number.

After multiple tries, I was able to get in touch with my family. While I cried throughout the entire call, I was reassured that they were all safe. Fortunately, my family survived this terrible tragedy and was able to stay safe in tents in open spaces near their neighborhood during the more than 100 aftershocks. Unfortunately, however, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal has swallowed up whole neighborhoods, villages and along with it thousands of people. The death toll is rising as we speak and is estimated to reach around 10,000.

Being this far away from Nepal, I feel very helpless. But technology has allowed me to stay connected with my family and other Nepali communities helping respond to the disaster:

Free Calls to Nepal
Shortly after the earthquake, many phone companies and messaging apps started providing free calls to Nepal. Viber, Skype, and Google Voice are allowing free calls to mobile and landlines in Nepal along with many other phone companies like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and others. This may seem like a small gesture but for a Nepali living abroad, it is a huge relief to be able to constantly contact family members and people requesting and responding to the crisis during this tragic time.

Numerous mapping communities have deployed their teams online to map the crisis in Nepal so that the pleas for help can be detected and resources delivered.

Mapping of damages in Nepal
Map of Damages in Nepal from the earthquake created by SBTF on MicroMappers

I have joined two Atlas Corps Fellows, Medha Sharma, and Luther Jeke to team up with Standby Task Force to help map the affected communities in Nepal by using MicroMappers. Medha and I have reached out to our Nepali networks in and outside of Nepal to help advise the SBTF team by relaying information about ongoing requests for help or offers of assistance. We are also helping translate Nepali tweets, facebook updates, and news articles so that they can be mapped. We have recruited more than 100 Nepali expats and residents to help us with this effort.

Two days ago, I was able to call Dr. Anil Shrestha in Bir Hospital to notify him that we saw his request for a list of medical supplies through Facebook and found a donor willing to provide them. We have connected the two parties and are awaiting confirmation from Dr. Shrestha that he has received the supplies from the Kathmandu airport. You can read about the Standby Task Force’s other small successes here. If you would like to join the SBTF team or have experience living in Nepal and know the community, please email me at samita@techchange.org to join this effort.

Kathmandu Living Labs is leading the mapping efforts on the group in Nepal, but you can also join the mapping effort for Nepal relief with Maptime DC, Tomnod, or Humanitarian OpenStreetMap.

Online Fundraisers
Many organizations and individuals have started fundraisers online to allow the global community to help in Nepal’s recovery.

Two of the alumni from my high school have started a fundraiser on Indiegogo that will direct the funds to local NGOs that may not have connections outside of Nepal to raise a lot of money.

Facebook has launched a campaign to match donations of up to $2 million to the efforts in Nepal. Phone companies have made it easy to donate to the earthquake relief in Nepal through your mobile phones:

  • AT&T customers, text “NEPAL” to 864233 to make a $10 donation to UNICEF
  • T-Mobile customers, text NEPAL to 20222 to donate $10 to Save the Children
  • Verizon customers, text “REDCROSS” to 9999 to donate $10 to The Red Cross

Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, are playing an important role in the response to the earthquake in Nepal too. Because of a shortage of manned helicopters, the effects of the earthquakes in the most rural parts of Nepal are still unknown, and this is where drones will step in, allowing manned helicopters to continue with rescue missions.

Here is a drone footage of Kathmandu after the earthquake taken by Kishor Rana’s drone.

UAViators founder Patrick Meier said that if you have a drone and want to help, get in touch with the Humanitarian UAV Network and read the Network’s Code of Conduct to help with this effort.

This is the worst earthquake to hit Nepal in 80 years, and the many pictures online show the devastating effect it had on my country. The damages are worst in the areas that have not yet been reached by media or rescue teams. The consequences of this tragedy will affect my country long after the media turns its attention away and we need all the help to rebuild.

If you are a mapper or own a drone, please volunteer your time and skills and join one of the online communities. You can also donate online. You don’t have to go to Nepal to help, in fact, please don’t, unless you are a trained professional for crisis situations. You can do your part to help Nepal with the help of ICTs from wherever you are.

If you are interested in learning how social media and technology is helping in disaster response, join us in our upcoming course on Technology for Disaster Response that begins on June 22.

What does humanitarian response look like today? With so much information available, how can we use big data effectively for humanitarian efforts?

Joins us on May 5 for a free webinar with Patrick Meier to chat about his new book, “Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing Humanitarian Response.” Join the conversation and hear Patrick’s insights on his latest book.

May 5, 2015 at 10:00 – 11:00 am EST

Patrick Meier

Patrick is an internationally recognized thought-leader on humanitarian technology and innovation. He directs QCRI’s Social Innovation Program where he develops “Next Generation Humanitarian Technologies” in partnership with international humanitarian organizations. His new book “Digital Humanitarians” has already been endorsed by Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, UN, World Bank and the Red Cross.

Patrick also founded/co-founded CrisisMappers, Digital Humanitarians, MicroMappers, Humanitarian UAV Network and the award-winning Standby Task Force. He has a PhD from The Fletcher School, Pre-Doc from Stanford and an MA from Columbia. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Times, Wired and Mashable. Patrick’s influential blog iRevolutions has received over 1.5 million hits. He tweets at @patrickmeier.

Watch Patrick’s TEDx Talk: Changing The World, One Map At a Time.

We hope you will join the conversation on May 5. Sign up now!

by Timo Luege, TC103: Technology for Disaster Response facilitator

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all public social media messages in a disaster would come with a flag that identifies them as relevant? The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is trying to pave the way for that with the brand new Hashtags Standards for Emergencies.

UNOCHA Hashtag Standards for Emergencies

The document builds on experiences gained in the Philippines where a set of standard hashtags such as #RescuePH or #ReliefPH have become so commonly used, that the government recently endorsed these as “official” disaster response classifiers to help identify needs. OCHA is now trying to elevate this system to the global level in the hope that we will start to see more consistency across countries and disasters. If successful, this hashtag standards could help disaster responders and their supporting software systems identify needs more quickly and reduce the amount of time needed to find relevant messages in flood of updates.

OCHA proposes three different types of social media hashtags:

  1. Disaster title hashtags. This type of hashtag (e.g. #Sandy) would be used by anyone to generally comment on an emergency (e.g. Hurricane Sandy) and would not be actively monitored by response agencies.
  2. Public reporting hashtags. By suggesting a specific hashtag that citizens can report non-life-threatening emergency items they see (e.g. #311US for broken power lines or a damaged bridge in the USA), we would be making sensors of the entire population. The resulting data could be scanned, mined and filtered to the relevant responding agencies.
  3. Emergency response hashtags. By providing a standard hashtag to trigger emergency response, based on local standards (e.g. #911US for the USA), we would enable citizens to tag content that is absolutely critical.  It would also enable responders to set up dedicated social media monitoring tools and channel the resulting information into their already existing mechanism(s). Social media would become an official information source.

(source: verity think)

I think this is great initiative and governments should pick up the ball and use this document as guidance for their own national strategies. That national authorities make this their own is essential because it can only work if the affected population knows about these hashtags in advance of the disaster and if the hashtags have been localized.

The graphic the report uses to illustrate the idea for the Ebola response is a good case in point:

Standard Hashtag

The suggested hashtags seem pretty straightforward until you take into consideration that Guinea is French speaking, meaning that people there probably will use something like #EbolaBesoin instead of the English #EbolaNeed.

Of course that would still be a huge step forward, since it would increase consistency even in cases where an emergency spans multiple countries and languages. After all, a limited number of hashtags that are used in multiple languages is still much better than no system. But it also shows that this document is not so much a blueprint as a concept study. It is now up to governments and other national disaster response organizations to make it work.

Interested in learning how social media and other technologies can help with disaster response? Enroll now to lock in your early bird rate for our Technology for Disaster Response online course that begins June 22.

This post originally appeared in Social Media for Good

About the TC 103 facilitator: Timo Luege

Timo Luege

After nearly ten years of working as a journalist (online, print and radio), Timo worked four years as a Senior Communications Officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Geneva and Haiti. During this time he also launched the IFRC’s social media activities and wrote the IFRC social media staff guidelines. He then worked as Protection Delegate for International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Liberia before starting to work as a consultant. His clients include UN agencies and NGOs. Among other things, he wrote the UNICEF “Social Media in Emergency Guidelines” and contributed to UNOCHA’s “Humanitarianism in the Network Age”. Over the last year, Timo advised UNHCR- and IFRC-led Shelter Clusters in Myanmar, Mali and most recently the Philippines on Communication and Advocacy. He blogs at Social Media for Good and is the facilitator for the TechChange online course, “Technology for Disaster Response.

“Team Rubicon is doing for disaster response what the Obama team did for political campaigns,” said Jonathan Morgenstein while taking a break from tearing down moldy drywall in hurricane-damaged Rockaway, Brooklyn. A New York native and US Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq, Morgenstein had spent the last month working on the campaign trail with Veterans and Military Families for Obama. He was referring not to the nearly fifty volunteers he was coordinating that afternoon, but rather the sophisticated software back-end that he was relying on to provide the correct information attached to the clipboard he was carrying. In the same way that better technology such as “Narwhal” had been credited with assisting him only weeks earlier for turning out more volunteers, donors and voters than in 2008 for Obama (“When The Nerds Go Marching In,” The Atlantic, 11/16/12), it was now playing a core role in coordinating disaster response in New York.

Jon Morgenstein in Rockaway, Brooklyn

Jon Morgenstein in Rockaway, Brooklyn

And on November 18, Morgenstein needed the help. In collaboration with Team Rubicon, he was responsible for supervising 48 Clinton Foundation volunteers to gut ten hurricane-damaged homes in preparation for their restoration by contractors. Morgenstein was one of hundreds of volunteers helping out with Team Rubicon during the Clinton Global Initiative’s “Day of Action for New York,” which pushed Team Rubicon organizing capacity to the limit. While it’s difficult to estimate exactly how much value has been returned to the community, gutting just one of the houses was estimated at $5,000-$8,000 for a homeowner without insurance (in this case a 91-year-old), making a direct value-add beyond food and shelter relief. And each house was tied to a work order and a map on Morgenstein’s clip board, just like while canvassing before the election.

But this particular software by Palantir Technologies wasn’t designed for campaigns, rather having been used recently for finding IEDs in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a post on CNN (10/4/12), Palantir “software ties together intelligence data to improve information for troops about the possible location of roadside bombs planted by insurgents.” Nonetheless, it was also a perfect fit for an organization like Team Rubicon, which “unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with medical professionals to rapidly deploy emergency response teams into crisis situations.”  While the outpouring of people wanting to help has been heartening, new problems arise when organizing large groups of ad-hoc volunteers.

Volunteers from the Clinton Foundation  (Credit: Jon Morgenstein)

Volunteers from the Clinton Foundation

Fortunately, the tech fit the mission. Far from having an existing organizational structure or a known set of capabilities (like a proper military unit), this had been a seat-of-the-pants improvised human logistics, making those most in need with those most capable.  Palantir’s philanthropic team had been discussing doing some disaster-relief simulations to test its capabilities for this use.  When Sandy suddenly threatened the eastern seaboard, the drill became the real thing, with Palantir scrambling to set up the server infrastructure and mobile handsets for Team Rubicon’s use. (“Philanthropy Engineers Embed with Team Rubicon for Hurricane Sandy Relief,” Palantir Blog, 11/14/12)

The setup was ready by November 4th, just as recovery operations were swinging into gear. Imagined as operating system for data problems, Palantir’s software was able to pull in information from multiple sources of data, fuse it together into a coherent picture of the state of the peninsula, and then allow Team Rubicon operators to efficiently dispatch volunteers (say, a chainsaw team) to where they were needed the most (a list of the fifteen biggest downed trees). But tech isn’t perfect. “Check the data. At the end of the day, just because it’s in Palantir doesn’t make it right.” stated Brian Fishman of Palantir from inside the bus HQ. “Circumstances change, and a functional technology infrastructure requires regular updates to the data in the system.”

So, will Palantir and Team Rubicon change the way organizations think about disaster response? “I don’t know, maybe,” stated Morgenstein, “In the military we say, ‘Amateurs talk strategy, pros talk logistics’. These tech guys have made the logistics a lot easier at the operational level, and the military culture you see in Team Rubicon of delegating decision-making downwards to the person closest to the problem, is perfectly suited to an operation like this.”

Brian Fishman of Palantir at Team Rubicon FOB Hope

What we do know, however, is that putting the right tools in the right hands has the potential to create a team where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. With Palantir and Team Rubicon, response operations will continue to iterate and improve over time, with the ultimate goal being to develop better response mechanisms for the next time disaster strikes. The best indicator of Team Rubicon as a learning organization may have nothing to do with the technology. At the end of the “Day of Action,” our team leader Zach (pictured, below right) turned to the group and asked us: “What could we do differently? If you see something you think we could be doing better, please let us know so that we can keep getting better at this.” Even when it comes to disaster response, tech is only ten percent.

TechChange provides online training in Tech Tools for Emergency Management. If you’re interested in learning more, consider applying for our next course. Class starts Jan. 14!

Interested in joining Team Rubicon? Please consider donating time or money to further their work. Learn more about Team Rubicon.

Zach and Dan of Team Rubicon

Zach and Dan of Team Rubicon

If you’re interested in mobile applications for disaster response, consider taking our course Mobiles for International Development, starting September 24th.

In the last five to ten years there has been a surge in disaster management innovation. As new technology is being developed, what are the challenges and benefits that the federal government must consider before taking advantage of them? Can a crowd of relatively inexperienced citizens report incidents more effectively than a group of experts?  Despite the many obstacles in working with these technologies, many institutions have been successful in quickly generating quality data to understand emergency situations and mitigate damage. This Thursday and Friday (9/13-14), The Wilson Center will be hosting a policy roundtable entitled, Connecting Grassroots to Government for Disaster Management to discuss these issues and propose solutions to help practitioners and governments create a broader community of interest.

We are thrilled to host the webcast of the two keynote discussions and direct the social media engagement of the event.  The keynote sessions are:

We will be taking questions from the online audience via the Twitter discussion on #DG2G, the comments area of the webcast pages, and by email at DG2G [at] techchange [dot] org. In addition to the Keynote sessions described above, the Wilson Center will be making the rest of the panel discussions available over the web. Click on the links below to watch them live and to download copies of the agenda and background materials.

ICT4D practitioners, crisismappers, digital volunteers, and policy makers and researchers are invited to participate to help recognize best practices and expand them to resolve the most pressing issues in the field. We look forward to seeing you online!