How Facebook is changing humanitarian relief

Last month, a bombing in Somalia killed over 300 people. The attack took place in a busy intersection, targeting civilians across all walks of life. Chaos ensued as family members and friends began the daunting task of tracking down their loved ones.

Amid the confusion, social media stepped in to bring answers and assist in relief efforts. The community turned to Facebook in particular to spread information and locate the missing. The Facebook group Gurmad252 (“support” in Somali, along with the country code) became a multi-faceted resource, organizing blood drives and informing the public of new government directives. The team of 50 volunteers behind the group also posted an online form for families to fill out with the name, age, and gender of known victims. The information helped both the authorities and the community to record who was still unaccounted for.

Similarly, Facebook’s Safety Check feature was activated in the area surrounding the attack. The feature, often enabled after humanitarian and natural disasters, allows users to “check in,” letting their friends and family know they are safe.

In Somalia, the response to the October 14th attack proved that Facebook is more than a platform for social discussion and political campaigning; it’s also a revolutionary tool for disaster response.

Somalia is not the only country that is utilizing this platform for disaster recovery. Facebook just held its first Disaster Response Summit in New Delhi, India, where humanitarian groups, policy makers, and startups gathered to discuss the future of relief and social media.

At the summit, Facebook announced a new “Disaster Maps” feature that will fill in the information gap that humanitarian workers often face right after any event that causes mass casualties. Its launch will feature three distinct types of maps. The “location density map” records where people are during an event. The “movement map” tracks migration of people after the event. The “safety check map” utilizes data from the Safety Check feature to pinpoint the affected location. All of this information will be made available to the National Disaster Management Authority and the Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society.

Social media platforms have already proven to be instrumental in recovery efforts. Just a decade ago, when a natural disaster hit, communities had to rely solely on broadcast news outlets, and even those could be slow to report events on the ground. Now, even during events like the hurricanes in Puerto Rico that knocked out power for much of the island, families and friends were able to have direct and immediate communication with their loved ones.

Facebook has 2.07 billion monthly active users. Of those 2.07 billion, 1.37 billion check Facebook at least once a day. The site has a social reach that would have been unheard of a decade ago. Taking advantage of this reach when it comes to disaster response is resourceful, and in an age when natural disasters and political conflict are becoming all too common, it could be life-saving.

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