Facebook introduces disaster maps, announces early partners

Photo by: Viktor Hanacek

When disaster strikes, and traditional communication channels go offline, social media can provide critical insights into where help is needed.

On Wednesday, Facebook introduced a new disaster maps initiative. The company will share aggregated, de-identified location information on Facebook users who have their location settings enabled with a few select disaster response organizations. Facebook will provide location density maps, movement maps, and Safety Check maps to organizations that can act on this information while respecting the company’s privacy standards.

Facebook worked closely with three organizations — UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the World Food Programme — to identify what data would be most useful and how it might be put into action.

As the disaster maps initiative expands and evolves, it will serve as a case study for ways private sector companies such as Facebook and humanitarian response organizations such as the Red Cross can leverage their unique skill sets in order to improve upon traditional communication channels, getting resources where they are needed in the moments following a disaster.

“We are in regular contact with a lot of policymakers, NGOs and disaster response organizations to figure out how to serve them better with our products,” said Molly Jackman, the public policy research manager at Facebook, who is responsible for guiding the technology company’s research agenda from a policy perspective.

Over time, her team got consistent feedback that one of the first goals and major challenges these groups face when responding to natural disasters is “gaining situational awareness.” Perhaps by using the data provided by Facebook users who have their location settings enabled, the technology company could assist organizations that would otherwise have to rely on census data, send people in or fly helicopters overhead. “This is where we had our ‘aha’ moment that Facebook can help organizations create a more complete picture of where people are located,” she said.

A natural fit

The NGO partners Facebook has selected for the disaster maps initiative are already acting on the understanding that data plays an important role in the achievement of their humanitarian and development goals.

“The collaboration with Facebook started with a realization that each partner had some piece of knowledge or data that, if shared, could inform a bigger picture,” Dale Kunce, American Red Cross’s global lead on ICT and analytics, told Devex via email.

The American Red Cross used Facebook’s high spatial resolution maps in its response to Hurricane Matthew in Haiti last year, as well as in its ongoing measles vaccination campaign in Malawi. The maps were part of a separate initiative that emerged from Connectivity Lab at Facebook, which applied computer vision to satellite imagery as part of its work to connect the unconnected, then publicly released population maps with unprecedented resolution for Haiti, Malawi, Ghana, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Kunce said it is too early to tell how the Red Cross will use these new disaster maps — which show where people are located before, during, and after a disaster, what direction they are moving in, and where people are using Safety Check to notify their friends and family during a crisis — but he said his team is excited about its potential to help international organizations better serve communities impacted by disasters.

“At the Red Cross, we are always looking for ways to deliver our humanitarian mission more effectively and help people in need, so forming partnerships is always a worthy experiment,” Kunce said. “Tech companies can open doors to humanitarian organizations that ... may have too tight of budgets — or are too slim on time — to open alone.”

“Collecting high-quality data can be a time consuming and costly exercise, so if we can make better use of data that already exist, that’s ideal.”

— Toby Wicks, data strategist at UNICEF

Toby Wicks, data strategist at UNICEF, said they were hopeful access to real-time information and new datasets can help the group “respond to critical needs and deliver relief in quicker, more agile ways that are uniquely tailored to the children and women we serve.”

“Many companies — including Facebook — already hold data that will allow us to do just that. Collecting high-quality data can be a time consuming and costly exercise, so if we can make better use of data that already exist, that’s ideal,” added Wicks.

The global development community has already seen how private sector data can add value in responding to epidemics including Ebola and Zika, and UNICEF sees partnerships such as this disaster maps initiative as a preparedness exercise, so that the organization has the tools and skills it needs — near real-time data, for instance — to help women and children when disaster does strike.

“Given the rapidly changing landscape and our limited resources, the smartest approach is likely to be a heavy emphasis on demand-driven partnerships, rather than significant expansion of our own capacity,” Wicks told Devex. “This is one great example of the direction we’re going along that path.”

A matter of trust

What often holds technology companies from sharing their data are privacy concerns.

“We always have to maintain the trust of the people we serve,” Jackman of Facebook told Devex ahead of the launch of the disaster maps initiative. Forums that bring technology companies and humanitarian organizations together to discuss responsible sharing of data help build the connections that can result in these public-private data partnerships.

Together, technology companies and partners in the humanitarian sector can develop  stronger approaches to data privacy, identification management, and responsible use of Facebook data, Arif Husain, chief economist at WFP, told Devex. He mentioned the involvement of Facebook in forums such as the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, a global network of businesses, NGOs, and governments working together to strengthen the use of data for the Sustainable Development Goals.

A growing body of research in recent years demonstrating how signal data from sources including social media and mobile operators might be leveraged to deliver insights into crisis convinced organizations like WFP that Facebook might be a natural partner.

“Data is an indispensable resource in the world we live in, and we hope that other companies will come forward to support to bring their data, resources and expertise to support the world’s efforts to achieve the SDGs,” he said.

Securing humanitarian and development data

As aid organizations rely increasingly on data for their work, how can they be sure vital information is secure? Satwik Seshasai, Aadil Mamujee and Ron Brachman of Segovia lay out the key issues to address.

The disaster maps Facebook announced today could potentially support WFP’s humanitarian response by detecting the impacts of crisis more quickly, which would help the organization provide the right assistance to the right people in the right places.

“Humanitarian responses commonly struggle with a dearth of information in the first 72 hours of a crisis, and the data that Facebook will [provide] might help shed some light on the location and scale of needs at that critical time,” Husain said.

But there remain unanswered questions about this data, he continued: How well does data from social media users match the situation on the ground? How could location data from Facebook users work within existing data streams for disaster response organizations including satellite data, surveys, and modelling? How can organizations ensure that they do not omit affected people who are not on Facebook?

“The key word for humanitarians is the word ‘responsible’, because the protection of people’s data and of their privacy is a priority for us,” Husain added.

Jackman said Facebook will iterate with its three initial partners over the next few months on this proof-of-concept work, then expand the disaster maps initiative to include other local and global NGOs.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.