Facebook have announced a new initiative titled Disaster Maps which will see the social media company sharing useful data and maps with the relevant organizations during times of crisis. This comes after Facebook has been working with UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the World Food Programme, and other organizations.

"We are introducing disaster maps that use aggregated, de-identified Facebook data to help organizations address the critical gap in information they often face when responding to natural disasters. Many of these organizations worked with us to identify what data would be most helpful and how it could be put to action in the moments following a disaster." read a statement by Facebook announcing the Disaster Maps initiative.

The initiative is based on the data that Facebook users choose to share with the social media platform such as the last location where they last checked in.

Screenshot of Facebook Disaster Maps API

Screenshot of our Disaster Maps API and visualization tool that is currently under development. Visualization shown is of the flooding in Piura, Peru in March 2017.

Using this data that users are already sharing, Facebook disaster maps then provides information about where people are located during a disaster, how they are moving, and where they are checking in safe during a natural disaster. Furthermore, according to Facebook, all the data shared with third-party organizations they work with is de-identified, for privacy purposes, and aggregated to a 360 square meter tile or local administrative boundaries (e.g. census boundaries).

It is also important to note that the data used in Facebook Disaster Maps is not just data from check-ins but also from people using the Facebook app with Location Services enabled. When Location Services are enabled on the Facebook app a user's location coordinates are sent to Facebook servers at regular intervals.

As a result, Facebook is able to provide humanitarian organizations responding to disasters with the following type of maps to help them:

  • Population: Metrics indicating the density of the Facebook population in each tile.
  • Movement: Metrics related to population movements between tile pairs.
  • Safety Check: Metrics indicating the density of Safety Check check-ins versus total invitations for each tile.

The Facebook Disaster Maps initiative fits into one of Facebook's five areas of focus, namely, "how technology can help keep people safe".

Also interesting to note that this initiative is similar, although not identical, to a service provided by one of Afrika's more prominent technology startups, Ushahidi.

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