Social media has played a pivotal role in Nepal’s earthquake rescue effort, but more promising solutions are on the horizon as platforms harness their data for the greater good.
More than 25 million people were identified by Facebook’s Safety Check tool in the first 17 hours of its activation in the Nepal earthquake region, on Saturday, April 25, according to Facebook.
Once activated, the tool determines if a Facebook user is in the region of the disaster, and then sends a message asking if they are safe. The person can then mark themselves as safe, or be marked as safe by someone else.
Google also launched its Person Finder tool, which allows agencies and individuals to post and search for the status of relatives or friends on the database and receive updates on a missing person. Person Finder was developed in response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
These advancements mark a technological turning point, in which social media has moved beyond the showcase of letting your “friends” know how much fun you’re having on vacation, to a crisis tool that can aid real-world emergencies, says Peter Dingle, director, accelerators at start-up investor Nest.
“Social media is moving from people being very vain and talking about what they had for breakfast and the platform’s ability to sell ads, to now being able to add more value to society as a whole – it can provide help, peace of mind, and a feeling of connectedness to the world,” he says.
Future solutions will go beyond enabling friends and family to check in on loved ones and will instead move to targeted responses, says Dingle, adding that he believes the vast data collated off the back of “social crisis efforts,” as well as mobile phones and satellites, will enable trained professionals to do their jobs more efficiently. They will also provide clues about the best way to respond to a situation.
“This will be the next phase. Social media will provide opportunities for crowdsourcing, or microloan platforms such as Kiva to gain better targeted relief efforts. The data can then be used to determine the types of donations needed, as well as be able to deliver that relief exactly where it is needed,” says Dingle.
“People don’t just want to give money directly to an organization anymore. These platforms provide an immediate personal connection, that have the ability to be very targeted and provide aid where necessary,” he adds.
Of course with any use of data, challenges often arise and this time will be no different, notes Dingle, predicting that privacy and net neutrality around times of crisis will inevitably fall into debate.
“When is it OK for people to know where you are? That information can now be used to tell loved ones you are safe, rescue workers where you are, or contact your embassy – privacy goes from being a big negative, to a critical positive,” says Dingle.
Net neutrality, or the democratization of the Internet – where access is extended to people across borders and mediums such as mobile – will also be key to paving the way for new solutions.
“This is Facebook meets Google meets the Red Cross – the world will play along and that is where things start to get really awesome,” says Dingle. “The power of technology really changing individuals’ lives.”