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Social Media's Role in Disaster Response Expands

Many cities already have emergency response technology in place, but with so many people reaching out to social media, these tools will continue to grow.

by Angela Gosnell, Knoxville News-Sentinel / May 5, 2015
(TNS) -- Within a few hours of the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake hitting Nepal last Saturday, Facebook stepped in to help.

Users around the world with Facebook friends in the affected region started getting notifications that their friend was “marked safe.”

Later that afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained why in a post on his timeline.

“When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe,” he wrote. “It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.”

The feature is called “Safety Check,” and it locates Facebook users in the region of a disaster site either by through the city listed on a user’s profile or from where they last used the Internet.

Users receive a notification asking if they are safe. If they click the green “safe” button, a notification is generated to their friends.

Launched in October 2014, the idea stemmed from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, when people around the world began to see how social media and technology worked to help those affected stay connected.

“Each time, we see people, relief organizations and first responders turn to Facebook in the aftermath of a major natural disaster,” Facebook stated back in October.

Yet with such a useful tool set in place, it seems the point is lost if majority of those in need of the service have no way of accessing it.

The Washington Post reported last week that in Nepal, there are only 77 cellphone subscriptions per 100 people, compared to 96 in the U.S. and 125 in the U.K.

The number of Nepalese residents with Internet-enabled smartphones is reportedly far less.

On top of Internet accessibility, power outages also deeply affected connectivity in the aftermath.

But with over 1.4 billion Facebook users worldwide, it is still one of the most positive tools the social networking website has created to promote safety.

Facebook wasn’t the only company that stepped up to help in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Google also made an impact with its “Person Finder” tool last weekend, to help people search for loved ones and post information about anyone missing.

For those residents without Internet, Google Person Finder works just fine with a regular cellphone. Users can text a name of a loved one to a number, depending on their location.

In the aftermath of disaster, it’s likely we could start seeing features like Safety Check localized in our own communities, activated for us in response to local situations.

Many cities already have emergency response technology in place, but with so many people reaching out to social media, these tools will continue to expand in the future, and people will continue to turn to Facebook first.

©2015 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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