While South Africa has been through significant drought and has been sending up some urgent prayers for rains, the current storm in Cape Town and the fires in Knysna are devastating.

South Africa is not known as a country that has to deal with natural disasters, so we were wholly unprepared about how to handle the crisis management surrounding the disasters.

This is not to say that no country in the world has ever had to deal with this. The US periodically gets hit by tropical storms and tornadoes that cause extensive damage. During these times, the role of technology cannot be understated.

I have spoken in depth about the dark side of social media and the fact that we could possibly be living too much of our lives over the internet as opposed to with each other. However, social media can also be a tool for good. Facebook has been building capacity in specific areas and can offer significant value during times of crisis.

Assisting aid workers

One of the biggest ways in which Facebook is assisting during times of crisis is that it is sharing information with Aid organisations to help aid workers reach those in need.

A report by Reuters points out that  Facebook recently launched disaster maps – an initiative aimed at helping humanitarian organizations save lives in emergencies.

“When there’s a flood, earthquake, fire or other natural disaster, response organizations need accurate information quickly about where people are in order to save lives,” founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said via his Facebook account.

A scary part about the Cape Storm and Knysna fires is that traditional means of communications are being affected. Telephone lines and mobile telecommunication towers are being swept away or burned down, so communication to find out if loved ones are safe is becoming difficult. “When traditional communication channels like phone lines are down, it can take too much time to figure out where people need help,” said Zuckerberg.

The maps provided by Facebook will reflect the movements and location of people before, during and after disasters to help aid agencies work out where they should deliver food, water and medical supplies.

Facebook said it would provide three types of maps:

  • Location density maps will show people’s location before, during and after a disaster;
  • Movement maps will illustrate flight between neighbourhoods or cities over several hours; and
  • Safety check maps will show when users let their family and friends know they are out of harm’s way.

A safer way

An article on thehill.com pointed out that Facebook had previously helped users in dangerous areas by allowing them to check-in as “safe”� and share that with friends and family.

“One of the consistent pieces of feedback we were receiving is that while a tool like safety check is useful for individuals in a disaster, what organizations actually need is a bird’s eye view,” said Molly Jackman public policy research manager at Facebook.

“If you imagine you’re the Red Cross and there’s a hurricane, in order to figure out the most effective response plan, you need to understand what’s going-on on the ground,”� she continued.

The platform’s safety check is available to users during crises like terrorist attacks and natural disasters, but Facebook noted that the new features would only be available during natural disasters.

The article added that disaster relief organisations will now have access to maps based on three different types of datasets: location density maps to show where people are before, during and after a natural disaster; movement maps that show how people move around cities during natural disasters; and safety check maps to show where people are checking in as safe in relation to the location of a natural disaster.

Facebook stressed that it was only sharing the information with ‘trusted organisations that have the capacity to act on the data and respect our privacy standards.’� They include UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the World Food Programme.

‘We hope that this can be a model for other companies to start thinking about how they can use data to inform response efforts and to empower organizations to respond more efficiently and effectively,’� Jackman said.

A natural fit

An article on devex.com points out how this will be 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 an 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 shows 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 organisations 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 organisations that … may have too tight of budgets – or are too slim on time – to open alone.”