Technology First Look

Facebook expands Safety Check to help users help one another

Facebook's new Community Help tool is designed to make it easy for users to offer both friends and strangers assistance in the wake of a disaster.

The Facebook logo is displayed in a gathering for start-up companies at Paris' Station F in Paris in January. The social media network on Wednesday rolled out a new tool, 'Community Help,' designed to enable users to give and receive help in emergencies.
Thibault Camus/AP Photo/File
|
Caption

When disaster strikes, Facebook users have become accustomed to checking in "safe" to provide assurances to their loved ones. Now, the social media giant is taking that a step further, providing a platform for users to help one another in times of crisis.

The Community Help tool, rolled out by the tech company on Wednesday, comes as an update to the existing "Safety Check" mechanism in an attempt to better connect people in need in an organized way.

“Our belief is that the community can teach us new ways to use the platform,” Naomi Gleit, the vice president of Facebook’s Social Good initiative, said in a statement. “We saw people using Facebook to tell friends and family they were OK after crises, so in 2014 we launched Safety Check to make that behavior even easier. Since then, Safety Check has been activated hundreds of times, but we know we can do more to empower the community to help one another.”

The Safety Check started in 2014 and was widely used after the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, when more than 4 million people marked themselves safe on Facebook. It was used for the first time in the United States in June after the Pulse nightclub shooting, in which a gunman killed 49 people in Orlando, Fla.

Having consulted humanitarian relief organizations and experts, the world’s largest social network said its billions of users can now message others directly to locate and help those in need locally, such as by providing food, shelter, and transportation.

Facebook is not the first tech company to use its existing platform to help people help each other. Following the flooding in Baton Rouge last August, more than 180 hosts on popular home-sharing website Airbnb offered free accommodation to victims who lost housing. As correspondent Winston Ross reported for The Christian Science Monitor at the time:

The offers of Airbnb hosts are just part of the efforts. The idea originated in 2012 after hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast and a host here asked if she could offer her place for free. The company responded by developing a “disaster response tool,” and the program has since been expanded to help victims of wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and terror attacks around the world, says Airbnb spokesman Nick Shapiro. Airbnb waives its fees and emails hosts in the affected areas when a disaster strikes.

Slightly different than Airbnb’s tool, Facebook’s Community Help focuses on connecting people on its platform through a “virtual classified advertising section.”

As a starter, Facebook plans to introduce the new tool for natural and accidental incidents, such as building fires, in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Saudi Arabia. Based on testing, the company said it will expand Community Help to other countries and other types of incidents.

“We want to create a space on Facebook ... that connects communities in the aftermath of a crisis and helps people feel safe faster, recover, and rebuild,” Facebook Safety Check product designer Preethi Chetan told reporters at a briefing.

This report includes material from Reuters.