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Facebook Safety Check helps users locate loved ones in Nepal (+video)

How social media is changing the face of disaster relief.

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    As Nepal experienced its worst earthquake in 80 years, one with a preliminary magnitude of 7.8 that killed more than 1,180 people and destroyed ancient sites, Facebook activated a special feature that aims to keep people informed of the security of their friends and family in the affected area.
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As Nepal reels from the devastating effects of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit on Saturday, those with loved ones in the area are faced with the daunting challenge of ascertaining whether their friends and family are all right. However, Facebook has a potential solution. The social media platform recently launched its Safety Check application, which helps its users check up on friends and family in disaster areas. 

The concept is simple: When a user logs on to Facebook, the site attempts to determine his or her location. If it is concluded to be an area affected by a disaster, the site will ask the user to confirm that he or she is safe. Site users will be notified when their friends check in as 'safe.'

Facebook launched the service last October after noticing how many people used Facebook to locate friends and relatives after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

“Connecting with people is always valuable, but these are the moments when it matters most,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “Safety Check is our way of helping our community during natural disasters and gives you an easy and simple way to say you’re safe and check on all your friends and family in one place.”

Zuckerberg posted again on April 25 to alert Facebook users of the activation of the Safety Check feature, remind them how to use it, and to express his sympathy for all who have been affected by the disaster.

Facebook was not the first internet giant to enter this arena, however.

Google launched its own disaster relief service, Google Person Finder, in 2010, in response to the earthquake in Haiti. The service allows users to search for missing persons or upload any information they may have. It has since been used in a number of different disasters worldwide, including the Chile earthquake of 2010, the Tōkoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, and most recently the earthquake in Nepal.

As many aspects of life move online, so has disaster relief and the search for missing persons. However, there are limitations.

Nepal is one of Asia’s poorest countries. Smartphone usage is low, and six out of seven Nepalese people do not have a Facebook account. Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, is currently suffering extensive power outages, and electricity was unreliable even before the earthquake.

"The people (in Nepal) do not have the communications, the television or the computers, so we (outside Nepal) do not know anything about what's going on," Prem Raja Mahat, a Nepalese man living in Baltimore, told the Associated Press. "We want to tell them how much we are doing to try to help them ... We need to know that they are OK or not. There is heartbreaking news about what is happening, but we still want to know."

This has also been an issue for Google Person Finder. While the program has helped many, its deployment for the September 2010 floods in Pakistan was less successful, because most people affected by the flood did not have internet access.

Nevertheless, Facebook’s Safety Check and Google Person Finder have helped in connecting some affected by the disaster with their loved ones.

“My father and friends are in the area and one of the first contact points we had to get some news was Facebook,” Facebook user Tamy Lemos wrote. The sentiment was shared by many others in the comments section of Zuckerberg's post. “This media is not always about likes and fun. When you or someone in your family is in danger, you'll try any kind of contact and I'm glad Facebook helped me today.”

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