How Facebook and Google Are Helping the Response in Nepal

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Millions of people use Facebook or Google on a daily basis. But the apps, websites, and social networks we use during the regular, uneventful days can turn out to be critically important tools for reconnecting with family and friends in the aftermath of disasters like the earthquake in Nepal.

Google’s Person Finder, for example, is currently live in Nepal. Person Finder is a Web app that enables users to post and search the status of their relatives and friends affected by a disaster. Press agencies and non-governmental agencies can contribute to the database via the Person Finder API; all data entered into the tool are available to the public and searchable by anyone. Users can subscribe to status updates for a particular person, and they can even search the records via SMS by texting a name to a phone number provided by Google.

Facebook this fall introduced a feature called Safety Check, which users in Nepal have been using to let others know that they’re safe. Safety Check was designed to enable users in an area affected by a major disaster or crisis to let others know that they’re safe, and to check on their friends and family members in the area.

When Facebook activates the tool after a disaster and detects that you’re in the affected area, the app sends you a notification asking if you’re safe. When you mark yourself “safe,” Facebook generates a notification and a News Feed story with the update. If you have Facebook friends in an affected area, you’ll receive a notification when they check in as safe.

Writing for The New York Times, Karen Zraick reports that millions of users in Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh have been marked as safe, and their status has been relayed to tens of millions of people. A database compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross had 1,385 people registered as missing and 241 registered as alive and safe. And Google’s Person Finder is tracking approximately 7,300 records on people safe or still missing in the aftermath of the earthquake.

During a natural disaster or other crisis, people increasingly rely on technology to find out if those close to them are safe. To make that task easier, the four major American wireless carriers — Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile — are all waiving the cost of calls and SMS messages to Nepal, according to Re/code.

Similarly, Google Voice is charging only $0.01 per minute instead of its usual $0.19 per minute rate, and Viber is offering free calls. Microsoft announced that any Skype communication to Nepal would be free, and Time Warner Cable said that its home and business customers can make calls to Nepal free of charge.

Even as information from regulatory bodies and relief organizations spreads quickly via social media, misinformation can just as easily proliferate. So an organization called the Standby Task Force crowdsources the verification of information spreading on social media in the Nepal disaster zone, according to MIT Technology Review’s Mike Orcutt. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has put the organization in charge of an effort to sift through hundreds of thousands of tweets from people in Nepal to help aid workers identify priority areas.

Often, a large number of tweets originating in the same area and reporting roughly the same thing is enough to verify information. But in cases when tweets don’t entirely fit with what the crowd is saying, the Standby Task Force team posts a verification request, in the form of a yes or no question, on a Web platform called Verily.

Users can answer questions about a report if they supply a piece of corroborating evidence, such as a photo. Based on the evidence shared by Verily users, the team passes on new information to relief organizations. The team has been teaching 200 Nepali volunteers to use the platform and hopes that they’ll recruit more users from their personal networks.

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