The Role of Facebook in Disaster Response

Advanced Cyber/IO, IO Multinational, IO Sense-Making, IO Technologies
Patrick Meier

The Role of Facebook in Disaster Response

Posted on May 22, 2011 by Patrick Meier|

I recently met up with Facebook colleagues Simon Axten and Matt Perault to discuss the role that they and their platform might play in disaster response. So I thought I’d share some thoughts that come up during the conversation seeing as I’ve been thinking about this topic with a number of other colleagues for a while. I’m also very interested to hear any ideas and suggestions that iRevolution readers may have on this.

There’s no doubt that Facebook can—and already does—play an important role in disaster response. In Haiti, my colleague Rob Munro used Facebook to recruit hundreds of Creole speaking volunteers to translate tens of thousands of text messages into English as part of Mission 4636. When an earthquake struck New Zealand earlier this year, thousands of students organized their response via a Facebook group and also used the platform’s check-in’s feature to alert others in their social network that they were alright.

But how else might Facebook be used?

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The Haiti example demonstrates that the ability to rapidly recruit large numbers of volunteers is really key. So Facebook could create a dedicated landing page when a crisis unfolds, much like Google does. This landing page could then be used to recruit thousands of new volunteers for live crisis mapping operations in support of humanitarian organizations (for example). The landing page could spotlight a number of major projects that new volunteers could join, such as the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) or perhaps highlight the deployment of an Ushahidi platform for a particular crisis.

The use of Facebook to recruit volunteers presents several advantages, the most important ones being identity and scale. When we recruited hundreds of new volunteers for the Libya Crisis Map in support of the UN’s humanitarian response, we had to vet and verify each and every single one of them twice to ensure they were who they really said they were. This took hours, which wouldn’t be the case using Facebook. If we could set up a way for Facebook users to sign into an Ushahidi platform directly from their Facebook account, this too would save many hours of tedious work—a nice idea that my colleague Jaroslav Valuch suggested. See Facebook Connect, for example.

Facebook also operates at a scale of more than half-a-billion people, which has major “Cognitive Surplus” potential. We could leverage Facebook’s ad services as well—a good point made by Simon Axten and also Jon Gosier in an earlier conversation. That way, Facebook users would receive targeted adds on how they could volunteer based on their existing profiles.

So there’s huge potential, but like much else in the ICT-for-you-name-it space, you first have to focus on people, then process and then the technology. In other words, what we need to do first is establish a relationship with Facebook and decide on the messaging and the process by which volunteers on Facebook would join a volunteer network like the Standby Volunteer Task Force and help out on an Ushahidi map, for example.

Absorbing several hundred or thousands of new volunteers is no easy task but as long as we have a simple and efficient micro-tasking system via Facebook, we should be able to absorb this surge. Perhaps our colleagues at Facebook could take the lead on that, i.e, create a a simple interface allowing groups like the Task Force to farm out all kinds of micro-tasks, much like Crowdflower, which already embeds micro-tasks in Facebook. Indeed, we worked with Crowdflower during the floods in Pakistan to create this micro-tasking app for volunteers.

As my colleague Jaroslav also noted, this Mechanical Turk approach would allow these organizations to evaluate the performance of their volunteers on particular tasks. I would add to this some gaming dynamics to provide incentives and rewards for volunteering, as I blogged about here. Having a public score board based on the number of tasks completed by each volunteer would be just one idea. One could add badges, stickers, banners, etc., to your Facebook profile page as you complete tasks. And yes, the next question would be: how do we create the Farmville of disaster response?

On the Ushahidi end, it would also be good to create a Facebook app for Ushahidi so that users could simply map from their own Facebook page rather than open up  another browser to map critical information. As Matt Perault also noted, friends could then easily invite others to help map a crisis via Facebook. Indeed, this social effect could be most powerful reason to develop an Ushahidi Facebook app. As you submit a report on a map, this could be shared as a status update, for example, inviting your friends to join the cause. This could help crisis mapping go viral across your own social network—an effect that was particularly important in launching the Ushahidi-Haiti project.

As a side note, there is an Ushahidi plugin for Facebook that allows content posted on a wall to be directly pushed to the Ushahidi backend for mapping. But perhaps our colleagues at Facebook could help us add more features to this existing plugin to make it even more useful, such add integrating Facebook Connect, as noted earlier.

In sum, there are some low hanging fruits and quick wins that a few weeks of collaboration with Facebook could yield. These quick wins could make a really significant impact even if they sound (and are) rather simple. For me, the most exciting of these is the development of a Facebook app for Ushahidi.

Phi Beta Iota: To our astonishment, our “digital native” advisor tells us that Google is vastly more secure and more sensitive to privacy concerns than Facebook, which manages to out-do Google in the way of blind hubris.  This has forced us to revisit our negative opinion of Google.  As our advisor summed it up, “Google has made life easier and more interesting; Facebook has not.”