Facebook knows the first thing you do in a crisis is turn to social media.
A psychological quirk of the modern age, it means Faceboook is not necessarily just a narcissistic echo chamber full of selfies, but also the first port of call to check on loved ones during an emergency.
That’s why Facebook is debuting a new feature called Safety Check. It lets those caught up in a disaster or emergency tell family and friends quickly that they’re ok.
A development spurred by the earthquake and tsunami which rocked Japan in 2011, the tool sends a notification if activated and you’re in the area affected. You can then simply select an “I’m safe” or “not in the affected area” option.
Facebook posts the “I’m safe” message for you quickly as a status update. Friends can then also tag you as safe to spread the word.
If any friends post an “I’m safe” message you will receive it as a notification.
The feature identifies whether you may be affected by an emergency situation or disater based on the place listed on your profile, the last place you’ve opted into using the Nearby Friends feature or the location where you are using the internet.
In a blog post, product managers and software engineers who worked on the project, explained how Safety Check had developed since 2011.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan was devastating. According to the Japanese Red Cross, more than 12.5 million people were affected nationwide, and more than 400,000 people were evacuated. During that crisis we saw how people used technology and social media to stay connected with those they cared about.
Our engineers in Japan took the first step toward creating a product to improve the experience of reconnecting after a disaster. They built the Disaster Message Board to make it easier to communicate with others. They launched a test of the tool a year later and the response was overwhelming.
Unfortunately, these kinds of disasters happen all too frequently. Each time, we see people, relief organizations and first responders turn to Facebook in the aftermath of a major natural disaster.
These events have taught us a lot about how people use Facebook during disasters and we were personally inspired to continue work on the Disaster Message Board to incorporate what we’ve learned. This project soon became Safety Check, which will be available globally on Android, iOS, feature phones and desktop.
Here's how it works
Facebook isn't the only social network to trying to improve communication during an emergency and make the most of the less frivolous side of social media.
Launched last year, Twitter Alerts allows groups such as the Environment Agency, ambulance services and fire brigades to send out specific emergency tweets which followers receive as a special "alert" notification.