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For some time now, social media feeds have been highly important for disaster response. Relatives and friends anxiously post on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other channels asking if loved ones in the affected areas are safe. A universe of YouTube videos, images, and hashtags show the story on the ground after a disaster: flood, earthquake, typhoon, mass shooting, or terrorist bombing.

Social media feeds as a disaster response began as an ad hoc response in technology news. Users of various social media channels posted to ask questions, reassure their network about their safety, post pictures and messages, warn travelers about affected areas, and memorialize the dead and injured.

Use of Social Media by Disaster Response Teams

The proliferation of sharing on social media, however, led disaster response managers to use it as a source of information on the ground. Social media can provide a wealth of data: pinpointing the exact location of impact, assessing the extent and type of damage, and mobilizing response teams.

One example is the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) when Typhoon Pablo hit the Philippines in 2012. The DHN was activated to find images and videos showing damage or flooding in the typhoon's wake by going through tweets, both to assess the damage and to pinpoint the locale of the damaged areas.

Ultimately, more than 20,000 tweets were identified, and the information was shared with multiple disaster response teams.

At the same time, though, the lack of standards in social media response hindered both public communication and disaster response teams. While multiple Twitter hashtags sprang up in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, for example, there was no single thread harnessing all the available information.

Another potential impediment to the use of social media to manage both private and organizational response is that the fact that internet connectivity can be knocked out by a disaster. Many areas of New York and New Jersey, for example, lost connectivity during 2012's Hurricane Sandy.

Aggregating a Response

Facebook has been an active platform in disasters for some time. They codified the ad hoc postings of personal safety with the Safety Check feature, by which people can check to show their network they are safe. Safety Check was inaugurated when Typhoon Ruby hit the Philippines and was used in the 2016 Orlando nightclub shootings.

In an article in Wired, Facebook indicated that these notifications have been used in the Facebook global feeds of over a billion people - about 14% of the worldwide population. (Roughly 23% of the global population utilizes Facebook.)

Given the scale, Facebook is codifying its ability to provide information about disasters and disaster response even further. They developed a larger virtual locale to centralize information from a disaster, which company officials term a "crisis hub." The crisis hub will combine news and information, Safety Check, live videos and messages from affected areas, and disaster team coordination.

Facebook is also pioneering the issue of potential disasters knocking out the internet. They are developing the ability to deliver internet connectivity via drone.

The digital transformation of disaster response may optimize disaster response times for those delivering aid and relief.