Calamities have always united people. It's amazing how disparate groups of people just band together spontaneously to provide relief when disaster strikes. In the old days, the process of banding together took time. Today, social media acts as an instant bridge, connecting people in a matter of seconds. In fact, digital humanitarian networks are the new buzzword.
During the Nepal earthquake, as phone lines jammed, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature in large parts of Nepal, and certain areas of Bangladesh, India and Bhutan. Within 24 hours, millions of people were marked safe, and the safe notification popped up on the timelines of friends and family. It also was quick to activate a Donate button, whereby users could donate directly to International Medical Corps, a global relief agency.
For Facebook, the journey to building the Safety Check feature began in 2011 when Japan was devastated by a tsunami. In a blogpost, three Facebook employees - Naomi Gleit, Vice President of Product Management, Sharon Zeng, Product Manager, and Peter Cottle, Software Engineer - describe how FB's engineers set out creating a tool after they noted how people in Japan used technology and social media to stay connected with those that they cared about during the deadly tsunami. The initial result was a Disaster Message Board. Over time this project evolved into Safety Check.
It's not just Facebook. There was Google with its Person Finder tool, first launched in Haiti, during the 2010 quake, that pitched in. For Google there was a personal tragedy involved, as one of its executives Dan Fredinburg, got caught in an avalanche while attempting to climb Mount Everest. His sister reported his death on Instagram.
Meanwhile, both Twitter and Instagram acted as news sources - with live stories from those caught in the quake flashing in. Also handles like @InCrisisRelief run by team VOICE (Volunteers Online for Impact in Crisis and Emergencies) provided valuable resources like helpline numbers. Uber, Viber, Firechat - a lot of networks were out there pitching in with information and help.
There was, in fact, so much action on the social networks that people were grappling to understand how to use it effectively, prompting social media resource portal Social Samosa to conduct a tweet chat. Some takeaways from the panel and from an academic paper by Erica Goldfine on The Use of Social Media Throughout Emergency and Disaster Relief are:
- Use social media as an effective communication tool: For governments, survivors, people seeking information on loved ones, social media platforms are the quickest channels to communicate.
- Look up mapping resources: Whenever disasters strike, platforms like Ushahidi, OpenStreetMap, and Google Map Maker have instantly got activated with digital volunteers trawling through satellite imagery and identifying spots where relief has to be reached. From pointing out which roads are navigable to providing information on where hospitals are located, the digital maps are a resource that have saved lives, thanks to the speed with which on ground volunteers can reach the spot using them.
- Use as a bridge between NGOs, volunteers and givers: Often, people would love to chip in during emergencies but do not know what to give or how to give. During the Nepal quake, one could see appeals for water, tents, tarpaulin, flashing through social platforms.
Twitter, the go to place for breaking news, better watch out! Snapchat, the happening photo messaging app, is now moving aggressively into news. According to US magazine Politico, Snapchat has just headhunted CNN's national political reporter Peter Hamby to become its Head of News. In January, Snapchat had launched Discover, a news feature with curated stories from its partners like CNN and Vice. It also gets a wealth of user-generated live stories from around the world that it can leverage. Now here's one more reason to join the snapchatting crowd.
Get the Picture
Facebook is on a roll. It has just announced a video calling feature to its Messenger app. The experience promises to be seamless enough for users to switch from texting to video call within the app itself. This feature comes close on the wings of Messenger's voice calling addition. FB has been enhancing the Messenger app through a string of new features lately, and during its annual F8 conference even threw open the app to developers. Clearly, more features will be on the way soon.
Instagram Tunes in
Photo sharing network Instagram is making musical overtures with its first content vertical. The Facebook-owned social network has just created a community devoted to music accessible through the handle @music. A quarter of the most popular accounts on the network are created by musicians and hence, the idea was sparked to create this vertical. It promises to have everything from video music lessons to gigs by unsung artists to a communication platform for celebrity musicians to connect with fans. Play it on!