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How Google and Facebook are finding victims of the Nepal earthquake

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As the death toll from Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude Nepalese earthquake inches higher, help in finding and identifying missing persons has come from an unusual source: Silicon Valley tech giants.

[Death toll rises to 3,800 in Nepal earthquake]

Both Google and Facebook deployed collaborative, cellphone-based tools over the weekend to help track victims of the earthquake. In the midst of both company’s big push to bring Internet to the developing world, it’s an important illustration of exactly how powerful that connectivity could be. And yet, in a country like Nepal — where there are only 77 cellphone subscriptions per 100 people versus 96 in the U.S. and 125 in the U.K. — it’s also a reminder of how very far that effort still has to go.

Facebook Safety Check

Facebook’s Safety Check essentially lets users do two things, depending on where they are. Users in an area impacted by a natural disaster can log onto the site and mark themselves as “safe.” Meanwhile, users around the world can log into the site and check if any of their friends are in the impacted area. The tool was built by Japanese engineers in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal Japan.

Here’s how the feature actually works:

  1. After a major natural disaster, Facebook activates Safety Check for a specific region. In the case of the Nepalese earthquake, Facebook has designated a 150-mile-radius circle that encompasses all of central Nepal as well as parts of northeastern India and southwestern China. Indian users as far as four hours away from the Nepalese border have reportedly been prompted to “check in.”
  2. The site then sends a push notification to every user in that region, based on one of three geolocation signals it gets from you: your current city, as listed in your profile; your last location, if you’ve opted into Facebook’s “Nearby Friends”; and the city where you’re using the Internet. The notification gives you the option to click “I’m safe” or “I’m not in the area.”
  3. If you select “I’m safe,” that update is posted to your Facebook News Feed and sent, as a notification, to your friends. (It’s never posted publicly: Only your Facebook friends can see it.) Desktop users can also indicate manually that they’re in the area by going to the Safety Check page.

Facebook hasn’t publicized how many people have used the tool, though the network only has 4.4 million users in the country based on estimates by its ad platform. Notably, you must also a smartphone running the Facebook app to use this feature — and smartphone penetration in Nepal is quite low.

Google Person Finder

Like Safety Check, Google Person Finder is intended to connect people in a disaster area with friends and family around the world. Google’s five-year-old project also operates on a larger scale, however: It basically provides a massive, open platform to collaboratively track missing persons’ reports. Previously, Google’s deployed the tool to help victims in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan and the Boston bombing.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Google activates Person Finder after a major disaster.
  2. People with family members, friends or acquaintances in the disaster zone — or journalists or nonprofits tracking the disaster — can access the site and do one of two things: (1) list the name of someone they’re looking for, or (2) provide information about someone who they know is safe. Google collates these records into a large, searchable database of individuals in the area, together with important details like their phone number, e-mail address and last known location.
  3. Users can subscribe to updates on individuals of their choice; all records expire 60 days after they’re created.

As of this writing, Person Finder is tracking 5,700 records from the Nepalese earthquake. Because the service is available even to users without Internet connections — the database can be searched by text — it could theoretically be in use by far more people than Facebook’s Safety Check is.

That raises an interesting question about the whole Silicon Valley-saves-the-world complex: How useful are these services, really, if most people can’t access them? According to the World Bank, cellphones are fairly common in Nepal — but Internet-enabled smartphones are far less so. And in the aftermath of Saturday’s devastating earthquake, widespread power outages slowed Internet service and made it impossible for people to recharge their phones or laptops.

“When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote over the weekend. “It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.”

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