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Here’s what Facebook’s doing with your Safety Check data

When Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines in 2013, the Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team asked volunteers to build a map of storm-affected towns, and 1,700 people answered the call. (Tracy Reines/American Red Cross)

Facebook’s Safety Check feature allows users to notify their family and friends that they're okay after natural disasters or attacks that prompt Facebook to deploy the tool. But have you ever wondered what Facebook does with that information?

On Wednesday the social network announced that it will share some of that data with aid organizations — specifically UNICEF, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the World Food Program — to make it easier for them to locate people who need help. More organizations and governments are now able to apply for access to this data.

The company rolled out Safety Check in 2014, inspired by Facebook users’ behavior after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake that rocked northern Japan. The data sharing announced Wednesday is only for aid organizations — the average Facebook user isn’t going to see it — and could provide valuable insight into where groups should send supplies or other aid.

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“Humanitarian organizations need more of a birds-eye view” of areas affected by natural disasters, said Molly Jackman, a public policy research manager at Facebook. “We thought Facebook could help paint a more complete picture so organizations know where resources are needed the most.” The data could be used to see how populations are moving, where they are checking in safely and how their normal routines have been disrupted.

The American Red Cross has been using crowdsourced data to speed up aid for years, and Facebook's Safety Check information will be one of many sets it uses to get a handle on what's happening on the ground, said Dale Kunce, who oversees the organization's data and technology aid projects.

The social network is also giving organizations location density maps, which will show where people have fled to and when they are returning to their homes. The new actions appear to be an extension of Facebook's global mission to inform and unite communities.

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The Safety Check feature has come under scrutiny in the past, with some questioning how Facebook makes its decisions on when to deploy the tool. Users in Paris saw Safety Check pop up on their feeds after a 2015 shooting, but users in Beirut who were near a suicide bombing that killed 43 people did not have access to Safety Check.

Jackman said that the new tools, as with the original Safety Check, will initially share users' behavior only after natural disasters and not during violent situations such as shootings. She said it's possible that Facebook will share information about other types of incidents with groups down the line.

Facebook said it's using data only from users who have opted in to location tracking and that it's looking at that data in aggregate. That means, for example, that Facebook can say how people in a neighborhood have dispersed following a flood but not specifically where John Smith has gone.