Facebook users no longer need to rely on the social network to activate its main crisis response tool.
Safety Check, which lets you tell friends and family that you’re safe during an emergency situation or natural disaster, will now be completely triggered by the community instead of the company itself. Facebook announced the shift at its first Social Good Forum in New York on Thursday.
If enough people are posting about an incident in a given area (using the keyword “earthquake,” for example), Facebook will automatically notify those users and ask if they’re OK. A user can mark themselves as safe, and then prompt friends to do the same, instead of Facebook sending notifications to everyone in that city or region.
Launched publicly in 2014, the Safety Check feature has been activated by Facebook 39 times around the world, from the Philippines’ Typhoon Ruby in December 2014 to the Paris terror attacks in December 2015. In June 2016, Facebook began testing community-triggered Safety Checks, like in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and protests against police brutality in Charlotte, North Carolina. Users have triggered the tool themselves 328 times.
“We believe people closest to a disaster should play a bigger role in deciding when Safety Check is most helpful.”
The big difference in those numbers, Facebook argues, proves the company isn’t able to know when to launch the tool every time it’s needed.
“We believe people closest to a disaster should play a bigger role in deciding when Safety Check is most helpful,” Naomi Gleit, Facebook’s VP of Social Good, wrote in a post announcing the change. “So today, Safety Check will be turned on by the community instead of Facebook.”
Gleit said people have long used Facebook to check on each other, and the Safety Check feature was created to make that process easier. Now, users will be able to take matters into their own hands.
Peter Cottle, Facebook’s Safety Check Engineer who first created the tool as an intern in 2011, said the process has two parts.
“We partner with a bunch of third-party organizations that receive verified accounts of events happening everything from a wildfire to an earthquake to a tsunami … and to violent events and bridge collapses,” he told Mashable. “Once we have a verified event in a given location, then we start looking at community chatter. You need the real event to happen, and then, based on the response of the community, it gets activated.”
Cottle explained that Facebook has built an “automated pipeline,” which takes in all of this information and then automatically rolls out the prompt to relevant users, so they can share it with others.
“You need the real event to happen, and then, based on the response of the community, it gets activated.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hinted at this shift in August, during a town hall Q&A session in Rome. One attendee asked if Safety Check would change in the future, giving users the power to activate it.
“Yes, it is. We’re working on that already,” he said, without giving further details at the time. He did, however, underline the importance of Safety Check, and said that nearly half of Facebook users in Italy used the tool in the aftermath of a major earthquake that killed 247 people just days earlier.
Gleit said Thursday that relying on the community means the tool will be more precise, targeting those who actually need it.
“We also don’t worry a whole city if they’re OK,” she told Mashable.
While a community-activated Safety Check feature could mean better precision and empowering users to take action, it also seems to relieve some of Facebook’s responsibilities with the product. Over the past year, the company has drawn criticism for double standards in choosing when and where to activate the tool.
In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, the company activated Safety Check for people in France, but did not do the same for attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, the day before. Critics argued that this exposed larger issues: how Western nations view countries with “reputations” of violence, and the appearance of Facebook focusing on “straightforward, apolitical tragedies.” (At the time, Facebook VP of Growth Alex Schultz responded by saying, “Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people” in ongoing crises with no clear end.)
Cottle and Gleit acknowledged that now making Safety Check completely community-triggered would avoid such situations, but they emphasized that the decision for the change was to ultimately give the power to people who need the tool most.
“Now the community is the one deciding, which is just a better fit for the product,” Cottle said. “Those are the people using it at the end of the day.”