As recently reported in Techcrunch, Facebook is working on a new feature that “lets users find friends and potential friends nearby.” This is different than the “Check In” feature that has been around for a while, the main difference being that it uses a mobile device’s location awareness to show where the user is or what event they are attending, whereas the “Check-in” feature requires users to actively update their location. This release got us thinking: how could this be used for public safety communications?
The obvious use for this is to see what friends are at the same events, restaurants or bars as you are, or to quickly friend people at an event. For example, many of us in DC were at last week’s Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall. If we wanted to see which of our friends were there too, we could have activated the feature on our phones and find out who else was attending and meet up to watch the fireworks together.
Additionally, though, this could have an interesting application for disaster response. During stadium evacuations, studies show that people seek out friends and family before evacuating, not after they have left the building. Depending on how precise and targeted this system is, it could help these people locate each other faster so that they could get out more quickly. In another scenario, it could help people searching for loved ones after a tornado or a hurricane.
This is similar to another app that is already live on Facebook called Project: Lifeline, as reported in Security Management. This free application, developed through a Health and Human Services developer challenge, allows users to designate close friends and family as “lifelines.” Here’s what happens after a disaster.
The Project: Lifeline interface displays the members of your social graph. From within Project: Lifeline you may report a friend “missing,” which will update the interface to reflect that. After your friend has been reported missing, Project: Lifeline will attempt to contact them—along with any “lifelines” they have registered—and they or any of their lifelines can update the interface to authoritatively declare that your friend is safe and well. If your friend does not respond and none of their lifelines are able to locate them, Lifeline will help you both get the word out to their larger social graph and coordinate efforts to support them.
These applications show the value that both social media and location aware devices are bringing to the alerts and warnings community, even if they are not originally purposed to do so. These trends will continue to give emergency managers, responders and the general public more valuable tools with which to save lives and reunite families in times of trial.
Drew Smith works as an Associate Consultant at SRA International Strategy and Performance Group, where he concentrates on research and development efforts in emergency alerts and warnings. He is currently focused on public response to alerts and warnings on mobile devices, particularly societal responses across population groups and effective practices surrounding message delivery.