Facebook’s Safety Check leads technology’s support of Paris

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Facebook activated its Safety Check service for a terrorist incident for the first time during the Paris attacks, allowing people to notify their loved ones that they were safe.

The social network said that it would consider using the feature – which until now has been limited to natural disasters – more widely, following criticism in failing to activate the tool in the wake of terrorist attacks in Beirut on Thursday.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said: “Until yesterday, our policy was only to activate Safety Check for natural disasters. We just changed this and now plan to activate Safety Check for human disasters going forward as well.”

Alex Schultz, Facebook’s vice president of growth, said: “We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding. There has to be a first time for trying something new, even in complex and sensitive times, and for us that was Paris.”

Facebook’s feature, which aims to help people make contact and reassure friends and family, is just one part of an expanding role for technology in crisis response.

Outpouring of support

The attacks in Paris over the weekend saw users take to Twitter to help people stranded in the aftermath find shelter, with millions of tweets using the #PorteOuverte hashtag. Hundreds more took to using the hashtag #TerrorismHasNoReligion to spread messages of support, which caused it to trend. Others used Facebook’s flag-overlay feature to change their profile pictures and show their support with the Tricolore.

It wasn’t just users taking to social media, however. French police disseminated pictures of the attackers using Twitter as part of its manhunt, while the news of the attacks quickly spread across social media.

Meanwhile, other technology companies attempted to aid those caught up in the chaos too. Google’s Hangouts, Skype and a variety of mobile phone providers also offered free phone calls to Paris from the US and other parts of the globe to help people coordinate and make contact with those on the ground.

Taxi firm Uber also turned off its surge pricing system, which increases the costs of journeys when supply of drivers is tight, for the whole of France within 30 minutes of the first attack. The company also sent out alerts to users informing them of what had happened and relaying police warnings to avoid travel unless absolutely necessary.

Short-term home letting service Airbnb cancelled its Parisian conference and contacted its Paris-based users asking them to open up their homes to those affected by the attacks, waiving service charges and attempting to connect those who need a place to stay with those who can provide shelter.

The response to the attacks shows that technology can play an effective part of crisis response, helping people to come together in a constructive manner, show support, co-ordinate aid and provide shelter for those caught in the violence.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Samuel Gibbs, for theguardian.com on Monday 16th November 2015 12.34 Europe/London

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