Three Facebook applications designed to help people get support from their friends and family in an emergency are winners of a Facebook application challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The $16,000 challenge, which funded Facebook applications that people could use during personal medical emergencies, car accidents and natural or man-made disasters, was announced Aug. 24, 2011, during an interview Menlo Park-based Facebook hosted in Washington, D.C., on Facebook Live. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness funded the challenge.
"In the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, a tremendous number of people used Facebook to post and share information about those potentially affected by the disasters. We want to create an app that will refine and better support this phenomenon as it can provide a venue for emotional support to a victim's network and help to decompress traditional channels of communication, which are frequently overwhelmed during emergencies," Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness officials said.
American Red Cross and National Weather Service officials during the August interview stressed the importance of social media in disaster preparedness and communication during disasters.
A 2011 Red Cross report found that the Internet was the third-most-important tool people used behind radio and television to learn about emergencies in a crisis. Twenty percent of the public is using Facebook as a trusted source for emergency information, and the public is using social media during events such as earthquakes and accidents to tell people they are OK, said Trevor Riggen, American Red Cross senior director of disaster services in Washington. A full 80 percent of the public also expects disaster organizations to monitor social media and to be ready to respond to posted calls for assistance. One third expected help to arrive within one hour of the posting.
Laura K. Furgione, National Weather Service deputy director, also said the agency uses social media to send out messages to the public when there are potentially disastrous weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes. All 122 forecast offices have Facebook pages, as does the weather service, she said.
The challenge awarded $10,000 to two recent Brown University graduates, Evan Donahue and Erik Stayton, for their first-place application named Lifeline. The second-place, $5,000 award went to David Vinson, Erick Rodriguez, Gregg Orr and Garth Winckler of Las Vegas for their application named JAMAJIC 360. The third-place, $1,000 prize was awarded to AreYouOK? developed by TrueTeamEffort, 11 University of Illinois students led by Alex Kirlik.
Although the three products differ in how users interface with the application, all allow users to designate three lifelines. Lifelines are Facebook friends the person can count on and who agree to check on the person in an emergency, supply him or her with shelter, food and other necessities, and provide the person's social network with an update about the person's well-being. Facebook users could harness the applications to create disaster-readiness plans, share the plans with their emergency contacts and provide friends and family with news.
The first-place application also allows Facebook friends to collaborate, tracking the user's status in a disaster-affected area. The friends can easily find the user's designated lifeline friends and contact each other to report that the user is safe or if the user appears to be missing. This networked approach increases the efficiency of finding missing users, spokesperson Elleen Kane of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness said. The application allows users to print cards with a snapshot of their preparedness plan to carry in their wallets.
The first-place application also features a news feed and links to credible information sources, which make it useful for large-scale disasters and individual emergencies, such as car accidents and personal medical emergencies. The team is continuing to refine the application and in coming months might include GIS locating or tagging, she said.
The Lifeline application is expected to be launched in the coming months, prior to the start of hurricane season.
"We're really excited about the potential of the lifeline app to help people not only to reach out to friends and family for the kinds of assistance they may need in an emergency, but also to help improve their personal health and preparedness," said Dr. Nicole Lurie, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response and a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service.
"Having people you can depend on for help is especially important during a disaster, so we want to encourage everyone to identify those people in advance. Since so many people use Facebook to connect with one another, it seemed like a natural way to help people to identify their lifelines."
Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds said the social-networking company is pleased to be part of the disaster-response initiative.
"It's an impressive initiative, and administration officials deserve credit for being forward-looking. Leveraging the power of the social web to create more effective disaster preparedness and response is an excellent example of using technology to find new solutions," he said.