How Facebook’s data can be used for good in mapping population numbers in natural disasters

Disaster maps are helping aid providers in Australia effectively direct emergency supplies. As the world watches the tragic events of these horrific bushfires, what can Facebook do to help?

Australian wildfires
15 million acres of land have burned in the Australian wildfires. Image: Direct Relief

Disaster relief

We have watched in horror the wildfires blazing across Australia. Over 25 people have lost their lives and 15 million acres of land have been burned. Countless animals have been destroyed. Some ecosystems may never recover.

Drought and soaring heat have combined to create a pressure cooker with smoke clouds covering areas over the size of Europe.

In the midst of this crisis, a source of support has appeared in the form of Facebook.

Facebook Disaster maps
Disaster maps show how the population is moving during evacuations. Image: Direct Relief

Mapping evacuations

Facebook Disaster Maps is a resource that provides accurate population density information.

The data is collated using the location of Facebook users and is tracked from those who have mobile tracking enabled on their phones. In Australia 15 million people, which is 60% of the population, actively use Facebook.

Data is shared with over 100 partner members of the Data for Good initiative. Direct Relief says:

Data from Facebook Disaster Maps has proven extremely useful during many wildfire events in determining the areas most at risk from fires and smoke in order to optimize distribution plans for masks and other health supplies

Safety in numbers

All the data collated is anonymous and is only available from Facebook users who have opted-in to location tracking.

Using this information helps organizations to direct supplies of essentials like food, water, and medicine to where people are most densely populated. Information is prone to change quickly with the ever-changing wind directions and sudden evacuations. This is why real-time data is so valuable.

Facebook Disaster Maps also shows areas where mobile signals are available.

Quantus Airlines disaster relief
500,000 respiratory masks are being distributed in partnership with Quantus Airlines. Image: Facebook

Direct Relief

Direct Relief is a humanitarian aid organization that provides health supplies and emergency responses. They are using Facebook Disaster Maps to efficiently distribute over 500,000 respiratory masks within Victoria and New South Wales.

These are being supplied in partnership with Quantus Airlines. Supplies are delivered to the Australian Red Cross and Department of Health and Human Services of Victoria.

Update: I contacted Tony Morain, VP Communications for Direct Relief. Morain says, ‘Population movement data has the potential to improve disaster relief operations profoundly. It allows us to answer questions about unfolding disasters that until now were unanswerable — How long after an evacuation order is issued do people start evacuating, and where do they go? What percentage of people are staying behind, and in which neighborhoods? When do people start returning home?

Data maps are made available within 24-hours of a disaster situation emerging and there are currently four live maps covering the most severely affected areas.

Since Disaster Maps was introduced in 2017, it has assisted in over 100 disaster situations. The data is also used to help researchers understand human behavior in a disaster situation, and how people are accessing social services.

A worldwide effort

Whilst emergency services continue to battle to save lives, what can we do to help?

Facebook has donated $250,000 AUD to the Australian Red Cross. They are matching donations made to Global Giving up to $1,000,000 AUD. This includes all donations made through Facebook Crisis Response pages.

This is part of the Facebook Data for Good program. The initiative uses the data available from the two billion global Facebook users to ‘help communities around the world’.

Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications for Facebook says:

Facebook is proud to work with many of the world’s leading humanitarian organizations to help them act more quickly and reach more people during natural disasters and disease outbreaks. We look forward to expanding this work in partnership with communities around the world

Facebook is providing meaningful support, which is comforting to hear given the scale of devastation in Australia. Support workers have access to a valuable resource in being able to track people’s movements.

Whilst financial contributions will not stop the fires from spreading, they will help to provide supplies and resources.

We applaud the support being provided from around the world. With a disaster of this scale, we need to act as a global community and pool our resources.


[Update 17/01/2020- We added a comment from Tony Morain, VP Communications at Direct Relief]
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