Facebook is expanding Safety Check, its two-year-old feature that lets users check in to let friends and family know they’re safe in the wake of a natural or human-caused disaster.
The update, a new product called Community Help, lets Facebook users offer resources to those in a disaster area. During an emergency situation, Facebook will allow users in the area to post things like a spare bedroom, food or clothing, and will remove those offers once somebody claims them.
Community Help is meant to replace the kinds of haphazard spreadsheets and documents that rescuers scramble to compile in the moments following a disaster.
“[Those methods] weren’t always used very successfully, because they weren’t created specifically for this scenario,” said Preethi Chethan, a product designer on Facebook’s Social Good team. “A lot of times, there were missed connections, or many needs would go unmet.”
Facebook thinks it can do a better job.
With more than 1.8 billion users, Facebook is in a unique position when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of natural and human-caused disasters. More than half of the world’s internet users are active Facebook users, which means it’s arguably the largest database capable of gathering info about people’s status in real time.
And while Facebook’s efforts around safety aren’t driving revenue, they still have business benefits. Features like Safety Check give users a reason to keep their accounts active and provide people with a form of communication that no other network offers.
Of course, the service isn’t perfect. When a bomb went off in Pakistan last year, Facebook mistakenly asked users who were thousands of miles away to check in. The feature also misidentified an “explosion” in Thailand in December.
With Community Help, there is potential for another challenge: User safety, especially when contacting strangers about something like a spare bedroom. It’s possible that bad actors could use the feature to try and take advantage of people in need or offering help.
Facebook says it’s doing what it can to prevent this. Community Help will only be available to those over 18, and accounts that are just hours or days old won’t have access to it. Plus, the company says it’ll provide best-practice materials online recommending users vet the people they contact.
Still, the onus will be on users to protect themselves.
The feature is going live Wednesday in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Saudi Arabia, with more countries coming down the road. At launch, it will only be used for natural and accidental disasters.