Mobile In Times Of Crisis

Two words come to mind in response to talk of mobile services as a solution to terrorist attacks like the one that just occurred in Paris: woefully insufficient.

I’m sure that’s mostly my emotions talking, just as I’m sure that consumer-facing services like those offered by Facebook and Uber can help in their own little way. Chief among them is probably Facebook’s Safety Check: a service for people to let loved ones know they are alive and safe during major disasters.

Within 24 hours after the attacks in Paris on Friday, 4.1 million Facebook users notified 360 million friends that they were safe using the service.

The company’s engineers were inspired to create the service, which launched in late 2014, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

When Safety Check is activated after a disaster, Facebook users in affected geographical areas automatically receive a notification asking if they are safe.

Facebook determines users' locations by looking at the city they have listed in their profile, their last location -- if they previously opted in to Nearby Friends -- and the city where they are using the Web. If people are safe, they can select “I’m Safe,” and a notification and News Feed story will be generated with an update. Friends can also mark other friends as safe.

Of note, this marked the first time Facebook has employed Safety Check for any event other than a natural disaster, according to Alex Schultz, Facebook’s vice president of growth.

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

Among other responses, Uber turned off surge pricing, while Airbnb urged its many hosts in Paris to open their homes -- or listings -- to those affected by the terrorist attacks, or simply stranded in the city.

Of course, these are all large tech companies with massive global footprints, but that doesn’t mean that smaller startups can’t come up with creative ways to offer support in times of crisis.

Natural or man-made, whatever crises occur are clearly beyond the scope of the mobile industry. I’m hopeful, however, that services like Safety Check can assist in the broader response.

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