What started out at the turn of the millennium as a social networking tool to reconnect former classmates and work colleagues has quickly became a reality of every-day life. Now, social media could be transforming into a life-saving communications tool.
Similar to the way a geographical community comes together to help others in times of trouble, social media communities have made the news for doing the same thing. Whether it was the devastating earthquakes that shook Nepal late last April, the terror attacks in Paris, France, in November, or the floods in Chennai, India, in December, Skype made all domestic and international calls to landlines and mobile phones into and out of affected areas free of charge for a limited time. According to Skype,
“Since no one knows the full extent of the devastation [in Nepal], we want to help provide people with alternative methods of communication to reach friends and family in the region during this difficult time.”
Facebook developed Safety Check to make it easy for users to let family and friends know they are safe during a disaster, such as the Paris attacks. If Facebook’s algorithms indicate you may be near a natural disaster or emergency zone, the app will ask you if you’re safe. You can tap on “I’m Safe” or “I’m not in the area” to immediately alert all of your Facebook friends.
As the CBC reported, 4.1 million people used Safety Check to reach more than 360 million family and friends within the first 24 hours after the Paris attacks.
People used the Twitter hashtags #PorteOuverte and #OpenDoors to tweet safe places to go, including their homes, Sikh temples, and phone numbers for various embassies. For French citizens stranded outside of France while its borders were closed, embassy phone numbers in various countries around the world were also provided on the Twitter page.
The next step in the evolution
Receiving less news coverage is how government agencies are starting to come onto the social media scene — sometimes even before disaster strikes.
The National Public Alerting System (NPAS) is a federal-provincial-territorial system that provides a standard alerting platform across Canada. Authorized government agencies can send emergency alerts through the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination system, which is just one part of NPAS. Broadcast distributors — radio, television, email, and SMS text services — then rapidly warn the public about tornados and other weather watches and warnings, forest and industrial fires, train derailments, chemical spills, water contamination, and missing people. According to a Public Safety Canada,
“This is an important safety system for Canadians . . . As the system expands to include the participation of cell phone companies, social media web sites and other internet and multimedia distributors, even more Canadians will be alerted to emergencies that could affect their safety.”
Similar to how Safety Check bypasses the traditional Facebook algorithm to send a message out to all of a user’s friends and family, NPAS would warn every social media user in an alert area of a potential danger. This could turn the popularity of social networking into an effective emergency networking system.