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Facebook adds ways to find and offer help through Safety Check

This could be useful in times of crisis.

Facebook adds ways to find and offer help through Safety Check
Nicole Lee
Nicole Lee|@nicole|February 8, 2017 9:00 AM

Facebook's Safety Check feature has proven useful as a quick and easy way for people to tell their family and friends they're safe during a crisis. But safety is one thing -- what if you still need food and shelter? Or perhaps medical supplies? That's why Facebook has introduced a new feature called Community Help. Now when you check in to say you're safe, you'll see some follow-up queries to either find help if you need it, or to give help if you have the means to do so.

These "Find Help" and "Give Help" options will be integrated in the same interface as the Safety Check page. Hit Find Help, and you can select from a number of different categories, like food, shelter or water. Pick shelter, for example, and you'll see posts from people in the community offering their homes or apartments as a place to stay. You could even see spots plotted out on a map thanks to approximate location data.

Posts from friends or mutual friends will appear on the top, since they're probably more trustworthy than strangers. Each individual post will have a Message button at the bottom, so you can easily send them a message and hopefully get the help you want. Once the person asking for help and the person giving help have been matched up, the request can be closed out so that they will no longer show up on the search results and map.

Of course, there's always the potential for con artists to take advantage of bad situations. Facebook has tried to curb this by implementing a few safeguards. First, when you hit Find Help in the app, there will be a warning that teaches you a few safety tips, like always meeting the other person in public and vetting their profile to see if they're legit. There are also controls to report posts if they seem particularly sketchy. Plus, only those ages 18 and older are allowed in. And in order to prevent bots and spam, accounts that are extremely new won't be able to gain access to the group.

Still, Facebook seems pretty hopeful that scams like these will be few and far between. Preethi Chetan, a product designer for Safety Check, said that in her team's research, she's been heartened to see a lot of people wanting to give help any way they can. "It's nice to see good will like that in the community," she said.

This feature exists within Safety Check itself, so it's useful to have some background on how the whole thing actually works. First, an incident has to be important enough to trigger an alert by global crisis reporting agencies NC4 and iJet International. Once that happens, Facebook automatically starts looking for keywords and location data for posts about the incident in the area.

If there's enough of a critical mass of folks talking about it, Safety Check will then trigger for that particular event, calling for locals to mark themselves safe. Once they do, they can also immediately check up on their friends by inviting them to do the Safety Check as well. The entire process is community-activated. It's been that way since November last year -- though Facebook employees do provide oversight to make sure everything's running smoothly.

Right now, Community Help will only be for natural and accidental incidents in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and India. It will roll out to more countries and more incident types as the team learns more about how people use the tools. "As with any activation, we're looking to get feedback and listen and improve our products for communities in need in the future," said Chetan.

Facebook adds ways to find and offer help through Safety Check