Mapping to Save Lives Using Social Media

Facebook Disaster Maps

Facebook’s new disaster maps program under the data for good project is providing valuable insights to help us understand and study social media more effectively. It helps us visualize potential undeserved locations to help us find those cries for help.

“The faster we can understand what’s happening on the ground the faster we can adapt and respond,” shared Cat Graham, Chief Operations Officer . “Humanity Road is working with Facebook to help improve the public’s chances at surviving disaster.”

The Camp Fire 2018

Humanity Road leverages technology and social media to monitor and help save lives. In response to typhoon Haiyan which struck the Philippines in 2013, Statistics without Borders partnered with Humanity Road to study Twitter data. Their work uncovered a way to map communications outages. The study was done six months after landfall. Previously this type of study had never been conducted and it provided great insight, however it was a small sampling. On average, less than 5% of tweets can be geographically located accurately. In the Philippines only 1.5% contained sufficient information to geolocate the message.

In 2018 Humanity Road began leveraging Facebook Disaster Maps to identify under served locations. The maps provide near real-time data with insights on where communication outages may be developing and even where population shifts are happening. We started publishing the reports which are helping aid agencies position aid more effectively. In 2018 we published Facebook disaster maps on three events, the Campfire in California, hurricane Florence and hurricane Michael


November 2018 Camp Fire

“The Camp Fire was the first time we could see with clarity a major population shift. The situation report and maps were published and distributed to our partners to help them assess the situation on the ground.” Shared Crystal, Chavis, Senior Data Analyst and Business Continuity Lead for Humanity Road. “In the image below, red indicates where a dramatic reduction in population using Facebook in that location occurred, while blue indicates an increase in population. In less than 24 hours the Camp fire had burned over 31 square miles and destroyed everything in its path in Paradise, California. Nearly 30,000 people were forced to evacuate or were displaced. The map gave us a clear indication of a population shift toward Chico.”

Hurricane Florence 2018

Florence made landfall on Sept 14th in 2018. Mandatory evacuations were in effect and the coastal communities including Kittyhawk, Wilmington and Myrtle beach were showing significant changes in active coastal populations. The population density maps helped to confirm a significant decline in coastal population from the three month prior to the event.

Facebook Disaster Maps and the aid community

In response to Hurricanes Florence and Michael the Facebook technology is helping us in many ways.

  • Daily location raster images during Michael showed a significant drop in coastal activity as residents evacuated the coastline.
  • These also provided insights to population density changes giving us an indication of the population shifts.
  • Disaster business continuity planners from the national business operations center were leveraging them to enhance their situational awareness.
  • Logistics aid agencies were leveraging them to help build a better picture for logistical response planning
  • Enterprise and risk management planners from health screening and health aid agencies were leveraging the map to gain insight on density shifts and population centers.


The first forecast for the year was released December 11, 2018, predicted a slightly below-average season in 2019, with a total of 12 named storms, 5 hurricanes, and 2 major hurricanes, due to the anticipated presence of El Niño conditions during the season. In general, warm El Niño years produce more hurricanes and storms in the Pacific and a less in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. However, some locals in Louisiana are not yet convinced. We are starting 2019 with warmer ocean temperatures then the past 5 years. They have experienced this in previous years and it can lead to larger, longer storms. Record breaking ocean warmth created Hurricane Harvey. Warm waters also fueled Hurricane Florence which dumped record breaking rain on North Carolina.

Social Media Early Indications Reporting

The Facebook Disaster Maps program is not the only area where Facebook and the use of social media is saving lives. In nine years of monitoring social media daily, hurricane Harvey in 2017 set records for us at Humanity Road. It produced the most active calls for rescue emerging in social media and most of them came from Facebook. We provided the U.S. Coast Guard situational awareness that helped them better respond to hurricane Harvey. We helped map over a thousand data points which translated to 5000 souls rescued.

Understanding where help is needed relies on the ability for the public to communicate. If the public can’t reach out for help, then search and rescue teams won’t know that they need help. If we don’t know they need help then more will perish. Complicating the problem is a lack of situational awareness for when and where communications are failing. The power companies are mandated to provide a map of outages but the communications companies are not.

When the public resorts to using Social Media to request rescue, it can cause a snowball effect on rescue and communications. Multiple family and friends from outside the impacted areas begin calling emergency services which creates a bottleneck in what little communications structure is left. The phone lines become saturated, Getting near real time information on what’s happening on the ground is imperative.

The way forward

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes public support to influence positive change. Facebook is on the cutting edge by providing real-time information on population movement, population density changes and communications outages, and they are doing so while protecting the privacy of the public.

In 2010 when we launched Humanity Road, we were the first nonprofit in the world to ask the public to update their Facebook to say they are safe. It saves bandwidth for local responders. “I remember attending the Operation Dragonfire meetings with Facebook” shares Cat Graham. “We were discussing our goal to influence the public’s actions to help improve bandwidth. Facebook took these suggestions and automated the “Safety Check” process. The disaster maps program is supported by the data in their “Safety Check” program.

We are now able to get more accurate information on the status of communications and more insight to under-served locations. “We at Humanity Road are hoping the public supports this critical work going forward.” Shares Cat Graham, “It couldn’t have come at a better time as the intensity of natural disasters are on the rise. This is giving us near real-time information. We need to leverage technology in ways that are timely, accurate, easy to operate and yet protects the public’s privacy. Kudos to Facebook for making a difference.”