Turning to Facebook Friends for Disaster Response

As millions connect on social networks every day, the US Department of Health and Human Services recognizes the power of those connections in preparing for extraordinary situations.  The department’s Office for the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), along with Health 2.0, sponsored the Lifeline Facebook Application Challenge, which called for the creation of a Facebook app to prepare people for emergencies. The winning app, Project: Lifeline, launched this month and incorporated the essential challenge requirement ― that the user be able to designate a friend to turn to in an emergency.

According to Evan Donahue and Erik Stayton, recent Brown University graduates and creators of Lifeline, the app has two primary functions: helping people plan for disasters and organizing communication during a disaster. As prescribed by the challenge rules, the app helps users to create emergency plans and to designate trusted friends (lifelines) with whom the plans can be shared. Donahue and Stayton said this function ensures that if an emergency does strike, users will be equipped with a plan ― an idea of where to go and whom to call.

In addition, the app is designed to harness the speed and scope of social networks. It allows friends to post statuses if the user is missing, or an update, either to confirm the user’s safety or to request help. Since social networks are capable of spreading facts and misinformation, only users themselves and lifelines can makes status updates. In case of an emergency, the app is also a place where users can view their friends’ statuses and updates all in one place.

Other features of the app include a news feed that offers access to reliable information and news updates.

The creators are also looking at extending the app to include another side of emergency relief: mobilizing online volunteers. They noted that such groups of volunteers have been able to “collect, translate, and map tweets coming out of Haiti to help guide relief workers on the ground.” Currently, this feature of the app called “Recover” allows interested individuals to volunteer their names for potential recovery projects.

What’s in the future for Lifeline? At the moment, Donahue and Stayton see their creation as a “gateway” for other disaster relief tools and resources which might someday be integrated. They plan to reach out to a few current organizations, either to incorporate their technologies or simply to form connections, so that Project: Lifeline users have additional sources of aid and information.

You can play the video below to see Donahue’s and Stayton’s original challenge submission.