‘Have Positive, Real World Impact.’ Why Facebook Is Redesigning Data for Social Good

March 7, 2018, 1:57 PM UTC
Fortune Brainstorm Design 2018
032 Fortune Brainstorm Design 2018 Wednesday, March 7th, 2018 Singapore 16:30 - 16:50 DESIGNING WITH DATA In times of need, people come to Facebook to build community and help each other. People use Safety Check to let their friends and family know they are safe; people support one another through Community Help, which enables them to ask for and offer recovery assistance; and people raise money for causes they care about and to help communities rebuild after a crisis. Facebook’s Design Director for social good will share how Facebook is leveraging data, research, and design to help its two billion community members connect, share, and help each other. Elizabeth Laraki, Director of Product Design, Facebook Interviewer: Matt Vella, TIME Photograph by Stefen Chow/Fortune
Stefen Chow/Fortune

Facebook‘s (FB) announcement of dramatic changes to its News Feed to prioritize “meaningful social interactions” — meaning fewer public posts and paid ads, and more photos of friends and family — has drawn concern from companies and brands that rely on the platform to reach their audiences, not least from news organizations.

But the world’s largest social network has been quietly introducing new tools to make it more like a community for years and to even help users in times of crisis, said Elizabeth Laraki, Facebook’s director of product design for social good, speaking with Time’s executive editor Matt Vella at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Wednesday.

“The goal of [Facebook’s] social good team is to have positive, real world impact,” Laraki said. “People are already doing a lot of good on Facebook. Our job is to build tools to make these things easier.”

One of the most visible features is Safety Check, which allows users to identify themselves and loved ones as unharmed during crises or natural disasters. Facebook realized the power of its platform for connecting communities during the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Laraki said, when it noticed a huge surge in posts in the affected location related to the disaster. A Facebook engineer quickly responded by developing a Disaster Message Board to make it easier for users to organize their posts and find loved ones.

The effort was picked up and interwoven into Facebook as Safety Check, which debuted in 2014 for natural disasters like as Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines. It has been widely adapted since for incidents including terrorist atrocities, like attacks in Paris, Brussels and New York, a mass shooting in Las Vegas and wildfires in California. The feature was a finalist for Fast Company‘s Innovation by Design Award in 2015.

With two billion users, “Facebook is the largest community of activists and volunteers raising funds for causes they care about,” Laraki said. The company responded by developing Community Help, which connects affected users with food, shelter, and transportation responses in the wake of a natural disaster, and fundraising tools that allow users to make donations to crisis recovery efforts. Facebook has since broadened its donation options to include “personal fundraisers” for causes like education, medical expenses or the death of a loved one.

“People are already doing a lot of these behaviors on Facebook today,” Laraki said, “so part of it is recognizing what behaviors people are doing and looking at really understanding why they’re doing these things, and then evaluating if there is an opportunity for us to really make a difference.” Facebook is ” focused on real world impact,” she added, and on magnifying and organizing efforts that people may already be taking on their own.

Now, all of those efforts live in one place on Facebook: Crisis Response, a centralized crisis information portal that brings together Safety Check and Community help with news alerts and public posts from charities and government agencies. Crisis Response resembles digital news portals more than a regular social media page, and it’s the natural result of the social network’s growth, bringing together Facebook’s wealth of user data with its public profiles. By using user post data to determine where and how to serve out Safety Check notifications, donation prompts, and more, Facebook was “really having people in the direct locations deciding whether it was important or not,” Laraki said.

Today, Safety Check has been activated more than 1,000 times and received more than 3 billion notifications from users letting their loved ones know they’re safe, while Community Help has connected 750,000 people to vital services, from boat rescue to safe water to blood donation supplies.

“Facebook has a saying that the journey is one percent finished, and this is very very true for how we approach building our products as well,” she said, considering developments in artificial intelligence, automation, and changes in the world’s political context. “We’re really at the very very tip of the iceberg of what we can do.”

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