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Facebook says its new disaster relief tool will keep users' data private

  • Facebook is hoping to build upon the widespread use of its Safety Check tool.
  • The new maps could expedite relief to critical areas in a natural disaster.
  • Privacy is of the utmost importance, according to Facebook and its partner organizations.

Facebook announced this week a new data aggregation initiative, intending to provide real-time mapping data to disaster relief organizations.

Sprung from users employing its Safety Check tool, Facebook will share the three new maps – Location Density, Movement and Safety Check – with three organizations: UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the World Food Programme.

"The crisis mapping space is changing with the data revolution, as everything is being disrupted, even the core tenets of humanitarian organizations," World Food Program's Senior Food Security Analyst Jean-Martin Bauer said.

Facebook is taking Safety Check data and aggregating it to reveal patterns about where populations are moving in real-time. While the maps only show Facebook mobile users who are choosing to share their locations, the company believes that early results are promising.

"With our satellite imagery mapping we have been able to create the most granular population estimates to date," Facebook spokesperson Molly Jackman said. "For a lot of these initial cases, the trends that we're seeing are representative of the broader population."

And despite collecting a massive amount of personal information, Facebook stresses that it is not looking at individuals checking-in, but rather broader trends from anonymous, aggregated data.

"We never get any identifiable information and we wouldn't want it," Bauer said of his organization's role.

Rather, "the best way to think about it is that the data stays with Facebook," as the relief organizations only interact with the information on a macro level, Bauer said.

"Privacy has been part of the conversation from day one. It's important for both our organizations," Dale Kunce, the American Red Cross's Global Lead for Information Communications Technology and Analytics, said of the partnership with Facebook.

According to Kunce, Facebook approached the Red Cross with three disaster scenarios and analyzed them historically – rather than in real-time, which will be the case moving forward. Looking at Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the Fort McMurrary Wildfire in 2016 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Facebook demonstrated how the data sharing would make relief more effectual.

"For the fires in Alberta, Canada, Facebook was able to provide information about where groups of users were every 30 minutes – refreshing the data. Within the first few hours it showed a concentration of people on the highway, in traffic, as people were stranded," Bauer noted of one example.

Each relief organization emphasized how aggregating data helps make assistance better and more immediate, as Jenelle Eli, American Red Cross's Director of International Communications, told CNBC.

"We want data from lots of different sources to see what might help us expedite a delivery," Eli said.

Jackman focused on how early on this initiative is, as Facebook's timeline for validating the new maps depends upon when disasters occur and what each result reveals.

"We're planning to work closely with our partners in the next months to understand the value of the data in real disaster scenarios," Jackman added. "No data is in-and-of itself a silver bullet. It takes layers of information to paint a more complete picture."