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Centers look to new Facebook tools for help during disasters

May 11, 2018

HOUSTON (AP) — Community health centers in Texas that helped thousands of people during and after Hurricane Harvey have new crisis-response tools from Facebook that could enhance their ability to reach victims when a hurricane hits.

The hurricane season officially starts next month. And with the effects of Harvey still lingering in many communities — nearly nine months after the storm devastated parts of the coast and Houston area — about 20 centers from around the state met in Houston this week to hear about how the new tools could help them better publicize their services and distribute resources during a natural disaster.

One is Community Help, a page within Facebook where aid organizations, businesses and government agencies can now post what services they offer during a specific crisis. The other is Disaster Maps, which uses geolocation data gathered from people using Facebook to show select organizations where people are located to help improve aid delivery.

Disaster Maps is currently being used in Hawaii to show how local residents are moving in response to the eruption of the Kilauea volcano. It also used in December during wildfires in California to help with the distribution of respirator masks, said Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis for Direct Relief. The California-based medical aid nonprofit responded during Harvey and sponsored the workshop in Houston.

Schroeder said one of the challenges for health centers and other help providers during any natural disaster is figuring out the best way to allocate services to a shifting population.

“How do you know where they are? (Help providers) tend to make educated guesses, going to where there are not that many people and reallocating (resources) again,” Schroeder said. “There is a bunch of time that gets wasted in that process.”

Cathy Phan works for Hope Clinic, a health center in Houston that provided medical aid and other help to thousands of people at three clinics during and after Harvey. She said she was particularly intrigued by Disaster Maps, which was launched in June, and how it could be useful if centers like hers could get real-time access to where people in need are located.

“Every disaster is going to be different,” she said. “What you can do is prepare for the worst case scenario and hope for the best case scenario. These tools, I think it’s something we’re definitely going to try to utilize to the best of our abilities.”

Individuals cannot be identified from the raw data used to create Disaster Maps, which are also not available to the general public, Schroeder said.

Community Help was originally geared toward individuals trying to find or give help, such as shelter and transportation, during a specific crisis. It’s part of Crisis Response, a center on Facebook where people can utilize various tools, including Safety Check, in which individuals can mark themselves as safe during a crisis.

In February, organizations and government agencies were allowed to post information about their services during an ongoing disaster, including where and when they operating. Facebook made the change in part to make it easier for people to learn about services and assistance being offered during a crisis.

Leah Rush, with Facebook’s Crisis Response Team, said while many organizations already post information about services they provide during a disaster on their own Facebook pages, the new access in Community Help will assist them in reaching a wider audience that might miss that information.

“We’re really excited about this. We think it can kind of change the game,” Rush said during a webinar presentation at the meeting.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

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