How Google and Facebook are finding victims of the Nepal earthquake

Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post: “As the death toll from Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude Nepalese earthquake inches higher, help in finding and identifying missing persons has come from an unusual source: Silicon Valley tech giants.

Both Google and Facebook deployed collaborative, cellphone-based tools over the weekend to help track victims of the earthquake. In the midst of both company’s big push to bring Internet to the developing world, it’s an important illustration of exactly how powerful that connectivity could be. And yet, in a country like Nepal — where there are only 77 cellphone subscriptions per 100 people versus 96 in the U.S. and 125 in the U.K. — it’s also a reminder of how very far that effort still has to go.

Facebook Safety Check

Facebook’s Safety Check essentially lets users do two things, depending on where they are. Users in an area impacted by a natural disaster can log onto the site and mark themselves as “safe.” Meanwhile, users around the world can log into the site and check if any of their friends are in the impacted area. The tool was built by Japanese engineers in response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal Japan.

Facebook hasn’t publicized how many people have used the tool, though the network only has 4.4 million users in the country based on estimates by its ad platform. Notably, you must also a smartphone running the Facebook app to use this feature — and smartphone penetration in Nepal is quite low.

Google Person Finder

Like Safety Check, Google Person Finder is intended to connect people in a disaster area with friends and family around the world. Google’s five-year-old project also operates on a larger scale, however: It basically provides a massive, open platform to collaboratively track missing persons’ reports. Previously, Google’s deployed the tool to help victims in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan and the Boston bombing.