Is my friend/relative/colleague OK? After a disaster like Saturday’s Nepal earthquake, that’s a question people around the world with any kind of connection to the disaster zone have been asking.
Both Google and Facebook have in recent years developed tools intended to make that question easier to answer, and both companies quickly turned their tools on in the wake of the Nepal quake.
Google activated its “Person Finder” missing persons tracker. A concerned friend or relative types in the name of the person they are looking for into a search box or texts "search" to 6040 in Nepal, 91-9773300000 in India, or 1 650-800-3978 in the United States. On the other end, people can submit information about someone in the earthquake zone—including a description and whether or not the person is known to be safe. At this writing, Google had 5900 records active.
Facebook is asking users to let their friends know that they are safe via “Safety Check,” launched last year. When the company turns this tool on, Facebook’s servers determine which users are in the disaster area, considering their listed home city, last location identified by the company’s “Nearby Friends” technology if they use that app, or the identity of the city in which users last used the Internet to access Facebook. The system then pushes a request to them asking them to click on a button to indicate that they are OK. People outside the disaster area can use Safety Check to find out which friends are in the area and whether or not they have checked in as safe.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.