In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, Israeli technology did its bit to help reassure the panicked citizens of Paris that their loved ones were safe.
“During the 24 hours after the terror attack, 4.1 million people checked in with friends and relatives using Facebook Safety Check, a technology developed by Facebook Israel’s research and development department,” said a spokesperson for Facebook Israel. “A total of 360 million people received messages that their loved ones were safe.”
Safety Check is a feature that Facebook has activated several times in the past, usually for natural disasters. The Paris attacks were the first time it was used to enable people to “check in” and let others know they were safe in a terror attack scenario. Facebook made that announcement in response to widespread criticism in the blogosphere about how the service had not been used in previous terror incidents in places like Baghdad, Beirut, and Kabul.
According to Alex Schultz, Facebook’s vice president of Growth, “We chose to activate Safety Check in Paris because we observed a lot of activity on Facebook as the events were unfolding. In the middle of a complex, uncertain situation affecting many people, Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones… This activation will change our policy around Safety Check and when we activate it for other serious and tragic incidents in the future. We want this tool to be available whenever and wherever it can help.”
For Facebook Israel’s top staff, Adi Sofer-Te’eni and Ro’i Tiger – the heads of Israeli market affairs and of research and development, respectively – Safety Check is part of the company’s commitment to using the Internet for good.
“It’s a concept that Mark (Facebook CEO Zuckerberg) has talked about. For us, it’s a great thing to be able to get up in the morning and not only do a challenging job, but one we know is helping people around the world,” said Tiger. “Facebook has become like a public square, used by over a billion people, so being able to leverage the platform to enable people to receive reassurance that their loved ones are safe is something we are very proud to be a part of.”
At a recent press conference in Facebook’s Tel Aviv R&D center, Sofer-Te’eni and Tiger discussed Safety Check and other projects the Israeli R&D center had worked on. An early version of Safety Check was used in Japan in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. An enhanced version was then developed in Israel, and the app was officially released in its current form in October 2014. Since then it has been activated in several natural disasters, including the May 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, and an earthquake in Afghanistan in October.
“It’s a positive project that makes us proud to come to work each day,” said Tiger. “For us, the idea of taking technology and giving it a moral aspect is important.”
Among the “doing good” projects Facebook Israel is concentrating on is Facebook’s Internet.org project, which provides access to basic Internet services for free in the developing world. “We’ve been developing apps for the platform, and they are now being deployed by people in the Philippines, India, Ghana, and many other places,” said Tiger.
The project is designed to enable the billions of people with no Internet access to tap into the web using their cellphones, said Tiger. Many people in places like India and Africa do have cellphones, but they certainly aren’t the iPhones and Samsung Galaxies that most Westerners carry. Instead, they are simple devices that may offer online access, but at a high cost, due to the poor connectivity in many areas. With the apps being developed by Facebook, users will be able to engage more actively on the Internet, while keeping costs down.
One important way to keep costs down is by keeping connection costs down, which is exactly what Onavo was doing when Facebook purchased the company in 2013. Onavo’s Extend app enable users to get as much as five times web browsing, social networking, and video watching done on the limited bandwidth most users were forced to adhere to in 2011, when the app was first released. Since then, prices have come down sufficiently in Western countries to allow many users to purchase unlimited data plans, so crunching down the data to fit into the measly one or two gigs of connectivity the cellphone service providers had been giving customers was no longer necessary.
But in the developing world, the kind of data saving developed by Onavo – now Facebook Israel – will come in very handy, said Tiger. “For us, it’s a great thing to be able to get up in the morning and not only do a challenging job, but one we know is helping people around the world.”