Facebook is trialling a location data-driven feature which it believes will help authorities combat bush fires in Australia, as well as tackling other disasters around the world, and it hopes to have the feature ready to roll out before summer.
Speaking to The Australian Financial Review while in the country for the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner’s Data Privacy Asia Pacific conference, Facebook deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman said the social network had been investing in ways to use data that benefited the public, such as disaster maps.
“The first 48 hours is the most critical time, but it is also the time when disaster recovery organisations lack the information on what the conditions are. They might know that an earthquake has a hit a city, but not what areas are hit hardest,” he said.
“[With Facebook’s location data] you can see on day one of a disaster that people are leaving certain areas. Then three days later you can see which areas people are returning too, indicating that recovery has begun. That lets disaster organisations understand where to deploy resources.”
Mr Sherman said tackling bush fires was a perfect use for disaster maps because when they occur there are few resources on the ground at the start. He said the map would increase the ability to track where people have evacuated, and where groups of people had stayed behind.
Facebook has already conducted trials with not-for-profit partners and it is in discussions with Australian organisations about its use. It hopes to develop an application programming interface (API) that will be accessible to law enforcement in real time, so that the feature is available as soon as a disaster strikes.
The social networking giant said it has developed the tool while maintaining the privacy of its users by applying a smoothing algorithm that captures patterns in the data.
Mr Sherman left his job as a lawyer to join Facebook about five years ago, and said privacy had become increasingly embedded in all of its new products.
“We have a privacy by design approach. The idea is to have discussions about privacy early on in the product development process, often before a line of code is written,” he said.
“It’s a process that involves a lot of perspectives around the company. It involves not just legal and compliance, but product design, engineering and security.”
Facebook has been plagued for years by complaints that it is fast and loose with its users’ privacy, and has reacted in recent times by giving users more real-time prompts about the privacy of their posts and comments. Users are now frequently asked if they want to change their settings back if they swap from “friends only” to “public” for a post or vice versa.
Mr Sherman said this was recognition that people wanted more control over their privacy.