Facebook Tweaks Safety Check

Facebook announced several updates to its Safety Check feature, including a new tool that allows select non-engineering employees to activate Safety Check and an internal Messenger bot.

Facebook announced several updates to its Safety Check feature, including a new tool that allows select non-engineering employees to activate Safety Check and an internal Messenger bot.

Software engineer Peter Cottle revealed the new Safety Check developments in a blog post, which also offered a detailed look at the technology behind the feature.

Cottle wrote that engineers had previously been required to deploy Safety Check in times of crisis, and he explained the reasoning behind the new tool:

Once our infrastructure was solid, we wanted to scale and automate as much of the process around activating Safety Check as possible. Previously, an engineer was required to manually input data and perform SQL queries to launch, which meant we depended on a few employees all located in one time zone.

Unfortunately, disasters can strike at any moment and with little notice, so we built a new internal tool that enables trained teams across time zones to activate Safety Check any time of day for any event in the world, without having to depend on an engineer to do so.

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Cottle also described the internal Messenger bot used by Facebook employees to keep tabs on the process of deploying Safety Check:

After scaling the launch process, we then needed to address the post-launch procedure. We monitor every launch to ensure quality, but pulling these data reports used to be a manual and time-consuming process.

To automate this task, we built an internal bot for Messenger to both continuously monitor new launches and provide on-demand data reports. This allowed us to migrate our entire launch monitoring process to mobile and colocate it where the discussions are happening—in Messenger itself.

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The algorithm behind the activation of Safety Check was described in detail by Cottle in the blog post, as was its use of the social graph and how Facebook prevents its automated systems from being overwhelmed with a new internal rate-limiting service.

He wrote on Safety Check in general:

Since our first activation in December 2014 for Typhoon Ruby, more than 1 billion people have received the news of a friend being marked safe in a crisis. We started with natural disasters and then expanded to include non-natural incidents, launching with an increased frequency to mirror this broadened scope. Between January and May 2016, we’ve activated Safety Check 17 times, compared with 11 times in 2014 and 2015 combined.

As our efforts ramped up, the team began solving the technical challenges associated with more consistent and frequent activations. To create a system that we can launch anywhere at a moment’s notice, we scaled our infrastructure to handle larger events more efficiently and automated many of the manual steps previously required for activation.

He also told Megan Rose Dickey of TechCrunch:

That is a pretty big acceleration in terms of the rate of activation, but it’s based on feedback of the community, of people saying over and over again that it provides so much relief and it’s really helpful for these times. I think us as a team are like, “Wow, this is something we should invest in and double down in, so it’s my full-time job now, which is really exciting.”

And Katherine Woo, product lead for Facebook’s social good team, told Dickey:

This is a really exciting time because not only is the community specifically themselves activating it, but also the ones promoting it and spreading it. They’re the ones making the decision of, “This is when Safety Check will be useful, and I want to ask my friends,” and it’s no longer Facebook sending the notification.

Readers: Have you ever used Facebook’s Safety Check, either to reassure friends and loved ones that you were safe, or to check on friends and loved ones in a potential crisis situation?

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