HHS sees Facebook friends as potential disaster lifelines

Agency offers $10K prize for best preparedness boosting app

The Health and Human Services Department wants a way to use Facebook friendships to help people after a major disaster.

The department launched its “Lifeline Facebook App Challenge," which asks teams of developers to create an application that would allow users to seek help from at least three Facebook friends as “lifelines” during a disaster and to use geolocational data and information-sharing tools.

The goal is to “provide actionable steps for Facebook users” to help them increase their personal and community preparedness, with the goal of protecting public health and increasing community resilience following a disaster, according to an Aug. 10 notice in the Federal Register. The notice referred to disasters in a general fashion, not specifically public health-related disasters.


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Submissions are due by Sept. 15. Three winning teams will receive prizes of $10,000, $5,000 or $1,000.

The contest is being sponsored by HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which helps provide support during public health emergencies. The contest itself was authorized under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.

The goal of the competition is to create an application that makes use of Facebook's day-to-day communications to enhance the ability for people to be prepared for disasters.

Entrants are required to develop an app that enables a Facebook user to invite three Facebook friends to become "lifelines," or points of contact who agree to act as a source of support during disasters.

“Entrants are encouraged to creatively leverage Facebook's existing networking and geolocating capabilities to enhance the app's ability to increase personal preparedness, locate potential disaster victims, and streamline information sharing among social networks during disasters,” the notice states.

Social media tools have become increasingly used before, during and after major disasters such as the Haiti earthquakes, when victims tweeted their positions in the rubble and survivors broadcast information about cleared roads and fallen bridges.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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