- Marcy Scott Lynn is Facebook’s director of global impact partnerships, which means she works to set up partnerships and programmes through which the company can have a positive impact on the world.
- Lynn was heavily involved in creating Facebook’s Safety Check feature, which allows people to tag themselves as safe during disastrous events.
- She told Business Insider the origin story of Safety Check and how it was first activated in 2014 during typhoon Ruby in the Philippines.
- Her team is only a year old, but has recently joined a tech for good partnership called 2030 Vision, which Lynn sees as its first big step.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Marcy Scott Lynn was one of the brains behind Facebook’s famous feature that allows people to tag themselves as safe during disastrous events — and she remembers its inception vividly.
A group of Facebook engineers in Japan were originally responsible for the idea following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. One of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded, it killed 19,000 and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant that displaced more than 100,000 others.
The trouble was, the engineers’ brainwave came after the worst of the devastation. It was not until a Facebook hackathon that the idea came to resemble something like what we know now as Safety Check.
A two-person team made up of an engineer and project manager took inspiration from the work of their Japanese colleagues, presenting a more sophisticated iteration of the tool at the event. They got “a lot of love from the crowd,” recalls Lynn, now Facebook’s director of global impact partnerships.
Lynn was working on the policy team at the time, and got pulled onto the project along with a designer. She remembers the first time the feature got deployed as if it were yesterday. Three years after the 2011 Tōhoku disaster, Typhoon Ruby swept through the Philippines — and Lynn’s team sprung into action.
“It’s burned into my brain — I remember it, it was typhoon Ruby in the Philippines. We were prepared, we knew it was coming, we were watching the weather reports.” Typhoon Ruby, also known as typhoon Hagupit, hit the Philippines in December 2014 forcing the evacuation of one million people.
“We had a meeting on [the] Friday… I just remember sitting in my home office with my daughter on my lap, we had all these people on video con, some people went into the office like ‘is this gonna be it?'”
The team had painstakingly developed a set of criteria around which disasters would qualify for “mark yourself as safe,” such as the number of people impacted, but actually setting the feature in motion required manual activation. “It literally required if it was in the middle of the night — which eventually it was — waking the on-call engineer to turn it on.”
Scott says that until Facebook was able to automate the system, decisions on whether to activate the feature remained a “group effort.” In its early days, the teams deciding whether to activate were cautious about overuse.
“Honestly I think originally we were probably biased towards fewer activations because we didn’t want to inundate people. We didn’t want Facebook to turn into a place where all that ever happened on there was ‘disaster of the day,'” she explains.
Over time, however, the team gradually applied the feature to more disasters, including those created by humans, like the 2015 terror attack in Paris, France.
“We were able to really refine our thinking, we got a lot of help from outside experts in the humanitarian space to help us think through our criteria — especially as we tried to build a more automated product.”
Improving Facebook’s ‘handprint’
Since its inception, Safety Check has been activated for 1,400 crises, a Facebook spokesman says. It is one of a number of projects Lynn has been involved with aimed at making Facebook a force for good.
Lynn was promoted to director of global impact partnerships in July 2018. The department was totally new, and a year on, it’s still in the process of figuring out what its role in the company is going to be, Lynn told Business Insider.
“We are talking to organisations like Unicef, like Save the Children about strategic partnerships. It’s not normally money, this is not a philanthropy programme per se, but it’s more about creating programmes,” says Lynn, who answers to Facebook’s VP of partnerships Ime Archibong.
Lynn took up her new post as negative press about Facebook was starting to snowball. Since then, public sentiment towards the company has undoubtedly soured, and BI asked Lynn whether her job might be seen as whitewashing, pointing to worthy causes while problems like graphic content run rampant on its platform.
She describes the good Facebook can actively do in the world as the company’s “handprint,” whereas the passive effects of broad structural problems constitute its footprint. Lynn says the company is working hard to address both. “I don’t see how we credibly operate in the social impact space without thinking about our footprint… I’m not sure we should only be doing one or the other,” she says.
A concrete example of the kind of handprint Lynn wants to leave behind is Facebook’s disease prevention maps, which the company announced in May. The maps use anonymised location data from the African continent to build up detailed maps of population density, which can then be used by rescue and medical officials during natural disasters or disease outbreaks. The data can be narrowed down to specific demographics, such as women or elderly people.
Facebook developed the maps in collaboration with the UN, which in turn led to Facebook joining 2030 Vision, a tech partnership whose members include the UN, Microsoft, and ARM. The stated aim of 2030 Vision is to deliver on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals as laid out in 2015. It is not to be confused with Vision 2030, the name of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic drive in Saudi Arabia.
Lynn hopes to come up with lots more ways for her team to improve Facebook’s handprint on the world. “We’ve done a bunch of smaller projects as we try to figure out what makes sense,” she adds, although she feels joining Vision 2030 is her team’s first really big step.
“We are still feeling our way,” Lynn says.
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