Providing Disaster Maps to help those affected by Australia fires
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Facebook Disaster Maps help those affected by Australia’s unprecedented bushfires

Bushfires in Australia have killed more than 25 people, decimated Australia’s wildlife, and are expected to rack up historically high damage costs of multiple billions of dollars — and they’re still burning.

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During and after a natural disaster, response organizations need accurate information — every minute counts in saving lives. Real-time information helps paint a more complete picture of where affected people are located, so that resources like food, water, and medical supplies can be efficiently distributed where they are needed most. We launched Facebook Disaster Maps specifically to help fill information gaps during these events. So when the Australia fires began, we quickly shared real-time maps with our more than 100 Data for Good partners. Those maps illustrate how populations are evacuating and whether they have access to cellular networks, which are helping response organizations optimize their response efforts. To help support and amplify the efforts of our community, we will also be matching up to AU$1 million in donations made to GlobalGiving and donating AU$250,000 to the Australian Red Cross.

Currently, Disaster Maps in Australia are being used by a range of national and international relief, response, and academic organizations. Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid organization focused on health and emergency response, is using these tools to analyze evacuation proceedings and has plans to distribute more than 500,000 respiratory masks to the Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales. Direct Relief first used Disaster Maps to respond to the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslides of December 2017 and January 2018 to learn how large numbers of people behave during crisis events and to develop insights about how best to respond to medical needs.

N95 respirator masks being loaded onto an airplane bound for wildfire-affected areas of Australia. Direct Relief is coordinating with Australian agencies and organizations to distribute the masks where they’re needed most. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

How Facebook Disaster Maps help

Traditional forms of data often do not provide an accurate real-time view of affected areas, which makes it extremely difficult to understand how to best direct response efforts. To combat gaps in information, Facebook Disaster Maps are generated within 24 hours of disaster striking, then refreshed daily throughout the event. The data in these maps is gathered from people using the Facebook app who have chosen to turn on Location Services and opt into a feature called Location History, which can be modified at any time under Privacy Settings. Access to this near real-time data on evacuations, displacement, and network connectivity access means disaster response agencies can act quickly and efficiently to save lives. Plus, continuously updating information allows them to respond to changing circumstances on the ground during and after the event. To assist with the bushfires, four maps have been shared: the South Coast of New South Wales; East Gippsland in Victoria; Green Wattle Creek Fire in New South Wales; and the Cudlee Creek Fire in South Australia.

Such real-time information helps responders effectively deploy resources to serve the neediest survivors and protect vulnerable populations by painting a more complete picture of where affected people are located. Disaster Maps’ Facebook population density map for the bushfires clearly illustrates the quick and massive evacuation of Batemans Bay over the course of several days, from December 31 to January 3, as fire swept over the town.

These maps allow responders to quickly get a read on how people are actually behaving during a specific emergency, rather than making assumptions or predicting behaviors based on past events. They’re proving to be a remarkable tool for responders to the catastrophic Australian bushfires, the second-largest fire event ever recorded globally based on land size, which so far have destroyed more than 15 million acres, more than seven times the acreage of the shocking California fires of 2018 or last year’s Amazon wildfire. At least a billion animals have been killed, wiping out multiple species of native Australian wildlife, including 30 percent of the world’s koala population. 

Since its inception, Facebook Data for Good has generated Disaster Maps for hundreds of natural disasters, including Hurricanes Dorian and Barry, Typhoon Tisoy in the Philippines, and the recent earthquake in Puerto Rico. In addition to guiding response efforts, universities and researchers are also using Disaster Maps to analyze how disaster-affected populations utilize social services, what prompts them to obey evacuation orders, and how social ties affect their resilience after a disaster.

More ways to help

As part of our efforts to assist with the bushfires, we are donating AU$250,000 to the Australian Red Cross to support relief and recovery efforts. We will also match up to AU$1 million in donations made to GlobalGiving, which will distribute the money to local nonprofits working on recovery efforts.* Donations made through our Crisis Response pages for the bushfires across New South Wales or the bushfires across Victoria and South Australia will be matched up to AU$1 million.
*Facebook waives 100 percent of fees for donations to charitable organizations. Learn more about Facebook fundraisers and crisis response.