Facebook’s health team just made its first public entrance into North America, launching a tool that pings people to donate blood in times of need.
Starting on Wednesday, organizations in New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, Baltimore, and San Francisco will be able to put out requests for blood on Facebook, which will go to users who identify themselves as donors. The system will be open to hospitals, blood banks, and the American Red Cross.
Blood is used to rescue victims of car crashes and other emergencies as well as assist people in treating cancer, sickle cell disease, and other chronic illnesses. But shortages abound, because blood products can only be kept for a short amount of time, and people often don’t donate consistently.
“One of the real challenges is: how do we maintain a viable and thriving blood supply?” John Hackett, the vice president of applied research and technology for the diagnostics division of healthcare company Abbott, previously told Business Insider. “We badly need to recruit donors who will give regularly.”
The problem is particularly severe overseas, where Facebook had already offered the tool. In India, every week, thousands of users would flock to Facebook to ask their friends and family to give blood, Hema Budaraju, Facebook’s product director of health, told Business Insider in a February interview.
Inspired by those pleas, Budaraju and her team rolled out an official Facebook blood donations tool in the country in 2017. The company later expanded the tool to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Brazil, where more than 35 million Facebook users signed up, Budaraju said.
The tool was built by Facebook’s Social Good team, which also created the company’s disaster response tool — the feature that lets you mark yourself “safe” during a crisis.
Local experts in India previously raised serious concerns about the tool to Business Insider, including an allegation that black market blood peddlers were taking advantage of the tool to demand money or other rewards.
In the US, the system won’t allow individuals to put out requests for blood, unlike in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. That’ll help avoid some of the problems Facebook has encountered in those countries, such as individuals attempting to buy blood.
“Keeping people safe on our platform is a priority and staying ahead of those who try to misuse our service is led by our security and integrity teams,” Budaraju said in the February interview.
Eventually, the company hopes to move toward only allowing organizations to request blood in every country where the tool is operational, she said. But for now, because the infrastructure doesn’t yet exist to do so, they will continue to allow individual users to put out requests in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.
Budaraju said the tool has already helped to facilitate tens of thousands of donations, saving lives by making it easier for people in need of safe blood to find willing donors with matching blood types. She said the company worked with blood banks in South Asia and Brazil to survey donors, and found that 20% of them said Facebook influenced them to give blood. The team has yet to publish those findings.
“The intent is to have a set of tools to increase awareness and to make it easy to donate blood,” Budaraju said.