Jacobs School alum and Facebook engineer talks about 'Safety Check' feature
|Alum Peter Cottle, who now works at Facebook, during a talk at the Jacobs School.
By Marissa R. Adams
San Diego, Calif., Oct. 23, 2014 --When disaster strikes, we want to know that our loved ones are safe, but sometimes it can be hours before we are sure.
Peter Cottle, a Jacobs School alumnus, B.S. ’11, has helped make the process a bit simpler. Cottle is a software engineer at Facebook and the creator of the new feature “Safety Check,” which the site launched in October 2014. On Oct. 20, he gave a talk to UC San Diego students about the concepts behind the feature and why it was developed.
In the event of a disaster, Facebook sends a push notification to users who are listed as being in the affected area. Users can then push a button saying “I’m safe” or “I’m not in the area” and the answer will be sent as a notification and a News Feed update for friends to see. Users can also mark friends that they know are safe.
Cottle’s presentation was interactive, and he asked the students technical questions. He strongly encouraged audience participation, promising that he wouldn’t continue until he received a response.
“You guys will crack before I do,” he said, with a big grin to put the crowd at ease.
He explained how “Safety Check” was developed, the technical challenges for coding it and what had to be avoided to prevent the outcome he put simply as the website “exploding” —a phrase that got a lot of laughter from the students.
“So, if Facebook could create anything they wanted, why create ‘Safety Check’?” he asked.
He answered his own question by explaining who else was in a position to do so. He listed cell phone providers, Twitter, Google, and even the government as possible entities to create a feature like this one. But he noted that each one was limited in their access to the people someone cares about. A Facebook friend list is the most likely to contain the people who really care about someone’s safety, not just every contact in a person’s phone or anyone they’ve ever emailed.
“We were in the best position to build this product, and because of that we have an obligation, a civic duty to do it,” Cottle said.
The “Safety Check” feature started out small and slowly rose to the top, eventually getting enthusiastic approval of CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Cottle emphasized that grassroots ideas are still welcome even in a company as big as Facebook, an inspiring note to close his presentation.
The evening ended with a brief “Q & A” with the students, and a word from a Facebook recruiter who encouraged Tritons to apply to internships and welcomed résumés from any well-prepared hopefuls.
Jacobs School of Engineering