Facebook is no longer just a place to connect with former high school buddies; the social media giant now wants to make it easier for you to connect with blood banks, too.
On Wednesday, Facebook launched a blood donation feature in the United States to help users find places to donate blood in their area and be notified when a nearby blood donation center may be in need.
The feature allows users to sign up to be blood donors in the “about” section of their profiles and then receive notifications from blood donation centers. The tool comes just in time for summer, a season when blood donations are typically low.
“In five US cities, we’re going to put a notice right at the top of News Feed, asking people to register if they want to,” Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
Those cities are Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore and Washington, but the feature will roll out nationwide in the coming months, according to Facebook.
“Then, if there’s a blood shortage in your city, our partners like the American Red Cross can notify you and give you an opportunity to donate,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us, we think, to help people contribute to each other in a way that’s really important.”
‘This could … change the blood banking system’
Similar blood donation tools have launched in India, Pakistan, Brazil and Bangladesh.
More than 35 million people have signed up to be blood donors on Facebook in countries where the donation feature is available, according to the social media giant.
Now, “taking the results that Facebook has achieved in Brazil and India and Pakistan, we can actually, conceptually, could double the number of blood donors in the United States,” Cliff Numark, senior vice president of the American Red Cross, told Gupta on Tuesday.
Each year, an estimated 6.8 million people in the United States donate blood, according to the American Red Cross.
“This could really totally change the blood banking system in America,” Numark said.
The blood donation feature hits close to home for Hema Budaraju, Facebook’s health product lead, who has seen the dire need for blood firsthand.
“Seven years ago, my dad was diagnosed with a stage 4 cancer, and he was undergoing extensive chemo,” Budaraju told Gupta on Tuesday.
As part of that chemotherapy, her father lost a lot of blood and needed transfusions daily for more than a week.
“We needed to go and find the donors,” Budaraju said. Many of those donors ended up being friends and relatives.
“Here in the United States, every two seconds, somebody needs blood,” she said. “The good news is that people are always willing to help. If you ask them, they’ll come by.”
The US blood donation feature is Facebook’s latest move to use its platform for public health efforts.
Where Facebook stands on anti-vax content
This year, a spotlight was turned on how Facebook and other social media platforms have made efforts to crack down on the spread of health-related misinformation online, particularly around vaccines.
Facebook has “an obligation” to provide its users with safe and accurate health information, Sandberg said, especially while the United States is struggling with its biggest measles outbreak in nearly three decades.
Facebook announced in March that it was working to tackle vaccine misinformation on its platform by reducing the distribution of groups and pages that spread anti-vax content and rejecting ads that include misinformation about vaccines, among other strategies.
“It’s taking us a while to ramp this and we’re working with experts around the world, but we’re very, very committed to getting this right,” Sandberg said. “We are dramatically decreasing the distribution and working on far fewer people seeing it. In some of the instances, we are taking things down, as well.”
Not all content will be taken down, however, and that’s “because of our approach to misinformation: that when things are hate or things are violence, we take them down,” Sandberg said.
“When things are false, we dramatically decrease it, and we show the other side of the story,” she said. “That’s because the debate has to happen. The way you can say something is false is, you have to be able to say, ‘here’s the true side of the story’ — and so we want that debate to happen so that people do get educated and understand that the science is settled.”
Lobbyists for the newspaper industry are promoting the bill as a way to even the playing field between their businesses and the two giants of the online ad market, Google and Facebook.
The bill would provide newspapers and online publishers with a four-year antitrust exemption, allowing them to band together in negotiations with online platforms.
David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance, a group that has been spearheading the idea, says publishers need the legal right to strike a “better deal” with Google and Facebook.
“What we’re asking for is the ability for news publishers to act collectively to bargain for a better, more sustainable arrangement,” Chavern told CNN Business in an interview. “Because the platforms now [take] advantage of all of our content and return very little of the money back to sustain the future of journalism.”
The antitrust exemption, or “safe harbor,” was originally introduced last year by Democratic Rep. David Cicilline. The bill didn’t really go anywhere, but now Cicilline is the chairman of the House Judiciary’s subcommittee that oversees antitrust law. And he has a Republican co-sponsor: Rep. Doug Collins.
“There’s not much bipartisan happening in House Judiciary right now. And this bill is one of them,” Chavern commented. “So that tells you that it is in a unique place at a unique moment. And I actually think we can get this thing going.”
A companion bill was introduced in the Senate earlier this month, again by a bipartisan pairing: Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana and Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. A hearing is not yet scheduled in the Senate.
But on the House side, the bill is moving forward. Cicilline said on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” that he wants to hear from the witnesses about “the impact of these large duopolies on access to trustworthy local news, reliable information.”
Cicilline said his antitrust probe is not focused on any single company. But Google and Facebook, he said, “are really taking much of the revenue, using the content of local newspapers and online publishers, and putting them out of business.”
Technology executives see it very differently, of course. They point out that the decline of print newspapers was evident even before Facebook launched. And they point to numerous initiatives by tech companies to lift up newsrooms.
This debate is sure to come up at Tuesday’s hearing.
Chavern will be testifying. So will Sally Hubbard of the Open Markets Institute.
Hubbard said she supports the bill, even though “ordinarily I don’t support exemptions from the antitrust laws.”
“At this point,” she said, “the bargaining power that the tech companies have is so huge, and the publishers really don’t have any bargaining power to get fair terms and conditions. So I think it’s appropriate for this situation and especially because it’s limited in scope.”
In a big departure from his day job, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Kevin Riley will also be testifying on Tuesday.
Riley said he has already spoken with Collins about the importance of the bill.
“Everyone who really looks at this issue begins to see that it’s not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue — it’s an American issue,” Riley said. “And the people who are most affected by this aren’t really journalists or newspaper owners. They’re people… There are people all over the country who depend on their local newspaper to do its job.”
Chavern said publishers want to be able to negotiate four key factors with the platforms, including the financial relationship, control over data about customers, and the visibility of news brands.
The other factor, he said, is the power of the tech algorithms — or, as Chavern put it, the “secret rules that change on a moment’s notice that determine how news is delivered and to whom.”
ALTOONA, Iowa — The Facebook data center in Altoona is about to get bigger, after the city council recently approved an expansion.
Social media giant Facebook now has the green light to build a $400 million building expansion in Altoona, which will also potentially add 70 new jobs to the area.
City leaders say this expansion will make future development in that area possible and even have some benefits for the businesses already there, but some residents and business owners are not happy with the tax break Facebook gets for the expansion.
Altoona City Administrator Jeff Mark said with the new agreement the city council passed Monday night, Facebook gets a 20-year deal where the company only has to pay $3 per square foot of this new building expansion instead of paying full property taxes.
After all of the agreements the City of Altoona has made with Facebook, Mark said the social media giant will be paying the city a total of $4.5 million every year and even helping development by adding a water pressure booster station.
“It will more than serve everything in our northwest quadrant so its future growth north of the interstate and the existing growth that we are having right now around the Outlets of Des Moines, Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse, the hotels, that entire Prairie Crossing development they’ll all benefit form that booster station,” Mark said.
Mark said the money they’re getting from Facebook equals about 60 percent of what they would be paying in taxes, which some residents and business owners say is not fair.
“This makes absolutely no sense and what about the school system. Why does the city get to make deals? And so if they’re only going to pay 60 percent, they’re cheating the schools out of 40 percent,” Altoona resident Mike Harmeyer said.
Mark said they understand these frustrations but claims deals like this are all part of the economic development process.
“And if you’re going to be a growing community attracting these types of businesses to the community I think the mayor and council have done an excellent job of weighing through what the alternatives were sticking to their guns and coming up with this agreement to where the city does receive increased revenues from this expansion,” Mark said.
But residents still feel the city didn’t need to give Facebook this tax break.
“I’m sure they would have built them buildings anyway, but it’s just having proper management within the city to get these deals negotiated. Like I say, why is it Ankeny can get buildings built without having to tiff everything. It goes right down to the management of the city,” Harmeyer said.
Local business owner Joe Free said he thinks local businesses are continually being overlooked.
“The problem I have is the city has a tendency to overlook businesses they already have and roll out the red carpet for businesses like Facebook,” Free said.
Mark said the next step for the expansion is for Facebook to submit building drawings for approval. He believes Facebook could break ground by the end of summer.
Facebook is working on full-body virtual reality avatars that look and move just like real people, in hopes of making the technology feel even more engaging and immersive.
The company is making and animating anatomically correct models of the human skeleton and overlaying muscle and skin, it announced at its annual F8 developer conference Wednesday. It is tracking how humans move in real time and replicating their movements in VR. The company is also reconstructing and simulating the actual clothing a person is wearing, using physics-based software to figure out how clothing should move virtually when they do things such as dance or stretch.
Current avatars in VR apps are quite limited, though they have improved in recent years. Your virtual persona likely only consists of a head and (if you’re lucky) hands, since those are the two areas of the body whose motion can be tracked with existing consumer VR headsets and controllers. On Facebook’s Oculus Quest VR headset, for example, even if you look down and see an entire body, you can only control the head and hands. Customization options, including those that Oculus offers in its own apps, lean more toward making your animated persona a fantasy or cartoon version of yourself.
Oculus research supervisor Ronald Mallet showed off a video on Wednesday of what he called an early prototype of the next generation of hyper-realistic VR avatars. In it, a man and a woman moved around a big room wearing VR headsets, while nearly identical, three-dimensional, virtual versions of them — down to their jeans and t-shirts — played soccer on a virtual field with a digital soccer ball. As they raised their hands and kicked their legs in real life, their VR avatars did the same with what appeared in the video to be only a slight lag.
Mallet pointed out that this kind of fully-tracked full-body avatar is still far off in the future. One challenge (among many) is that there isn’t currently a way for people to generate these digital versions of themselves with off-the-shelf sensors. Facebook will also need to determine how best to keep these avatars secure. Mallet said this may mean using facial or fingerprint recognition to connect a realistic avatar to a person.
“We’re still years away from this kind of technology in consumer headsets,” Mallet said.
Facebook said in March that it was making progress at creating three-dimensional, realistic-looking avatar faces that can match the motions and expressions of their human counterpart in real time; adding the rest of the body would be a logical next step. A video demonstration on Wednesday showed animated faces that appeared almost human.
The peek at the future came a day after the company announced that it would begin shipping its two newest virtual-reality headsets, Oculus Quest and Rift S, on May 21. Quest is a wireless, self-contained device, while Rift S tethers to a PC for a more powerful experience.