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The Tech Community Steps Up to Help Puerto Rico

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The Tech Community Steps Up to Help Puerto Rico

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More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, technology companies are mobilizing to help reconnect and rebuild the island's decimated infrastructure.

From Wi-Fi-enabled mega-balloons to connectivity teams on the ground and solar energy, some of the biggest players in the tech industry are moving swiftly to help the island territories rebuild.

Governor to Elon Musk: 'Let's Talk'

Elon Musk's mission to save Puerto Rico all began on Twitter with a simple question about whether his company was capable of re-building the island's power grid using solar energy. "It can be done," came his response.

Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, then replied and said they should discuss the idea. He later followed up and said the two sides had a great conversation and were working on getting the idea moving.

Hours after the idea was publicly discussed on Twitter, Musk said he would delay the unveiling of Tesla's semi truck in order to divert resources to help manufacture solar batteries for Puerto Rico and other affected areas. (Musk also said this would help fix a bottleneck in the manufacture of its Model 3 vehicles.)

Reconnecting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands

The FCC has been keeping the public updated on connectivity through reports posted online. The most recent one, posted on Monday, said 81.1 percent of cell sites were out of service Puerto Rico. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, that number was at 60.3 percent — a three percent increase from last Friday, showing yet another setback.

X, the innovation lab under Google's parent company, Alphabet, is hoping to come to the rescue with its LTE enabled balloons, code named Project Loon. On Friday, X received approval from the FCC to deploy the balloons, which would bring connectivity to Puerto Rico as they float 12.5 miles overhead in the stratosphere.

Earlier this year, the moonshot factory had success connecting people in Peru during a time of torrential rain and flooding. In that case, X had an advantage in rapidly getting Peruvians connected because it had already been working with a local carrier on testing the technology.

But this time, teams will face more of a challenge. X will have to make sure Loon is integrated into partners' networks before they're able to deploy the technology to help.

"We're grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it's possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need," Libby Leahy, spokeswoman for X, said in a statement. "We've been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who's been lending a hand."

Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he was sending Facebook's connectivity team to help with emergency telecommunications assistance in Puerto Rico.

Related: Power Shuts Down Again in Puerto Rico Capital, Setting Back Repairs

"Communication is critical during a disaster," he said at the time. With cell towers out of service, "people can't get in touch with their loved ones — and it's harder for rescue workers to coordinate relief efforts."

Facebook's connectivity team is the same group currently working on the development of internet-beaming drones. Its main focus in Puerto Rico will be to support NetHope, a consortium of 50 nonprofits working to restore connectivity and share information with aid groups.

In addition to Facebook, NetHope's tech partners also include Google, Intel, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, and Dell, among many others. Another partner, Cisco Systems, also said it sent a tactical team.

For those who have connectivity, Facebook also pledged to donate ads that would help get important information to people on the island about where to get help and how to stay safe.

Using Data for Relief

With nearly two billion users, Facebook has the unparalleled ability to gather data to help drive relief efforts and reunite families.

Facebook's safety check feature had its first major deployment in 2015 after an earthquake in Nepal. Since then, it was used dozens of times for people to check in after a natural disaster. It's since been expanded to include mass shooting events, terrorism, forest fires, and during large protests.

In the case of natural disasters, the data can help aid organizations identify needs in certain areas. In June, Facebook began sharing anonymized and aggregated data with the Red Cross and other aid organizations. This allowed humanitarian groups to see where people where checking in as safe and where they may be moving after a catastrophic event.

"After Hurricane Maria, this data was an important layer in helping the Red Cross to identify population centers in need of power and connectivity," a Red Cross blog post said.

The team was able to use data about mobile activity before a storm and compare it with what Facebook was seeing after a disaster had hit. This allows them to see where people have power, a vital need for charging phones and reaching the outside world.

Zuckerberg Backlash

However, Facebook found itself in the middle of a storm of its own after a Facebook Live on Monday, where Zuckerberg took the opportunity to demonstrate the company's progress with virtual reality, exploring the devastated island with Rachel Franklin, his head of social VR.

On the journey, his grinning, grey-t-shirted cartoon avatar hovered in front of desperate residents in search of fresh water and traveled past shattered structures while the billionaire described the trip as "really magical" and high-fived Franklin.

He was swiftly taken to task on social media for this "voyeuristic tourism" and seeming insensitivity to the impending humanitarian crisis the island territory is facing. "Is this a joke? The Puerto Ricans are suffering and you are using our tragedy for this??" wrote one detractor on Zuckerberg's page.

Zuckerberg responded to critics on Tuesday.

"One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what's happening in different parts of the world," he said. "I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn't clear, and I'm sorry to anyone this offended."

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