After superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast, entire swaths of New York City and New Jersey were left without housing—either temporarily or permanently, depending upon the location. In New York, home-sharing service Airbnb stepped up to help, quickly creating a platform for users to share their homes for free. In the end, 1,400 hosts volunteered, leaving much-needed space open in traditional shelters and proving that the "sharing economy" can be instrumental in disasters. Now imagine what would have happened if Airbnb had that disaster response platform up and running before the hurricane struck.
The city of San Francisco took a cue from Airbnb’s Sandy experience and this month launched a disaster preparedness partnership with BayShare—an advocacy group made up of sharing economy companies like Lyft, Yerdle, TaskRabbit, and Getaround. The organization will get a seat on San Francisco’s disaster council, and ultimately, the city hopes to aggregate all of its resources that could be useful in a disaster on the SF72 website (a new "gathering place for emergency preparedness," designed by Ideo).
TaskRabbit could create a free disaster relief skill-sharing hub. Getaround could let people share transportation without charging a fee. And so on.
In the meantime, Airbnb has launched a separate disaster preparedness site, called Airbnb Disaster Response. The next time there’s a disaster in any city, hosts will be directed to the site, which will connect guests with nearby homes. "The way the tool works is our engineers draw a polygon shape around the geographical area—the affected area and the area around it where people could potentially help out," says Molly Turner, Airbnb’s director of public policy. "The goal with our tool is to shelter people as close as possible to where they live."
Initially, San Francisco had asked the company to create a special disaster site just for the city in the event of an earthquake, but Airbnb thought "we might as well create something that would work anywhere," says Turner. Actually getting the site (or any sharing economy solution that requires cell phone service or a wireless connection) to work in all disasters will be a challenge.
Turner explains: "In an earthquake, the majority of hosts are displaced, so how many people are there outside of the affected area who can immediately open up their homes? How do people who’ve never heard about [Airbnb] find out about it?" And if the responsibility for matching up the displaced to these services falls to emergency responders, what happens if they also lack connection to the Internet? Here’s a doozy: What if a natural disaster destroys Airbnb headquarters, leaving the people who are running the emergency network without a central gathering place?
"This is going to be an iterative process. We’re by no means experts in disaster relief. That’s why we’ve been talking with the experts," says Turner. There are some disasters where Airbnb and other sharing services will be rendered useless by the magnitude of physical infrastructure damage. But as Turner points out, it’s important to at least try to keep our online communications infrastructure up and running.
While dealing with the realities of disaster are incredibly difficult, many people already know how to use Airbnb, Taskrabbit, Lyft, and other services. That makes these companies invaluable in a time of crisis—as long as the Internet holds up.