Can Airbnb, Taskrabbit, And All The Other Sharing Economy Companies Save The Day In A Disaster?

San Francisco (where else?) has launched a new plan to deal with disasters using collaborative consumption. Will they actually be able to make a difference?

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.

Add New Comment


  • GetMyBoat

    Taking the sharing economy to a new level is a great idea! In a time of need or crisis it would only make sense that people that partake in the SHARING economy would be some of the first to offer their skills ands services to help! 

  • laughtiger

    The short history of these companies already tells us what to expect when a disaster hits -- they will jack prices through the roof or simply abandon ship. We are talking here about companies like Uber (which raised prices after Sandy) and Lyft (whose drivers have to sign an atrocious "terms of service" document protecting Lyft from any liability in the case of accidents).

    All these companies care about is the bottom line, as also shown by their willingness to misrepresent themselves as "sharing" services, which they are not. These companies are part of the same old corporate capitalism which is likely to propel us into the next disaster, not save us from it -- if you are part of the problem, you are not part of the solution!

    Another funny thing is the name of the advocacy group "BayShare" -- none of the companies listed are actually incorporated in the Bay Area or even in California, but in Delaware, a tax haven. That tells you a good deal about their sense of community and responsibility right there!

  • Wen Dombrowski MD

    Thanks Ariel for sharing this great example of leveraging
    existing tech platforms to prepare for emergencies. I was very involved after
    Hurricane Sandy along with other tech volunteers from www.NYTechResponds.org in
    crowdsourcing resources and developing tech tools.


     A key lesson that I
    learned is that even though there were many eager local and faraway tech
    volunteers that wanted to develop apps and websites etc, it would still take
    time to set these up, and there isn't an easy way to let the affected public
    know about these new tools.


    What I realized is it would be more effective if we think
    about EXISTING people+info+resource networks & tools that people are
    ALREADY USING, then think of creative ways to add scalable emergency-response
    features that can be enabled after a disaster. For example, instead of building
    an "emergency check-in I'm OK app," or a "volunteer management
    app," or a "emergency contact info for my friends
    website"...look at ways to partner with existing widely-used platforms
    such as Salesforce, Gmail, Facebook, Amazon etc so when disaster strikes,
    people and organizations are already familiar with and connected to these


    Another example of ways existing networks can help during
    emergencies...when I was volunteering in a shelter the day after hurricane,
    some of the elderly evacuees were upset they left their little black book at
    home which had all their children’s contact info.  They were able to tell me their relatives’
    names & jobs, so I tried searching Linkedin to present them a visual lineup
    of people who might be family member… but unfortunately Linkedin blocks the
    profile pictures of people you aren't connected with. In this situation, it
    would have been really helpful if Linkedin would have lifted that photo block,
    at least for users with IP addresses in the emergency response regions.  That could have been a way to reunite
    families quicker, which also puts less strain on public emergency resources.







  • jim

    I had a TERRIBLE experience with AirBNB. You are better off forking up a few extra bucks for a last minute deal through expedia or some other better reputed travel site with better customer service.

     I put in an offer on AirBNB, but when discussing logistics, got a bad/creepy feeling when corresponding with my host, and told this person I was withdrawing my offer. Despite having this IN WRITING, my host clicked "accept" of my offer from his end, before I could formally cancel the request, resulting in the charge on my credit card of $500. I wrote to AirBNB customer service several times, with written proof that I had told my host I didn't want to stay there prior to his clicking "accept". But the service is NON EXISTENT. It takes at least 15 minutes clicking around the website to even find the contact email address, there is no contact phone number where you can speak to a rep, and it take takes another at least 3 days to get a generic form response. When my issue was not resolved, I wrote again, and they never got back to me.

    I am mid-20s, graduate student, have done the whole backpack in Europe on a dime, and traveled extensively and had many misadventures which become stories later on, but this AirBNB is my worst experience / scam/ rip-off. DON'T Use it. If you're lucky and everything goes as planned great, but as soon as there's one hiccup, they don't help you out, and leave everything to be your problem, and you to pay the non-refundable fees, and won't even answer your inquiries.

    I will never use this service ever again, and I would not recommend it to anyone I know.