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Tech Companies Are Redefining How We Respond to Natural Disasters—in a Good Way

The remains of a house destroyed by Hurricane Irma are seen in Goodland, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017.

The remains of a house destroyed by Hurricane Irma are seen in Goodland, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017. // David Goldman/AP

A few days before Irma made landfall in Florida, Airbnb activated its disaster response program in the region, encouraging hosts to list their homes for free and inviting evacuees to seek shelter through its peer-to-peer platform. Uber said it would cap fares in south Florida so that no one got “an outrageous, higher-than-usual price.” Elon Musk unlocked the full battery life of Tesla’s 2016 Model X and Model S vehicles, so that drivers attempting to evacuate could get further on a single charge. GasBuddy rallied users and gas stations to upload information to its mobile app so that Floridians would know where they could still get fuel. Facebook activated Safety Check.

Airbnb’s dedicated page for hosts offering free lodging to Irma evacuees. (Airbnb)

After Irma changed course, Uber and Lyft offered free rides to shelters near Tampa, publicized through the local office of emergency management. As the hurricane made landfall, many relied on Snap Maps—user-produced video streams on Snapchat overlaid on a map—to get the latest updates on flooding and storm conditions. Others were glued to Reddit, which had multiple forums devoted to storm coverage. Over the past few days, Uber has announced $400,000 worth of rides, food, and other relief to communities affected by Irma, and is encouraging local governments and nonprofits “with an immediate need for free rides” or other interest in disaster relief efforts to reach out at IrmaRelief@uber.com.

Meanwhile, in Florida and in Hurricane Harvey-ravaged Houston, Texas, people downloaded walkie-talkie app Zello to become makeshift first-responders:

I GOT a two-minute “training” session and a “good luck!” One of the key suggestions of the training session was that when I received a rescue request, I needed to try to call the person making the request if possible to get more details and to ensure that it was a legitimate request…

I took request after request after request. Name…phone number…address…number of adults…number of children…number of elderly…medical conditions. I would then type this information in as fast I could so the dispatchers could send the rescuers out. After submitting the information, I received an ID number that I was supposed to relay to the person requesting the rescue. We asked them to remember the number so they could give it to their rescuers when they were finally picked up. We could then mark them safe in the system, avoiding the dilemma of rescuers looking for people who had already been saved by someone else.

All of which is to say: We are entering an era in which the app-based technology that facilitates so much of our lives is also enabling a new generation of disaster response.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), established in 1979, is still the first name associated with US disaster management, crowd-based online communities are increasingly positioned to intervene in times of crisis. Airbnb has 4 million listings in 65,000 cities, a housing stock greater than the top five hotel brands combined. Uber has more than 2 million drivers and Facebook has 2 billion monthly users. Zello added 6 million users in a week after Harvey hit and as Irma approached. GasBuddy received 350,000 downloads on a single day leading up to Irma’s arrival in Florida, more than 10 times its typical download volume.

GasBuddy’s tracker site for fuel outages near Tampa, Florida.(GasBuddy)

These are vast and diffuse networks of people and resources that can be called upon with little more than a text, email, or push notification, and can be rapidly scaled up or down. Equally important, people underpin these platforms, not corporations: An Airbnb host in Austin doesn’t need to consult with multiple levels of management, as a hotel franchisee might, before opening her doors to a family of Harvey evacuees. Nor are these people professionals. An Uber driver venturing near flood zones could be endangering themselves and their personal vehicle. A Zello user who plunges into a firehose of rescue calls, as Holly Hartman did, might not know what to do when a frantic caller reports that a family member has stopped breathing.

In an unpublished paper, currently under review, researchers at UC Berkeley describe the emergence of the sharing economy as “one of the most profound shifts in emergency transportation and sheltering policies.” They point to the nearly 400 Airbnb hosts who offered free housing after Hurricane Sandy—the origin of Airbnb’s current disaster response program—as well as the discounted trips Uber offered in Austin (2015) and New Orleans (2016) during periods of flooding. The researchers suggest forming public-private partnerships, in which sharing-economy companies would work with government officials to move and shelter people, and reduce the costs of mass evacuations and relief operations.

“The overarching benefit of sharing-economy resources (both transportation-related and housing-related) would be the addition of flexible and adaptable assets,” they write.

The tech world’s disaster-response strategy wasn’t always so polished. Uber enraged New Yorkers in October 2012 by doubling prices during Hurricane Sandy, and again the following year when surge pricing rose to 7x during a heavy snowstorm. The company came under fire again in 2014 for turning surge pricing on as people fled a hostage situation in Sydney. Its current policy of capping fares during disasters and emergencies actually came out of an agreement with the New York state attorney general, finalized that year. Facebook has also had plenty of mishaps with its safety-check feature.

Many tech companies can seem detached from the rest of the world. Others, like Uber and Airbnb, have broken a lot of rules and angered a lot of politicians to establish their peer-to-peer models. While customers who use these services generally end up loving them, the companies themselves still have damage control to do at the local level. Mending those relationships is especially important as Uber and its competitors vie for public-private transit partnerships, like the deals Uber signed with five Florida cities to offer government-subsidized rides to and from the local commuter rail.

Many tech companies also market themselves as good corporate citizens. What better way to show their good faith to cities and the people who live in them than by offering up free transportation, housing, and other resources to those in need during a time of crisis? Uber in particular, after a year of lawsuits and scandal, desperately needs some good PR. If its relief efforts also turn into an official contract and revenue stream down the line, that’s just a bonus.

By Alison Griswold Quartz September 13, 2017

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