In 2012, when Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast, thousands of residents were displaced from their homes. In wake of the panic and chaos, Airbnb, an online platform where people list and book accommodations around the world, saw an opportunity to leverage its existing services for neighbors to help neighbors. During the disaster, 1,400 Airbnb hosts — who typically collect payment for accommodations — opened their homes and cooked meals for those left stranded.
After Sandy, Airbnb reached out to the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management to share what it learned and discuss how it could reach a broader audience during an emergency. Simultaneously, the company was in discussions with officials in Portand, Ore., about an initiative to help civic leaders and community members work together to create a more shareable and livable city.
“We’d been talking about these partnerships for a while,” said Molly Turner (pictured at left), Airbnb’s director of public policy and civic partnerships. “We’ve been working with the White House on the disaster relief initiative for some time now. They were very encouraging with us to move forward with this.”
As a result of ongoing conversations, San Francisco, Portland and Airbnb visited the White House for the Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative Demo Day
and entered into a partnership that will help Airbnb hosts and the cities prepare for and respond to local emergencies.
“What we have now is a document that pledges our intention to work together,” said Alicia Johnson, San Francisco’s resilience and recovery manager. “We still have to figure out the finer points, such as how we will notify each other.”
The partnerships are outlined in two agreements
with the following goals, according to an online announcement from Airbnb:
- Pre-identify and activate Airbnb hosts who will commit to opening their doors to displaced persons and disaster service workers when an emergency occurs.
- Provide disaster and emergency preparedness educational materials to Airbnb hosts to help them become the most prepared residents on the block.
- Use Airbnb mobile and web technology to notify hosts and guests about significant hazardous incidents.
- Facilitate community emergency response trainings to cultivate Airbnb hosts as trained leaders within their neighborhoods.
Turner said that she does not anticipate any costs to the cities and few additional costs for Airbnb. Company costs may include human resources and engineers’ time.
“Our strategy is to keep people in their home if it’s safe to do so,” said Carmen Merlo, director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. “One thing we’ve discussed with Airbnb is to talk to hosts about retrofitting their homes so that they are more resilient. We saw after Hurricane Katrina that once people are displaced from their homes, the chances of return afterward are slim, which affects the city’s recovery.”
In San Francisco, city officials recently launched an emergency preparedness initiative to prevent the possibility of an evacuation like New Orleans experienced. SF72
, an online hub with information about what to do in an emergency, steps to get connected and guides to help residents prepare, is emphasizing community connection instead of catastrophe.
“It allows people who live in an area that may experience any type of hazard to connect and prepare for something that looks less like first aid training and instead come together to talk about what resilience looks like after an event,” Johnson said. “We do not want to have to evacuate portions of our community, so anything we can do to help create and foster relationships in the community, we consider disaster relief.”
Airbnb already has information about its hosts, including location, amount of space and contact information, which makes it easier to pinpoint appropriate hosts in the event of an emergency. For example, in the case of a disaster, Airbnb officials can look at maps to identify hosts that are in safer parts of a city.
“We’ve shared our hazard layer, which includes areas near fire potential, flood plains and other risks, with Airbnb so it can overlay that with its host information,” Merlo said. “Before or during a disaster, we can do special messaging to those folks.”
Since Airbnb is not an expert in disaster preparedness, its role in the partnership will be to act as a conduit to its hosts. In San Francisco, for example, the city can push information from the SF72 platform to Airbnb hosts, who in turn can share such information with travelers.
Airbnb also holds events for hosts to congregate. Future events may include a curriculum component, delivered by the city’s neighborhood emergency response team, with additional preparedness support and information training for residents.
“We’ve got a good network of folks who like to engage with us on a regular basis,” Turner said. “This would be more intensive than a typical Airbnb event. We’d want to give hosts an additional incentive, such as recognizing hosts who have gone through these trainings on the website. Other hosts and guests can see them on the website.”
As the details about the partnerships solidify, Airbnb is also working out how it will use its website and other mobile technologies to alert hosts, residents and relief workers in the event of a disaster.
“My advice for other cities would be to begin the conversation,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of flexibility in the model that we’ve set up. Have the initial conversation to see if there is simpatico that can be worked with.”