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How the Sharing Economy is Strengthening Emergency Response and Recovery

Governments are recognizing that sharing economy platforms can provide a vital link between needs and resources in times of disaster.

The “sharing economy” — the term now commonly used to describe using technology and social media to promote the sharing and reusing of assets ­— has received a good deal of press over the last few years. From cooperatives that allow people to share cars, bikes and homes, to crowdfunding and crowdsourcing initiatives that allow large undertakings to be accomplished through the combined efforts of many, working together appears to be the latest progression in the social media evolution.

More recently, the idea of leveraging the sharing economy to improve emergency response and recovery has emerged. Tapping into existing platforms that offer a built-in structure for resource-sharing allows community members to make resources available to people in need during or after an emergency. It’s an idea the federal government and some local governments are now exploring more thoroughly.

Federal Efforts, Local Needs

The potential of the sharing economy to help with disaster response was first tested, quite by accident, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. As the East Coast grappled with power outages, flooding and other challenges in late 2012, a number of sharing economy companies and their users stepped up to help. Users of Airbnb, a website for finding temporary housing, leveraged the platform to offer their homes to those affected by the storm for free. Waze, a crowdsourced mapping tool, opened up access to the feedback users were providing about which gas stations were open for people looking to refuel their vehicles. And Walk Score, a site that assists apartment hunters, helped people search for housing by commute time using various modes of transit.

Brian Forde has led a White House initiative to better integrate sharing economy platforms into emergency response and recovery. Photo by David Kidd.

“Hurricane Sandy proved the benefits of being interactive with the community and using technology to better inform and connect first responders and people in support of relief efforts,” said Brian Forde, senior adviser to White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. “It marked a turning point in how we as a nation will respond to large-scale disasters in the years ahead.”

Forde said Sandy also taught a valuable lesson: Trying to build out such technology-based sharing economy tools in the wake of a disaster is not the best course of action. In response, the White House launched initiatives to help develop these tools before they are needed, leading significant efforts to collaborate with what Forde called the “safety data community” and helping to formally connect the dots between sharing economy companies and state and local governments.

In January, more than 300 public safety stakeholders from the private, nonprofit and academic sectors participated in the Second Annual White House Safety Datapalooza. The event generated several new commitments from the public and private sectors, including standardized hashtags to enable citizens to report important emergency information such as downed power lines across social media platforms during a disaster.

Datapalooza also examined potential roadblocks. For example, finding housing for thousands of displaced survivors during and after Hurricane Sandy was among the most immediate challenges. While sharing economy platforms like Airbnb held great potential to help, the documentation needed for receiving federal disaster assistance was not designed to account for the new technology. Traditionally a FEMA disaster applicant needs to show a signed lease agreement to receive continued financial assistance for housing. While the requirement was designed to prevent fraudulent claims, it effectively disqualified the use of sharing economy platforms.

“We had to make a change — and quickly,” said Forde.

Working closely with FEMA, Forde’s team found a solution that allowed Sandy survivors to submit an email reservation and electronic receipt in lieu of a lease agreement to verify housing and a continued need for disaster assistance. The added flexibility allows future disaster applicants to secure housing through Airbnb too — FEMA now accepts email versions of leases and housing agreements (e.g., electronic or online reservations) as long as all listed requirements are met.

Leveraging the Crowd

A number of new developments in matching social media and sharing economy ideas with emergency response were highlighted this year during the White House’s Safety Datapalooza and the Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery
Demo Day

The White House, FEMA and U.S. Department of Energy launched standardized hashtags (#PowerLineDown #NoFuel and #GotFuel) to enable citizens to report important emergency information, such as downed power lines or whether a gas station has fuel, across social media platforms during a disaster. The Weather Channel has committed to publicizing these hashtags to its Web visitors and TV viewers.

Geofeedia, a social media monitoring service, committed to offering a free version of its service to first responders, disaster survivors, utility companies and governments at all levels.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency highlighted the development of GeoQ, a tool that crowdsources geo-tagged photos of disaster-affected areas to assess damage over large regions.

TaskRabbit, a company that includes a network of more than 20,000 vetted workers across the U.S., announced it will provide a dedicated portal for crisis recovery efforts, called TaskRabbit Needs for First Responders, that can serve as an interface for relief organizations to request help during a disaster and connect with workers willing
to volunteer.

Getaround is launching a disaster assistance policy and Web portal to help educate people about how to find or share a vehicle following a disaster.

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to launch the mobile app Lantern Live, which was inspired by lessons learned from Sandy where situational awareness was lacking, particularly around the status of fuel and which gas stations were open. Its features will include the status of gas stations and the ability to report a power outage or downed power lines with geolocated information.

Appallicious unveiled the Disaster Assessment and Assistance Dashboard that pairs local disaster response resources with open data. Drawing upon the power of the local economy, the dashboard allows residents and city-based companies to post skills and equipment to aid recovery efforts.

A new website,, searches Twitter data for health and natural disaster topics and analyzes that information. The tool scours social media and looks for topics that could turn into public health emergencies.

SeeClickFix is sharing its database of citizen requests to help generate actionable data regarding the current state of infrastructure during and after a disaster.

As sharing economy companies get more involved in disaster response, it’s likely that similar obstacles may emerge. However, Forde doesn’t expect any of them to be deal breakers. In most cases, policies may need to be changed or rewritten, but the benefits look likely to outweigh the costs.  

The community of technologists and government representatives continued the conversation begun at Safety Datapalooza during the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day in July. The key goal is to “find the most efficient and effective ways to empower survivors to help themselves,” Park said. And one way to enable that is through crowdsourcing: Allowing residents to locate, and just as important, offer crucial needs and services after an emergency not only helps individuals to take care of themselves and their families but also allows response organizations to focus on those who are the most in need.

Collaborative Consumption

While the White House has taken the lead in promoting the connection between the sharing economy and disaster response, local jurisdictions — where disaster recovery efforts are centered — also are getting on board.

In June 2013 BayShare, an organization dedicated to sharing goods and services, announced a partnership with the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management designed to help citizens tap into sharing economy platforms during or after an emergency. BayShare is working with companies including Airbnb, Boatbound, Carma, City CarShare, Desks Near Me, FlightCar, GetMyBoat, LiquidSpace, Lyft, Nextdoor, SideCar and Yerdle.

“Many new sharing economy businesses are headquartered in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, making the city a natural incubator for this,” said Francis Zamora, public information officer for the city’s Emergency Management Department. “Through this partnership, we’ll explore what we can do together to help the city become more resilient before, after and during an emergency.”

One platform San Francisco is interested in is Nextdoor, a social networking site for neighbors to communicate on topics like crime, safety, services, nearby resources and emergency plans. Nextdoor says it is used in more than 39,000 U.S. neighborhoods and currently covers 99 percent of the neighborhoods in San Francisco. Among other things, the site has the potential to enable a real-time delivery system for city alerts, crowdsourced reports and crisis maps that connect residents to resources.

“With Nextdoor, we have the opportunity to go neighborhood by neighborhood to share preparedness messages, as well as alerts in the event of a real emergency,” said Zamora, adding that the company’s team monitors the city’s alerts and can distribute them to specific areas. “People in each neighborhood can also use the site to list some of the skills and resources they have available and talk about what they could share with each other during an emergency.”

The city put the new system to the test in March, when fire engulfed a six-story, 80-foot-tall building under construction in the Mission Bay neighborhood. San Francisco officials used AlertSF, a text-based notification system, to send a general alert, and Nextdoor then routed that message to users in potentially affected neighborhoods.

Zamora hasn’t heard of other local governments leveraging this idea to the extent San Francisco is, but she has received a number of inquiries from other local governments that are interested in what the city is doing.

“Sharing, whether it’s through the shared economy or through more traditional means, is more sustainable than just handing out a list of things that people should do in the event of an emergency,” she said. “Getting San Franciscans prepared is a core mission of ours, and we feel that communities that are more connected are more resilient in the face of disasters.”

Nextdoor has a similar agreement in place with the Houston Office of Emergency Management, which uses the platform to alert residents when safety issues arise in their neighborhoods. Nextdoor hopes to formalize partnerships with more cities in the future, though the service is proving useful for emergency response even without such agreements in place.

“The platform at its core is well positioned to help with emergency response,” said Kelsey Grady, head of communications at Nextdoor, who pointed to recent uses during wildfires in Los Angeles and floods in Colorado. “But when those formal city-level agreements are in place, we can accomplish even more.”

Grady believes that as cities become more aware of Nextdoor, additional emergency management agencies will get involved. The company recently began rolling out a new city platform aimed at helping get localities on board more easily and providing them the ability to exercise more granular control over how they broadcast information.

A Two-Way Street

The fact that sharing economy companies often have a pulse on the city in which their members reside makes them valuable partners for local government. But such partnerships can benefit the sharing economy company as well.

Padden Murphy, head of public policy for, an on-demand car-sharing marketplace, said his platform wanted to be involved in sharing economy/disaster response efforts because it fits with its mission.

“We are already providing a public good, so the next step of how we can help in times of a crisis was kind of a no-brainer,” he said. promotes the idea that sharing automobiles can help take cars off the road. Better utilizing the cars that already exist — which sit idle an average of 22 hours a day — can reduce pollution and ease traffic jams, the company purports. Under normal circumstances, someone with a car available for use could list it on, and people in need of a vehicle could then use their phone to locate, pay for and unlock the car utilizing the platform’s app. The car owner makes a bit of money, while the person in need gets access to a vehicle for a designated amount of time.

In the case of an emergency, cars already registered on the site would still be available for use, but owners could make them available free of charge. People who suddenly find themselves without transportation due to the disaster could then find and use a vehicle as needed. In addition, people or companies that own trucks or other large vehicles (which would not normally be available on could quickly register them on the site, making them available for doing things such as moving materials or getting people out of harm’s way.

Airbnb also has been a big proponent of working with local governments on emergency response. In the hours after Hurricane Sandy hit, Airbnb engineers quickly made changes to their site, allowing hosts to open their homes to displaced people for free.

“In the span of a week, over 1,400 New Yorkers responded by opening their homes. They housed neighbors, relief workers that came from all over the country, etc.,” said Molly Turner, head of public policy at Airbnb. “It inspired us to respond to those types of disasters in other parts of the world.”

The company recently launched a dedicated emergency housing platform. Working closely with local governments, Airbnb can launch a URL specific to a disaster should the need arise. People who have space to offer can then list the information quickly and easily, while those looking for housing can log on and search for accommodations that meet their needs.

“It’s something I think we are uniquely positioned to help with in an impactful way,” Turner said.

Airbnb announced in July that it had developed memorandums of understanding with Portland, Ore., and San Francisco to work with the cities before, during and after an emergency. “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 partnership is grounded in increasing emergency preparedness at the local level, and Airbnb will work to: identify hosts who will house emergency workers and survivors; provide preparedness materials to hosts; provide emergency alerts to hosts and their guests; and provide community response training to hosts, helping them to become community leaders.

“One thing we’ve discussed with Airbnb is to talk to hosts about retrofitting their homes so that they are more resilient,” said Carmen Merlo, director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. “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.”

Airbnb already has information about its users, 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 located 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,” said Merlo. “Before or during a disaster, we can do special messaging to those folks.”

The 34,000 cities worldwide where Airbnb operates will likely be watching the partnerships closely as disaster preparedness at the local level becomes more important.

“We see the sharing economy as a real potential solution to helping with disaster response,” Turner said, “and we want to work with more cities to help them leverage us in times of need.”

The Turning Tide

On May 30, President Obama convened his annual hurricane brief at FEMA headquarters. In what may be the clearest evidence of the growing acceptance of the sharing economy’s potential in emergency response, the brief focused on technology innovations and mobile applications developed by federal, state and local agencies that are designed to better inform and involve the public in preparedness and response activities.

Clearly the tide has turned, and technology’s role in disaster response will only get bigger in the future. But making it work well will take involvement from both local governments and sharing economy companies.

“We have the ability to get thousands of local residents to open their homes, but our initiative is much more effective if local agencies are aware of it and are familiar with the resources we have available,” Turner said. “Local governments play a crucial role in connecting the people they are providing the emergency services to with those who are offering space. If we can educate and train the local agencies on how our initiative works and where the resources are, and they can conversely train us on local concerns and contacts in advance, it’s much easier for our hosts to be matched with people in the most need during an emergency.”

Murphy of said in most cases it’s all about making connections. “Smart and forward-looking government officials want to figure out how to leverage private companies for public good,” he said. “This is a great example of a public-private partnership that can help people in time of need, and it’s not hard to do. It just takes initiative, reaching out and being willing to help.”

Zamora in San Francisco agreed, explaining that the effort has been well worth the reward thus far.

“Sometimes it takes time, and there may be a long lead time in terms of getting things done, but you can’t let it discourage you. Be patient and focus on the big picture,” she suggested. “We like to say that real emergencies look more like people coming together than cities falling apart. Together we can figure out what to do to make ourselves more prepared before, during and after an emergency.”  

Jessica Napier contributed to this article.

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at