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San Francisco Partners with ‘Sharing’ Startups to Save Lives During Disaster

Mike Hower
| Tuesday June 18th, 2013 | 1 Comment
Photo Credit: USGS

Photo Credit: USGS

Disasters have a way of bringing people together. Whether it is anonymous neighbors helping to rescue trapped garment workers in Bangladesh or schoolteachers in Moore, Oklahoma using their own bodies to shield children from a deadly tornado, time and again, the better part of human nature shines through during the darkest of circumstances. The word “stranger” loses all significance, as those who would otherwise ignore one another on the streets open their doors to take in the homeless, feed the hungry and care for the injured.

Technology is changing the way people respond to emergencies. When Hurricane Sandy resulted in dead and backed-up phone lines, people turned to social media to call for help, reassure the stranded and coordinate rescue. More than a thousand people even offered their homes for free to those in need using short-term lodging service Airbnb.

“As the storm hit, community members started taking people in on their own,” said Nathan Blecharczyk, Airbnb’s chief technology officer.

In the hurricane’s wake, the company launched in New York City the Donated Sandy Housing program to connect those recently rendered homeless with those willing to take them in. In preparation for the next disaster, Airbnb has created a free disaster-response offering, which can be activated in a specific region in less than an hour.

San Francisco-based Airbnb belongs to a collaboration of sharing economy businesses called BayShare, which aims “to promote thought leadership, networking, and policy advocacy for the Sharing Economy in the Bay Area, with an eye toward national scalability and replicability.” The organization recently partnered with the City and County of San Francisco to evaluate how their services could be quickly and easily accessed in emergencies. BayShare will join organizations like the Red Cross as a permanent member of the city’s disaster council.

While tremor-prone San Francisco has not seen a major earthquake in more than 25 years, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) says future large earthquakes are “a certainty.” In 1906, a major earthquake and the resulting fires destroyed 80 percent of the city and killed some 3,000 people. Another large earthquake in 1989 killed 69 people throughout Northern California, injured nearly 4,000 and left thousands more homeless.

The next time disaster strikes the City by the Bay, overwhelmed first responders will be able to count on Lyft reinforcements to help transport the injured; damaged homes will be fixed by humanitarian repairmen found through TaskRabbit; and donors and victims will replace lost items using yerdle.

“The sharing economy was born right here in San Francisco, so why not use these homegrown technologies and social networks to make sure our city is as prepared and resilient as it can possibly be?” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said.

Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is an Associate Editor at Sustainable Brands and writes about companies and organizations engaged in sustainability strategy, clean technology and social entrepreneurship. As a natural politico, he has a soft spot for anything related to public policy and the intersection of business and government, which he also blogs about on SustySavvy.com. Contact him at mikehower@gmail.com. You  also can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@mikehower).


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  • Alex

    wouldn’t it be great if San Francisco had a consolidated, real-time inventory of public land and buildings to support disaster response – first-aid staging, shelters, relief supply registration, etc.? That would be a cool technology if someone invented it. Oh wait.! Someone has: http://www.opportunityspace.org