Daniel Sutter: Technology, sharing, and disaster assistance

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Daniel SutterHurricane Harvey struck Texas last weekend with winds of 130 mph and then stalled, dumping feet of rain and causing catastrophic flooding. Thousands of people evacuated coastal and low-lying areas in advance of Harvey. Home sharing company Airbnb’s Disaster Response program is helping Harvey evacuees and victims and illustrating how technology is helping us assist our fellow citizens.

Airbnb provides a platform connecting people with homes, apartments or even spare rooms with visitors looking for rental accommodations. The company does not own or manage the properties it lists, but rather serves as an intermediary between visitors and hosts. Airbnb provides background on hosts and guests, helping assure each party that the other is legitimate.

The disaster program emerged spontaneously after hosts in New York allowed people displaced by Hurricane Sandy to stay for free. Airbnb formalized this for other disasters. Participating hosts offer their properties for free, and Airbnb waives its commission. Both hosts and guests still benefit from Airbnb’s assurance of trust.

The Disaster Response has been activated for almost 50 different events worldwide, producing over 3,000 free rentals. These totals almost certainly understate the assistance provided by hosts, as they exclude smaller events and include only free (as opposed to discounted) rentals.

Airbnb activated the Disaster Response for Harvey before landfall to assist with evacuation. Evacuating can be expensive, with lodging typically the biggest expense for people unable to stay with family or friends. The expense often deters evacuation, particularly by lower income families without significant savings. Furthermore, hourly workers lose hours and income if they evacuate, upping the cost.

Imperfect hurricane forecasts can unfortunately provide an excuse to not evacuate. For every devastating storm like Harvey or Katrina, there are storms like Matthew in 2016, which threatened Florida as a major hurricane yet delivered only a glancing blow before weakening and hitting South Carolina. If evacuating would break your budget, it is tempting to hope that the next storm will also be like Matthew.

By helping families afford to evacuate, Airbnb’s Disaster Response will save lives. Keep this case in mind the next time someone claims that businesses care only about profit.

Airbnb hosts display Americans’ desire to help people after disasters. For example, in our research, my Johnson Center colleague Dan Smith and I found that 98 percent of the 7,000 households displaced by the 2011 Joplin tornado relocated within 25 miles. FEMA provided about 600 temporary housing units, so most of the housing need was met without government. Some victims rented vacant housing, some stayed with friends and family, and still others stayed with neighbors or families from their church. The citizens of Joplin also housed many of the thousands of volunteers and youth groups who came to help after the tornado.

Although Airbnb is not doing anything completely new, extending the scope of assistance after disasters is valuable. Many Americans want to help disaster victims however they can. Some people help by retweeting requests for help made via Twitter, an activity which has been dubbed “Voluntweeting.” People willing and able to offer material assistance, however, may lack connections to victims through friends or community groups. Airbnb helps connect people wanting to help with disaster victims.

As an economist who studies weather disasters, I see an important challenge for Airbnb’s Disaster Response program, one which also looms for other uses of social media to direct aid to disaster victims. Are the persons staying with the hosts truly disaster victims, or just scamming a free stay? Airbnb’s guest profiles help hosts evaluate the validity of a guest’s disaster victim claims. Perhaps this will work well. But Airbnb’s program will probably not prove sustainable if hosts get scammed too often.

Technology is enabling the emergence of a sharing economy. Airbnb’s Disaster Response uses technology to expand America’s long-standing tradition of neighbors helping neighbors in time of need. Here’s hoping that it works long term, and that we can find other ways to use technology to help us help our fellow citizens.

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Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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