GRI Current Events Blog

Tech Companies Build 21st Century Solutions to Disaster Response

GRI Research Assistant

Jun. 2, 2017

In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York, several local Airbnb hosts opened their homes up to people stranded by the disaster. The idea was quite simple: people who already have prepared their homes for guests are uniquely equipped to take in strangers who find themselves displaced by a disaster, or emergency relief workers without a place to stay. Airbnb quickly caught on to this idea and in 2013, it launched a disaster response initiative that incentivizes and assists Airbnb hosts around the world to prepare their homes for potential disasters and commit themselves to hosting displaced people and aid workers after disasters occur.

Airbnb logo

Airbnb logo at a company office (Flickr Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine)

Airbnb’s disaster response program is just one of many innovative new resilience efforts put forth by the tech industry. Many of these efforts address the impediments on modern modes of communication that are commonly caused by major disasters; primarily, they focus on how to facilitate critical communication with collapsed cellular or internet networks. The Serval Project, established in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, has developed a smartphone app that enables two or more smartphones in a certain radius to create an offline network – otherwise known as a ‘mesh network’ – that can be used to make phone calls. This technology can prove critical in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, as people attempt to locate their loved ones and first responders try to organize effectively.

Of course, obstructions to communication can be expected after a disaster, regardless of what technology is available. Facebook’s Safety Check tool has been activated in the wake of several different disasters around the world to alleviate some of the public panic that communication failures can wreak. The tool’s function is to rapidly gather information on people around the disaster, particularly to gauge their wellbeing. For those people who have functional internet access, they can simply log onto to Facebook and confirm they are safe. If there is a disruption to the internet network, it is also possible for a third-party to confirm a friend’s wellbeing on their behalf. For example, someone with access to a working telephone might call a friend to assure their safety; in such an event, the friend could then log onto Facebook and confirm that that person is out of harm’s way. This is obviously beneficial to people who would frantically try to locate friends and loved ones after a disaster; additionally, this tool assists emergency services by alleviating the volume of phone calls flooding their lines.

While it can be easy to take these innovations for granted, technology and social media have significantly altered – and undoubtedly improved – the way we respond to disasters and the speed at which we recover. Many of these new disaster response initiatives are simply identifying new uses for already established, deployed technology. This provides an exceptional model for other companies to employ: exercising resilient business strategies to enhance resilience globally.


Sources and Further Reading

  1. Sandy’s Impact: Opening doors in a time of need – Airbnb
  2. Disaster Response Program – Airbnb
  3. How technology is changing disaster relief – BBC News
  4. Serval – The Serval Project
  5. It’s time to take Mesh Networks Seriously (And Not Just for the Reasons You Think) – Wired
  6. Safety Check – Facebook


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