The Sharing Economy of Disaster Relief

How companies like Uber and Airbnb respond to Hurricane Matthew shows how "human" the sharing economy really is.

by Sarah Emerson
Oct 7 2016, 5:08pm

A storm over Miami, Florida in 2013. Image: Flickr/Kat Grigg

As Hurricane Matthew barrels over Florida, many local business have shuttered in anticipation of the now Category 3 storm. But in spite of the hurricane, which killed 842 people in Haiti this week, residents still need to eat, sleep, and get around.

In the midst of natural disasters, people tend to come together. So it's expected, then, for sharing economy businesses like Uber and Airbnb, which claim to live and die by the communities they serve, to show up when Floridians need them most. As Hurricane Matthew descends upon the region, some are making more of an effort than others.

One of first to throw in its support was Airbnb, which has been advertising free rooms in parts of Florida and South Carolina through its Disaster Response Tool. Local residents who are trying to evacuate their homes can use the platform to seek emergency shelter in select locations, which have been approved by emergency response teams, through October 11 in South Carolina and October 12 in Florida.

"This is the first major hurricane threat that this area has seen in a few years, and we are hopeful that Airbnb can help play a small part in making the evacuation process easier for residents and their families. Our thoughts continue to be with everyone impacted by the storm, and we thank the dedicated government and emergency response personnel who are keeping our communities safe," Airbnb spokesperson Nick Shapiro told me.

The only way this tool works is if hosts opt-in to provide free boarding. It's still unclear how many Floridians have secured emergency shelter using Airbnb, but according to the company, 1,400 hosts in New York opened their doors during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

However, booking a room in West Palm Beach, Florida, "anytime after 8 a.m., Thursday and Friday," alleged CBS12, hasn't been so easy. The site noted that no rooms were available at the time, and some listings weren't accepting requests until Saturday. This could mean every West Palm Beach listing had already been reserved. But it's also possible that no one in the area was willing to lend a free room—an outcome that's not too difficult to imagine on Airbnb.

At the time of this story's publication, 26 listings were available in Florida through Airbnb's Disaster Response Tool, most in and around Orlando.

Another service that's operating throughout the storm is Uber. The ride-sharing platform says it will also cap surge pricing during Hurricane Matthew, which it will set by "excluding the 3 highest-priced, non-emergency days of the preceding 2 months," according to its own standards. It's hard to say what surge fares will look like in the region, but the company will keep them low enough to avoid accusations of price-gouging.

"Our main focus is on the safety of Uber driver partners and riders," an Uber spokesperson told me.

After the events of Hurricane Sandy, the company was strong-armed into implementing a nationwide surge capping agreement, but continued to argue that higher fares meant more drivers on the road. In some cases, fares had increased by 8x their usual rate during peak hours.

With a pricetag of $68 billion, it's stunning, almost predictably by now, that Uber's attempting to make a buck during the hurricane. It's usual value proposition—that better profits incentivize drivers—fits awkwardly within the scope of a crisis. When humanity is needed most, Uber's response is purely market-driven and algorithmic.

Instead of absorbing the costs of disaster relief, which would still allow drivers to get paid, the company is counting on people's desperation to determine the speed and availability of its service. With Uber, there's no meeting anyone halfway, not even when passengers are running from a storm.

I reached out to Lyft regarding their plans for Hurricane Matthew, and was told the company would be capping fares at 2x its normal rate.

Food delivery companies Postmates and Seamless have not made plans to significantly alter their services, either.

A spokesperson for Seamless said they "hope diners will be patient if their orders take longer than normal to arrive, given the possibility of street closures and other damage that could impact the route taken by their delivery person in areas hit by the storm. We encourage diners to be generous and appreciative when tipping and readily available in case delivery people have questions."

UberEATS, which is the company's new on-demand meal delivery service, is telling customers on Twitter that its drivers are operating "on a limited basis."

Over the last few years, most of these startups have been forced to reckon with the neighborhoods they've disrupted. Airbnb had to address unwittingly enabling racists, for example. And Uber still hasn't decided which aspects of its business are more important: people or algorithms.

But during occasions like this, when intentions are magnified and priorities become apparent, it's easier to see how "human" these companies really are. The next time we're expected to believe they're "communities" instead of platforms, we should ask ourselves whether they'll be there for us in a time of need.