OWI Labs op-ed: Harvey, Irma, and the role of the shared service economy

The OWI Labs op-ed series breaks down the latest news with an inside look at the identity industry dynamics our team of experts is following. This week, OWI Senior Analyst Simeon Beal details the role of trust and the shared service economy in the disaster relief efforts serving the aftermath of Harvey and Irma.

Editor’s note: Airbnb Product Manager Filip Verley is a Senior Advisor to OWI.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans breaking the levees and nearly leveling the city. In the aftermath, the evacuees waited in the destruction for the federal government to bring in disaster relief assistance.

However, natural disasters prevent governmental institutions such as police officers, firefighters, emergency responders, hospitals, from operating normally. This disruption is seen as an opportunity by some to try and negatively take advantage of the situation. There were several reports of looting, fake charities being created as scams, even rape and murders that came in the wake of Katrina. This instability creates an almost post-apocalyptic microcosm where you have no incentive to trust the strangers around you. As a result, the disaster relief efforts have largely been centralized to government agencies because they do not have a profit motive and have earned a very high level of trust from generations of successfully administering disaster relief.

Unfortunately, in this instance the desperate needs of these affected people were met with a stymied and dismal reaction from FEMA and other federal agencies. The failure in this system was caused by many individual people with unique problems waiting on the aid from one very large slow-moving entity.

The summer of 2017 will be remembered as one of the worst natural disaster seasons in recent memory. Harvey and Irma tore through Texas and the southeast injuring thousands, taking lives, destroying homes, and displacing families. However in response, America’s people and its government have amassed a commendable relief effort — giving their time, resources, and billions of dollars to help those affected by these tragedies. In contrast to Katrina, the immediate relief efforts in 2017 were more timely and well-executed due to rapid changes in the mode by which we respond to natural disasters; namely, from a centralized to decentralized network facilitated by the development of trusted environments on the internet.

One of the more interesting developments of the 2017 disaster relief effort was the introduction shared service economy such as shared housing and telemedicine, be leveraged to assist in disaster relief efforts.

The introduction of the shared services industry has facilitated a paradigm shift towards a decentralized network. The clear advantage of this new structure is its efficiency. The system empowers affected citizens to proactively seek out the offered aid of abled citizens, and not have to wait for federal agencies to come to them. However, it is fascinating to see displaced persons, in post-apocalyptic microcosms, rely on a third-party institution to help decide whether or not to trust a service provider.

Historically, the shared service industry has struggled with this problem — how are they going to convince users in their network to trust one another? To answer this, Airbnb, which was widely used as a resource this past summer, has seen a high level of success by installing sufficient safeguards — onboarding identity verification and peer rating system — and established conduct protocols — monitoring and mechanisms for recompense — to verify and authenticate the identities of their user base. In fact,  150 million users around the world now trust Airbnb to authenticate their transactional counterparties.

Also, it is important to note that C2C is not a comprehensive disaster relief model in of itself; but rather, a new tool that should be considered an integral aspect of a G2C plan. C2C is apt at connecting professionals and service providers with consumers in less than ideal situations but cannot compete with the physical resources and manpower required in executing a full scale relief plan.

Nevertheless two companies in the shared service economy who had notable success during the disaster relief efforts this past summer were:


In 2012, Airbnb developed a “response tool” or a set of protocols designed to assist victims of natural disasters.

The tool’s components:

  1. Airbnb contacts hosts to inquire if they will offer space for free.
  2. When guests select “I need a place to stay” they will be provided with all $0 listings in the area. Their digital identity will be verified to confirm they are in a location that was affected.
  3. Any reservation made under this category by non-evacuees will be terminated immediately.

Effectively, Airbnb has created a platform to give displaced persons an active channel to seek out relief. No more waiting around for Joel Osteen.

Additionally, after Katrina federal agencies used large buildings such as the Superdome stadium to house thousands of evacuees. People seeking shelter had to physically make the journey to one of these stations or wait for a transport. This shared housing network enables evacuees to find lodging closer to their current location.

Doctor on Demand

Doctor on Demand is a platform for physicians to examine patients, give diagnosis, make referrals, and prescribe/refill prescriptions and has been instrumental in disaster relief. Some of the more applicable use cases of telemedicine are:

  1. Mental Health Care: Evacuees with trauma symptoms can meet with mental health professionals.
  2. Specialization: Patients can be connected with specialized doctors and be prescribed medications.
  3. Network: Increased flexibility creates a network that can offer 24-hour coverage from more rested physicians.

Telehealth platforms are the greatest difference between Katrina and Harvey and the impact has been substantial. As Maeve Sheehan, a pediatrician at Children’s Health in Dallas Texas said, “We didn’t have telemedicine in Katrina. I was on [call] all night. This time, I don’t have to be. Telemedicine makes a big difference.”

Future Use Cases and Importance of Digital Identity

Not only will C2C be an integral aspect of disaster relief plans moving forward, but the shared service economy itself will continue to grow. The Brookings institute estimates the shared services economy to be a $355 million industry by 2025. Airbnb alone has over 3 million users across almost 200 countries of the world, and Doctors on Demand has their medical professional response time down to under 3 minutes. When was the last time you spent less than 3 minutes in a doctor’s office?

Given these efficiencies, and their ability to validate and authenticate digital identities, it is difficult to envision a future economy where shared services do not continue to add value connecting individuals directly to their peers and professionals. To that end, it is imperative to familiarize yourself with these platforms to both utilize and contribute to the shared economy for both disaster relief support and recreational activities.