Tech For Good: Harnessing the Power of Silicon Valley to Combat California’s Wildfires

Late last year, the entirety of the San Francisco Bay Area was consumed in smoke due to the wildfires that broke out in Northern California. Naturally, the top tech companies rallied their resources and technology to help save the state they call home. The likes of Airbnb, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Tesla offered what they could to help those who had unfortunately lost their homes. Between giving monetary aid and repurposing their platforms, Silicon Valley’s major tech companies stepped up when their community needed them most.

In the Picture: Airbnb Hosts offering rooms for those who need durin the California Wildfires. Photo Credit AIRBNB

Airbnb – Share Your Space for Good with Open Homes

The Camp Fire in Butte county is the deadliest fire in California to date, with nearly 12,000 buildings destroyed and over 9,000 firefighters dispatched to battle the blaze. With so many people displaced and relief workers converging to the affected area, there was a critical shortage of housing in the area which shelters could not adequately meet.

This is where crowdsourcing and altruism come together at its best through Airbnb’s platform. Airbnb’s Open Homes program allows hosts to open their homes to those who need it the most as short-term, free housing. Airbnb further supports these hosts by providing round-the-clock support and reimbursement for qualifying property damages up to $1,000,000.

Kellie Bentz, the head of Airbnb’s Global Disaster Response and Relief, stated in a press release that “We encourage hosts in safe areas to aid in this effort by listing their available rooms or homes on the platform to help the growing number of people evacuating. Our thoughts continue to be with everyone impacted by these fires, and we thank the dedicated government and emergency response agencies who are working to keep our communities safe.”

In the Picture: Apple fundraiser to help people affected by California Wildfires. Photo Credit APPLE

Apple – Get Your Music and Give Support on iTunes

Apple reactivated their donation pop-up in the wake of the wildfires, which could originally be accessed either through their homepage or the iTunes app. It allows users to quickly donate to relief efforts, and 100% of the donation goes straight to the Red Cross. Apple does not take credit for any donations done through their website or iTunes as they do not share personal user information with third parties, allowing users to preserve their privacy while donating a much needed cause.

In addition to raising awareness by providing prominent placement on its official website and within the iTunes Store and App Store on iPhones and iPads, Apple has also donated to the wildfire relief, as stated by Apple CEO Tim Cook on Twitter: “Praying for the safety of our neighbors, loved ones and all those affected by the rapidly spreading fires in California. We’re grateful to the firefighters and first responders working to keep everyone safe. Apple is donating to relief efforts for Northern & Southern California.”

In the Picture:
Facebook Safety Check. Photo Credit FACEBOOK

Facebook – Let Others Know You’re Safe with Safety Check

At the height of the chaos the wildfires were causing, as many as 600 people were unaccounted for. However, the power of social media helped keep the number of people listed as missing down to a minimum, as well as allowed people to see if their friends or relatives in the affected area were okay almost instantaneously.

Facebook enabled a Safety Check feature, where users can “check-in” to quickly show their friends and family that they were safe. Safety Check was praised for for being able to “take some pressure off of overloaded infrastructure with everyone trying to call affected areas after disasters hit,” especially when power lines, data centers, and internet connections may not be immediately available in the disaster areas.

Furthermore, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, through their initiative, pledged to do a 3-to-1 match of donations, offering to donate $3 for every $1 donated up to a total of $750,000 to the North Valley Community Foundation to support long-term recovery efforts in the area.

In the Photo: Waze App showin an escape route from fires. Photo Credit WAZE (DEVELOPED BY GOOGLE, @waze)

Google – Showing People Ways to Stay Safe with Waze

As the fires raged in Northern California, there were many unexpected road closures as the fires indiscriminately burned over 153,336 acres. Many people found the only escape route closed and finding places to evacuate to also became difficult. Waze, an app developed by Google that is reminiscent of Google Maps navigation combined with community-sourced live information, became a literal lifesaver as the wildfires caused the on-the-ground situation to change at a moment’s notice. Marika Olsen, from Google.org, said that Google constantly updated their maps to mark fire boundaries, allowing Waze to show issues like road closures. Waze was also updated to include shelters where people could evacuate to.

In addition to updating Waze, Google’s Crisis Response team collaborated with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC) to help people get back online, allowing them to reconnect with concerned families and friends, file insurance claims, and even get back to school or work. Volunteers helped set up WiFi and connected Chromebooks at evacuation sites, serving over 1,000 evacuees. In just a couple of days, these connections allowed over a dozen shelter guests to be matched to missing persons list entries.

To further help support the relief efforts, Google pledged to donate $500,000 to organizations assisting evacuees and will match donations by users who use the platform to give money.

In the Picture: Tesla’s bioweapon defense mode in action. Photo Credit SCOTT WAINNER (@scottwww)

Tesla – Activate Bioweapon Defense Mode

While originally designed for a bioweapon attack, Tesla’s built-in bioweapon defense mode proved to be extremely helpful as smoke from the fires made the air around the Bay Area unhealthy to breathe. As stores all over started to run out of stock of breathing masks, those lucky enough to own a Tesla found themselves not needing to wear a mask as the built-in air filters of Model S and X reduced the PM2.5 levels in the outside air by 40%. Elon Musk further extended the benefit of the filters to those in affected areas, tweeting “If Tesla can help people in California wildfire, please let us know. Model S & X have hospital grade HEPA filters. Maybe helpful for transporting people.” Although this offer wasn’t really acted upon, the thought and technology gives hope to innovating future disaster relief efforts.

As much as these tech companies have contributed much to helping those affected by the California wildfires, there are still many people who are unfortunately displaced and are in need of assistance. If you are willing and able, you can also donate to help California wildfire victims by donating to the Red Cross. You don’t need to be a billion dollar tech company to help make a difference in someone’s life.

In the Cover Picture: Wildfires. Photo Credit: PIXABAY.COM (PEXELS)


Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com

About the Author /

April holds a Master of Science in Public Policy and Human Development from the United Nations University and specializes in the intersection of innovation and foreign policy. As head of the "Women Impakters" series for Impakter magazine, her writing mainly focuses on emerging women leaders in Silicon Valley. She currently works for the U.S. State Department initiative TechWomen as a program coordinator. TechWomen brings emerging women leaders in STEM fields from developing countries together with their professional counterparts in Silicon Valley for a mentorship and exchange program. Learn more at https://www.techwomen.org.

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