When people awoke in Hong Kong on Thursday morning, anyone who needed to buy toilet paper would have found barren shelves across the city’s supermarkets.

Rumors of shortages spurred by fears of the coronavirus outbreak in China sent Hongkongers into a shopping frenzy, clearing supermarket aisles of rice, bleach, instant noodles and frozen dishes. Face masks and hand sanitizer have already been scarce commodities for weeks, with lines of thousands of people snaking out in front of stores. Prices of masks have soared.

Now some app developers are hoping to ease the panic with a platform designed to track shortages using both local and global crowdsourcing. Shortage Tracker launched as an open-source online map that allows people to report where goods are available and whether prices are inflated.

Long queues for surgical masks have become a common sight in Hong Kong as people seek to protect themselves from the new coronavirus. (Picture: May Tse/SCMP)

The idea for the platform first hit Trey Menefee when he began noticing face masks were running low. Menefee is the founder of Open Source Intelligence HK (OSINT HK), which created the map. But the masks weren’t just disappearing in Hong Kong and mainland China. It was happening as far as Singapore, the Philippines, South Africa and even the US. Other items started disappearing, too. Some people had a hard time finding cat food.

“What really kicked this project off was when fresh vegetables disappeared off the shelves,” said Menefee. “No one could really explain why the government didn't even make a statement warning people this might happen.”

China is now in the midst of a severe mask shortage as the novel coronavirus death toll has risen above 560 and the number of those infected has risen into the tens of thousands. Now shortages are spanning oceans, from Tokyo to Toronto.

Singapore and Macau have already sought to prevent panic buying by ordering masks to be distributed to citizens. Macau set up a website to track each store’s stock. Taiwan has its own online map showing face mask supplies in pharmacies.

The Shortage Tracker platform is still in its infancy with bugs to fix, according to its makers. (Picture: Shortage Tracker)

Unlike these websites, Shortage Tracker is crowdsourced, drawing inspiration from the HKmap.live web app that showed locations of protesters and police during the city’s anti-government protests. That app became widely publicized after Apple removed it from the iOS App Store over claims that it encouraged illegal behavior.

OSINT HK was itself born from these protests. Group members sought to verify and clear up the countless videos documenting clashes between protesters and police, which spread online like wildfire.

This new project is still in the early stages with bugs to fix and plenty of limitations. And the creators are still trying to work out how to keep users up to date on the availability of stock without alarming them about what’s running low.

“How do you discourage hoarding while still trying to notify people that this type of thing is starting to disappear?” Menefee asked.

One way of solving that could be making the map less precise by focusing on neighborhoods instead of individual shops. Ultimately, the goal of the platform is to inform people about shortages not just in Hong Kong, but around the world, helping people to find what they need during emergencies.

And if the hoarding can’t be stopped? Menefee said the platform will be shut down.