I heard on the radio this morning that today was apparently meant to be the most depressing day of the year (happily I’m not feeling it). So in trying to think about more uplifting subjects, I read about the strategic launch of Google’s philanthropy venture Google.org.
Led by the rather wonderfully named Dr Brilliant, Google.org’s 40-strong team has already been going for sometime but has only just unveiled their key strategic intent based on an over-riding objective which is, they say, to "use the power of information and technology to address the global challenges of our age: climate change, poverty and emerging disease". When it launched, Google.org represented what The Economist terms "a new sort of philanthropic entity", being set up to pursue opportunities for for-profit investing as well as charitable grants, and funded not only with 1% of the firm’s equity and annual profits, but 1% of Google employees time.
Dr Brilliant (who bizarrely was once Doctor to The Grateful Dead) had a blank sheet of paper and the world’s biggest problems to look at when he started so it’s probably not surprising that it’s taken a couple of years to announce the strategy. They started with 1000 ideas, whittled them down to 11 (the 11 which were "the biggest, most imminent, least well resourced problems."), and then finally focused in looking specifically at what Google had to offer in terms of resource, reach, their command and proficiency in handling information, their technological and engineering capabilities, and their entrepreneurial culture. They ended up with five key initiatives:
- RE<C: Clean, renewable sources of utility-scale electricity that is cheaper than that produced from coal
- RechargeIT: supporting and fostering the mass commercialisation of plug-in vehicles
- Fuel the growth of SME’s
- Use information to inform and empower in order to improve public services (education, health, water, sanitation etc)
- Predict and Prevent: Identifying hot-spots and enabling rapid responses to emerging threats like disease or climate based situations.
It’s tempting to be cyncical about this (cheaper, renewable electricity must fit nicely with Google’s own priority to efficiently power all those server farms) but it’s the commitment and the capability which I think sets this apart. Just think about that last one again. It builds out of the InSTEDD project (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disaster) which Google.org has now invested in and for which Brilliant won the TED pize two years ago. This project aims to use web and communications technology to help communities around the world identify, act upon and warn others of infectious disease outbreaks or natural disasters.
Think Twitter, Facebook and other ubiqitous but free software being repurposed when and where necessary for humanitarian benefit. Like the Twitter bot framework which "bridges the web service and phones with a location detection feature that can link to a layer in Google Earth". So imagine an aid worker with one bar of mobile reception being able to twitter on SMS not only to a network of fellow aid workers, but also to their headquarters back home who can view the message on screen showing the location on Google Earth and reply telling them where the nearest other aid workers are.
In typical Google style this is a hugely ambitious, high risk and high return strategy. But then, perhaps that’s what’s needed. Particularly when you consider that, according to a recent Oxfam report, there has been a four-fold increase in the annual number of natural disasters. Perhaps this goes beyond philanthropy. As The Economist speculates, perhaps this is "a new model for how a big firm should engage with society".