An Idea to Reshape Google.org

3 February 2011

A Times article last Saturday gave a pretty harsh critique of Google.org, the search giant’s philanthropic wing. Begun in 2004 with grand dreams of reinventing philanthropy and revolutionizing the non-profit world by leveraging Google’s powerful technological assets and unconventional approach to problems, DotOrg has foundered. Today, it operates not unlike a “conventional corporate philanthropy,” doling out cash to big nonprofits, with occasional cool, innovative projects like Flu Trends and Earth Engine. The article blames this on shifting, sometimes undependable leadership, and a disconnect between the social types of DotOrg and engineers of the DotCom.

The more core problem with Google.org, it seems, is their engineering-centric approach to social change. This is a widely-known, and yet very common mistake in the tech-for-development world. People get a powerful tool in their hands, and start looking for problems it can solve, rather than the other way around: addressing a specific problem, and thinking about how to solve it. To be sure, mobile phones and other new technologies have proven valuable tools for solving certain types of social problems, but only by taking a problem-centric, rather than solution-centric approach is any progress likely to be made. Google.org has been a consistent offender of this rule; after their brilliant algorithm solved the problem of search, it was easy to think that Google engineers could tackle any problem, provided they coded hard enough. But in the words of Professor Laurence Simon, quoted in the article: “there isn’t any algorithm that’s going to eradicate guinea worm.”

To put it another way, Google’s approach to philanthropy and global development was top-down. They thought that by creating super tools and technologies while sitting in Mountain View, lives in Haiti, Liberia, and India would be transformed. But solving vexing global problems doesn’t usually work that way.  Usually, development is successful when it happens bottom-up: when communities or countries identify problems, imagine solutions, and implement their ideas. The does not describe the DotOrg approach to date. From the article:

Some DotOrg staff members with traditional nonprofit backgrounds proposed a system to track drugs for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis through the supply chain…

The plan never went anywhere, however, because text-messaging was not sophisticated enough to challenge Google’s engineers.

In other words, the approach was too bottom-up to appeal to Google’s tech-centric sensibilities.

But the good and well-meaning Googlers shouldn’t be discouraged. Provided they are willing to re-think their approach to development, Google.org can offer, at once, a bottom-up, problem-centric approach to global challenges, while at the same time leverage Google’s formidable monetary and technological assets in unconventional ways. What follows is one idea for how DotOrg can do this.

iHubAbout a year ago, a group of Kenyan technologists got together and founded the iHub, a place for techies to come together in Nairobi, share workspace, collaborate, learn, and find investment for their ideas.  With initial funding from the Omidyar Network, and riding high on the growing success and global recognition of Ushahidi, the successful SMS-based mapping application developed in Kenya in 2007, the iHub has helped knock down the perception of Africa as strictly a consumer-but not producer-of technology.  Since its founding, the concept of the iHub has been mimicked across sub-Saharan Africa, with similar collaboration spaces established in Uganda, Nigeria, Cameroon, and elsewhere, all helping promote and encourage African technologists and connecting them with capital.

Last summer, in partnership with the iHub and Appfrica Labs, a Ugandan technology and innovation space, the U.S. State Department ran an app contest called Apps<4>Africa, in which they challenged African software developers to write mobile phone apps that would benefit the people of Africa. The winning app, written by a member of the iHub, was called iCow, and is a voice-based mobile app that “helps farmers track the estrus stages of their cows,” with the hopes of allowing them to better manage breeding in their herd. Other apps took on problems of governmental corruption, maternal health, small-scale finance and banking, among a wide array of very real challenges in everyday life for African citizens.

These tech hubs are remarkable not just as technology institutions, but as institutions of civil society and entrepreneurial vibrancy as well. For any developing country to overcome poverty and emerge as a successful middle-income state, a strong civil society and a robust economy are two essential ingredients.  By serving as places for tech-savvy citizens to come together and vectors for investment to reach entrepreneurs and the iHub and its followers are incubators for both of these things. If Google.org wants to create a meaningful impact on global development while leveraging their position as one of the world’s premier tech companies, these technology hubs are one very unconventional way to go about it.  Here’s how:

- Building Hubs: Right now, the iHub is supported financially by Ushahidi. Not every developing country has such a successful project so well positioned to be the convener and financier of a technology hub. DotOrg could help finance existing hubs, while creating and building new hubs throughout the developing world, bringing together local developers, business interests and social actors to innovate and collaborate.

- App Contests & More: An app contest is a cheap and easy project to run, but can serve as a valuable incentive for inexperienced developers to try their hand at entrepreneurship, while also making for great publicity-both for the sponsor and the winning developers. Small scale projects like app contests can help put technology hubs on the map, identify the most promising engineers, and launch a few useful new technologies, to boot.  

- Talent Sharing: From the inception of DotOrg, Google has sought to leverage the power of their staff: a collection of some of the best software developers in the world. But sitting in Mountain View, the developers themselves have had little connection to the challenges of people in the developing world. Why not create fellowships for their talented engineers to spend time in a foreign technology hub, teaching young developers and helping build and improve nascent projects.

- Venture Capital: Rather than seeking to build their own world-saving tools or pouring money into “conventional” philanthropic projects, DotOrg should invest in the best of the innumerable homegrown ideas for technology development. Active tech hubs are gold mines of entrepreneurs and ideas, and as a foundation, DotOrg can make more investments and accept a higher degree of risk than a strictly for-profit VC investor. If the successful projects are explicitly focused on improving social conditions, so much the better, but either way, investment capital is a key to economic development anywhere.

By engaging with the burgeoning technology hubs in Africa, helping to create new ones throughout the developing world, and using the hubs as platforms for sharing their technological and monetary assets, Google.org could have a very real impact in helping poor countries develop from the bottom up.  Supporting the private sector-whether tech-based social enterprises or straight-up for-profit technology companies-and helping strengthen civil society are two somewhat unconventional yet crucially important elements of global development. And DotOrg has a unique comparative advantage in doing so through technology.

What’s more, Google can see this endeavor as beneficial to their bottom line. Robust technology hubs around the world will eventually yield products that the company may want to acquire for itself-so that it can build its own business in the developing world. Additionally, technology hubs will provide a valuable talent pool for future hiring. Google recently brought on Ory Okolloh as their policy manager for Africa; before joining Google, Ory was one of the founders of Ushahidi and involved with the iHub in Nairobi.  With a robust network of technology hubs around the world, Google will have early access to the best ideas and people, and DotOrg will live up to its promise of operating in part as a for-profit entity.

For many in the development world, Google.org has been a bit of a disappointment after the great hopes surrounding its launch. A few scattered projects have made an impact, and the company deserves applause for the level of its philanthropy alone-Google donated $184 million last year-but DotOrg has greater potential.  The iHub is already on the company’s radar: Google is hosting a “mapping party” there next week for women working in tech and social development.  If the foundation can overcome its tech-centric, solution-oriented approach to global change, and instead leverage its advantages in ways that facilitate bottom-up development, Google.org could become a real leader in the field.

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