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.”