MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Some of Google's next big opportunities may not come out of its traditional product development organization; look out for the do-gooders.
It's been almost two years since Google announced a philosophy shift at Google.org to focus more on attacking "problems in ways that make the most of Google's strengths in technology and information," Larry Brilliant, the former head of Google.org, said at the time. One of the first successes from that shift--Google Earth Engine--may not only help developing countries get accurate data about their environments for the first time, but such a massive collection of information and sophisticated analysis could pay financial dividends as well.
Google does a lot of charitable giving, but tucked away in a corner of its sprawling campus is a group drawn from all parts of the company that is dedicated to something a little more Googly that simply giving money away: "Can we use our engineering skills to design our way out (of the world's problems)?" Megan Smith, general manager of Google.org, said in an interview with CNET.
Take Google Earth Engine, conceived and run by Rebecca Moore, a former member of Google's Geo team who now works for Google.org full time. Moore developed quite a reputation in the environmental community after using Google Earth to map out a proposed logging project in the Santa Cruz Mountains that was defeated after the graphical presentation showed the project's scope was larger than advertised. That led to Google Earth Outreach, a project which taught environmental groups and governments how to use Google Earth as a presentation tool.
Environmental scientists were impressed by the tool, but what they really wanted was a tool that could let them analyze and manipulate the data stored in those images in order to make decisions about environmental policy, such as how much to compensate local groups for protecting forests against logging. Moore recognized that what they needed was something "intrinsically parallelizable;" in other words, something perfectly suited to be broken up into thousands of small tasks and run across a distributed network of servers.
What other computing problems are like that? Web search, for one.
"I think we're (becoming) clear about what is our best lever: technology-driven philanthropy," Smith said. Google Earth Engine was demonstrated at the most recent round of world climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, allowing the Mexican government to produce the most detailed map--by far--ever assembled of its forestry footprint, Moore said. It plans to use that map to set wildlife habitat boundaries as well as antideforestation programs.
Google.org wants to find hard problems that are often too much for poorer countries with limited or nonexistent IT budgets to solve on their own and apply Google's vast resources of computing power and human talent.
Around 100 Google employees are affiliated with Google.org, and while their salaries are paid out of Google.org's estimated 2011 budget of $45 million, they generally maintain a strong connection to the Google.com working group from which they came.
Earth Engine is an example of a "pilot" project started by one or two engineers from the Geo team that grew into a full-blown Google.org project, Smith said. There are five major products at the moment: Google Earth Engine, Google Flu Trends, Google PowerMeter, RE<C (research into making renewable energy cost less than coal), and Google Crisis Response.
While the projects are designed to tackle specific philanthropic needs, there are clearly commercial applications that can arise from this work. Truth be told, should the projects prove wildly successful, Google won't have much of a choice but to find some way to monetize them in order to make up for the drain on its computing resources: for just the Mexico project, Google donated 15,000 CPU hours of computing time to produce the map and plans to donate 10 million CPU hours to developing countries as they attempt to figure out how to measure the size of their forests while negotiating the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) agreement reached in Cancun.
Google has discussed commercial applications of Google Earth Engine, but it's too early to have laid down any specific plans, Moore said. There will always be a free version of projects like Google Earth Engine available to developing countries, but don't be surprised to see a break-even pricing tier at some point that allows Google to recover its costs or even a for-profit version that could turn into its own business, she said.
Projects such as Google Earth Engine are extremely valuable to the world, for both humanitarian and commercial reasons. One of Google's clear aims for Google.org is to unlock generations of material--such as historical satellite imagery--stored on tape drives in musty warehouses by getting that information online, Smith said.
Moore cited the example of local researchers who were able to draw strong conclusions between changes in weather patterns and disease. A system that would allow countries to identify such weather patterns backed by years of historical data could lead to early-warning systems against crippling diseases, although Moore cautioned such an application is still in the conceptual stages.
This would also have obvious benefits for agricultural companies, for example. "We'll have to charge something," Smith said, in order to make these ideas work at a truly global scale, but for now the limited application of these practices allows them to remain completely philanthropic.
With strong support from Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, don't expect anything to change drastically at Google.org following Page's elevation to the CEO spot in April. Likewise, even as Google adds employees left and right in 2011, don't expect cultural support for the promises of Google.org to become diluted by new recruits.
If anything, younger people emerging from universities and graduate programs have even a stronger connection to this kind of work than the generation that helped build Google, Smith said.
"In a lot of ways, the Internet is like a shift like the Silk Road in its day: people were able to connect to each other in a way that's never been there before," Smith said. Younger workers "will demand" that their employers engage in this manner of using business strengths for humanitarian purposes, she said, and Google feels it has quite the head start.