As we approach the 2013 Google I/O conference and wait to see whatAndroid-enhancing and face-adhering goodies the folks in Mountain View have in store, it's a good time to take a look back at a more innocent, don't-be-evil period in the tech giant's past.
Google has spearheaded many potentially game-changing initiatives in its relatively short existence. Some of these moves have been unapologetically motivated by profit, while others could be considered morealtruistic--or just good PR, if cynical is how you roll. However you regard the latter category, Google's Project 10 to the 100 certainly fits in it.
In 2010, Google gave $10 million to five ideas that would "help the most." The company granted money to "inspiring organizations" working on pioneering solutions to global challenges such as promoting STEM education via team competition, making government more transparent through online access, or innovating urban transportation with a self-propelled hamster-track monorail.
The company awarded the grants to help each organization attain a specific goal. This September will mark three years since the prizes' distribution, so we thought it would be appropriate to check in and see whether those Google windfalls have assisted in realizing ideas that actually will "help the most."
As much as we'd love to believe that Khan Academy is a boarding school for aspiring Star Trek villains, it's a website that provides free educational videos, lesson plans, and other learning resources to the world. No matter who you are or where you are, as long as you have access to the Web, you have access to top-notch educational materials.
Google injection: $2 million to "support the creation of more courses and to enable the Khan Academy to translate their core library into the world's most widely spoken languages."
Since then: At the time of the 10 to the 100 donations, the Khan Academy library had only 1700 videos. These days the Academy boasts more than 4100. The videos still cover a multitude of subjects in the STEM range for all levels K through 12, but have expanded their scope to include humanities lessons on everything from Keynesian economics to the postwar figure.
Thanks to Google's grant and the kindness of other big-name donors, the Academy also offers fleshed-out lesson plans plus interactive data to reflect a student's progress, and has pushed through a major initiative to translate the videos into various languages. According to Shantanu Sinha, president and COO of Khan Academy, among the first things the Academy did with the funds was to hire a translation coordination manager. As of this writing, the 4100 videos in the English-language library have been translated into 35,000 videos across 28 of the world's languages--all available for free.
"Google supplied the first major funding to help the organization get off the ground," comments Sinha. "We feel like we've made a lot more progress than we ever expected." While the funding certainly helped with the efforts, another big benefit was the additional publicity, which "really helped kick us off the ground. It added a lot of attention and a lot more donors to follow."
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)
FIRST is an educational nonprofit designed to encourage STEM education for young people by placing them with science and technology mentors.
Google injection: $3 million to "develop and jump-start new student-driven robotics team fundraising programs that will empower more student teams to participate in FIRST."
Since then: FIRST has further developed a series of robotics competitions, ranging from a program in which elementary-school kids build working machines using Legos to a high school competition that challenges students to design, build, and program working robots and compete for $11 million in college scholarships.
Public.Resource.Org is a nonprofit organization that makes government functions (federal, state, and local) more transparent by publishing public-domain materials at no cost. Think of it as a sort of aboveground Wikileaks.
Google injection: $2 million "to support the Law.Gov initiative, which aims to make all primary legal materials in the United States available to all."
Since then: Public.Resource.Org's president and founder Carl Malamud told me that since the Google funding, the organization has been "quite busy" creating its public law initiative, which publishes laws online for anyone to view for free. The group has also managed to expand the site's scope to offer access to U.S. House of Representatives hearings and all 6 million-plus filings from IRS-exempt organizations.
One of the strangest and most eye-catching of the recipient organizations is Shweeb. The New Zealand company (and the only for-profit unit in the bunch) has created a personal rapid-transit network consisting of individual self-propelled pods that move along a monorail track. The technology was originally built for an eco-amusement park, but the company has plans to refine the model for practical, daily urban transportation.
Google injection: $1 million "to fund research and development to test Shweeb's technology for an urban setting."
Since then: Shweeb hasn't quite built a daily-transportation system just yet. However, Peter Cossey, Shweeb's managing director, says that the company is "hopeful that by the end of 2013, a test module will be complete. If so, we would then look to have a small demonstration module by the first quarter of 2014."
As per the Google grant stipulation, Cossey notes, the funds have gone toward extensive research and development, including refinement of the pod design, experimentation with station and rail schemes, and logistical improvements that will accommodate several pods on a single rail moving at varying speeds.
AIMS (African Institute for Mathematical Sciences)
AIMS is a Cape Town, South Africa, organization that promotes mathematics and science in Africa and encourages promising young people to develop their countries of origin.
Google injection: $2 million "to fund the opening of additional AIMS centers to promote graduate-level math and study in Africa."
Since then: AIMS has applied the funds to the creation of the Next Einstein Initiative. "The second center of excellence in the AIMS network opened in Senegal in 2011, and the third center was launched in Ghana in 2012, providing access to post-graduate mathematical sciences education to over 500 highly talented African students," says Thierry Zomahoun, the Einstein Initiative's executive director. "The Google donation is being used in Senegal and Ghana to construct high-quality permanent facilities to the standard that an AIMS center requires in order to ensure a conducive learning environment for our students. We are incredibly grateful to Google for their belief in and support of AIMS and the students we feel will be the future of Africa."
Does PR matter?
Google is undeniably one of the most powerful companies in the world, but it's not even old enough to drive yet (perhaps that's part of the reason why it invests such a disproportionate amount of time and resources into every April Fools' Day). In its 15 years, it has evolved from competing for market share with Ask Jeeves to developing cars that don't need humans. And the company has done an excellent job at portraying itself as a "corporation that cares."
Even in 2009, $10 million was a fiduciary freckle on Google's back. As a for-profit enterprise, Google has no inherent interest in anything besides its bottom line. This amoral (as opposed to immoral) attitude is not inherently "evil." Still, while most large enterprises have charitable arms, few have been as successful as Google at cultivating the idea that they are decidedly non-evil.
Perhaps I'm being naïve by wanting to believe in a Fortune 500 corporation's altruism, but in the end that's beside the point. An initiative like 10 to the 100 shows what smart, targeted investment and a lot of media attention can attain, no matter the reason behind it.