Google.org’s Giving $20 Million to Engineer a Better World for the Disabled
Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, has been making a big global push this year to aid the one billion people around the world living with disabilities. To further that goal, it’s just awarded $20 million to the 30 nonprofits it believes could benefit most from its tech and data-driven approach to charitable giving. From open source electric wheelchairs to multi-lingual keyboards you can control with eye-tracking technology, the chosen projects focus on solutions for disabled people in five main categories: education, communication, mobility, independence, and employment.
For Dot-org, as Googlers call it, this is a big moment. Google.org has revealed some awardees and partial grant amounts for its first-ever Global Impact Challenge in the past few months. But today it’s announced its full lineup, including 17 new nonprofits. Dot-org gave six of the 30 grantees more than $1 million to spend on advancing their causes. And the average grant size promised to these nonprofits, Dot-org says, is $750,000. According to the philanthropic organization, the final roster of grantees reach over 50 countries with their projects.
“We want to use our global voice to try and spread these innovations to more people,” says Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink, project lead for Google’s global impact challenge. “We also have scale in mind in funding these projects. We’re really looking for ways that these organizations can put this innovation out into the universe.”
The range of nonprofits reflects the breadth of Google.org’s ambitions: One of the grantees is the Center for Discovery, which is developing an open source power add-on that converts any manual wheelchair into a powered one that gives people more automatic steering options and better mobility. Another pick is the Perkins School for the Blind, which is working on tech that goes beyond GPS to give people with visual impairments more visibility into their immediate surroundings—helping them pick out bus stops, for instance, or building entrances. Dot-org also chose Click2Speak, a nonprofit that’s developing an on-screen, multi-lingual keyboard that includes support for input devices such as switches, joysticks, or eye-tracking devices, aimed at users with impaired motor skills.
Of course, Dot-org’s announcement isn’t the first, or even the biggest, pledge in the history of tech philanthropy. (That distinction goes to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who pledged 99 percent of their Facebook fortune—$45 billion—to philanthropic causes.) But this year’s Global Impact Challenge portfolio is typical of Google’s unique way of giving. Google is all about approaching poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and one of its goals is to democratize tech access for those in need in new and innovative ways. Improving life for people with disabilities gives Google.org a unique challenge to solve with its tech expertise.
Giving, the Google Way
Tech is no stranger to philanthropy. Generations of tech moguls, from Bill Gates to Pierre Omidyar to Marc Benioff have given away impressive sums of their own wealth—and in doing so, have invited much scrutiny to the question of how tech can best approach philanthropy. Google.org, however, claims that it’s different: as an agnostic organization, it says can be more objective than individuals who might be more passion-driven about the issues they pick.
In this case, Google.org says it has data-driven reasons for making disabilities its cause. More than a billion people live with a disability worldwide. A person with a disability, regardless of where he or she lives or works, has fewer opportunities than more able-bodied peers. In a place like the US, 50 to 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed; in developing nations, that proportion rises to as high as 80 to 90 percent, according to the United Nations. Access is another concern: Only 5 to 15 percent of people with disabilities in developing countries have access to the assistive devices they need, the World Health Organization determined.
What Dot-org says it can uniquely offer is broadening disabled people’s access to services and technology that will improve their lives, in small and big ways. One obvious way Google.org can do this is by lending tech expertise to nonprofits to create efficient, affordable products and services. But Google.org also wants to give everyone equal access, helping these nonprofits figure out how to overcome barriers to getting their projects into the hands of people who need them, whether that’s through upending stodgy insurance models, open sourcing project plans, or building in customization so that more individuals can find products designed specifically for their unique conditions. It also can’t hurt that Google is a company with a truly global reach.
The Center for Discovery’s indieGo, which Google gave over $1 million, is a model example of a nonprofit that could uniquely benefit from Google’s tech-savviness. The indieGo is a lightweight frame with a motor that converts any wheelchair into a powered one. Its inventors are experimenting with a variety of control mechanisms, from joysticks to touch buttons and industry-standard switches.
“Someone with a spinal cord injury who has use of their hands, though not their legs, could use a joystick with this device,” John Damaio, creator of the indieGo system, says. “But you can take this to another patient who maybe doesn’t have use of their hands, but has use of their head and neck, to drive with their head using the same device.” Because its tech is more sophisticated, a power wheelchair with head and neck controls could cost thousands of dollars more than a joystick-controlled chair, Damaio says. Meanwhile, the indieGo is aiming to go on the market for about $1,000—significantly lower than other power wheelchairs out there.
The nonprofit also plans to cut out middlemen, so that users who need the assistive device can order it directly. Perhaps most significant of all: the indieGo device plan is open source, right in line with Dot-org’s criteria. If all goes well, according to its road map developed in conjunction with Google.org, indieGo could be ready for manufacturing within two years.
Yes, the indieGo team has lofty goals. But they think they can get there. “The nice thing is, Dot-org isn’t just giving us money and stepping away,” McNamara says, anticipating that the team will need help soon, especially when it comes to specific technical questions—like how to extend their device’s battery life. “I assume with Google’s driverless car, that they have a whole slew of battery experts,” McNamara says. “We could reach out to them and ask for advice on the batteries that we are going to be using in our own device.”
There’s no way to know now whether all of Google.org’s bets will succeed. More likely than not, these nonprofits won’t hit every single one of their targets. But risk is inherent to philanthropy, as Google knows—and that’s to say nothing of the increased public scrutiny on such a high-profile institutional organization. Whether its investments succeed or fail, Dot-org—and its beneficiaries—are revealing a unique way to do tech philanthropy. And it’s one way that may well shape our expectations for how philanthropy is done by other very wealthy and very powerful organizations in the future.
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