Google: broadband aid

Gandhi was once asked, “How can I know that the decisions I am making are the best I can make?” He answered: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it?

Slate has an interesting article “Gandhi’s Talisman” on Google’s philanthropy. Apparently Google started by asking 080211_phil_googleex.jpgthemselves how their help would affect the world’s poorest and weakest (which also mirrors the company’s “don’t do evil” code of conduct) , and the second criterion — which also reflects their own business model — ‘is it a big enough idea’? So far, so West Coast. Asking whether Google had any particular expertise for potential projects is perhaps a step further than many public development agencies and NGOs have perhaps cared to ask themselves too closely. Google are therefore at present supporting five initiatives: 1. Predict and Prevent – strengthening the means to identify and respond to hot spots or emerging risks; 2. Inform and Empower – to improve the provision of essential public services (education, health, water, and sanitation); 3. Fuel the Growth of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises – contributing to the flow of risk capital to the developing countries; 4. Develop renewable utility-scale energy that is cheaper than coal, and 5. Commercialization of Plug-In Vehicles – by providing seed money and ideas to encourage the mass commercialisation of electric vehicles.

This is all quite laudable — and is a good example of Google’s leverage of its comparative advantage – its distinctive capability – in IT and associated networks as described by John Kay in his seminal book “The Business of Economics”.

But the US$75m committed to date might be seen to be a bit modest compared to their goals, let alone company income — and leaving aside estimating what the size of the “charity gap” may actually be. And curiously, Google has not appeared to use its unsurpassed access to information to ask the poorest and weakest what are their needs are, and how they might be met. It would be fascinating to compare and contrast the analysis of such search results with, for example, the Millennium Development Goals.

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