One of the biggest themes of the 21st century is interconnection -- specifically, the interconnection of people and data. These interconnections can change everything about how we see the world, how the world sees us, and how we work together. Where some people might see "big brother," I see empowerment -- empowerment of groups and individuals to improve quality of life and reduce our impact on the planet.
Megan Smith oversees teams that manage early-stage partnerships, explorations and technology licensing. She also leads the Google.org team, guiding strategy and developing new partnerships and internal projects with Google's engineering and product teams. She joined Google in 2003 and has led several of the company's acquisitions, including Keyhole (Google Earth), Where2Tech (Google Maps), and Picasa. She also co-led the company's early work with publishers for Google Book Search. Previously, Megan was the CEO and, earlier, COO of PlanetOut, the leading gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender online community. Under her leadership, PlanetOut grew tenfold in reach and revenue. Prior to that, Megan was at General Magic for six years working on handheld communications products and partnerships. She also worked in multimedia at Apple Japan in Tokyo.
Over the years, Megan has contributed to a wide range of engineering projects, such as designing an award-winning bicycle lock; working on a space station construction research project that eventually flew on the U.S. space shuttle; and running a field-research study on solar cookstoves in South America. She was also a member of the MIT-Solectria student team that designed, built, and raced a solar car in the first cross-continental solar car race, covering 2000 miles of the Australian outback. She was selected as one of the 100 World Economic Forum technology pioneers for 2001 and 2002.
Megan holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT, where she now serves on the board. She completed her master's thesis work at the MIT Media Lab.
Summary of the Seminar
Megan Smith, Vice President, New Business Development and General Manager, Google.org., argued that greater interconnectedness achieved by information technology is a major liberating force in the world. Whether it is aiding the coordination of protests or increasing transparency of governments, the exchange of information has huge benefits. This is not a new phenomenon. In places where people have been able to exchange information easily, social progress has followed. Megan cited the example of Seneca Falls, New York where the canal system allowed for extensive communication; it became significant in both the women's rights and abolition movements.
While a large proportion of the world is benefiting from greater interconnectedness, Africa still lacks the infrastructure to take full advantage. Submarine fiber optic cables are necessary for quick and cheap internet cables and many African countries, particularly in the east, are not connected to these, relying instead on satellites. This is likely to change over the next few years, bringing great potential for further development.
The mission of Google.org is to use technology to drive solutions to global challenges such as climate change, pandemic disease and poverty. The organization was set up as part of a commitment to devote approximately one percent of Google's equity plus one percent of annual profits to philanthropy, along with employee time. Google.org now places its strategic focus on those projects that can leverage the resources of Google staff, particularly its engineers.
Current projects that harness the power of information include:
- Google Flu Trends: This uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity up to two weeks earlier than traditional methods. This system has almost 90% accuracy in real time flu prediction and is therefore an extremely useful tool for health delivery agencies. It is now being used in 30 countries. Google is also starting to work in Cambodia to collect data around SARS.
- Google Power Meter provides a system for consumers to understand their in-home energy use and to take steps to reducing this. The Meter receives information from utility smart meters and in-home energy management devices and visualizes this information on iGoogle (a personalized Google homepage).The premise underlying this project is that greater information is going to be crucial to tackling climate change and consumers ought to be able to be empowered to make informed decisions about their energy use.
- Disaster relief: In response to the Haitian earthquake, a team of engineers worked with the U.S. Department of State to create an online People Finder gadget so that people can submit information about missing persons and to search the database. Google Earth satellite images have also been used to document the extent of damage.