How Google.org accelerates social good with artificial intelligence
After realizing the potential to affect change while studying systems engineering at the University of Virginia, Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink began her journey to discover how technology might have a scalable impact on the world.
Gosselink worked within international development and later did strategy consulting for nonprofits before joining Google.org, where she is focused on increasing social impact and environmental sustainability work at innovative nonprofits. We talked to her about her efforts as head of product impact to bring emerging technology to organizations that serve humanity and the environment.
Shannon Houde: You’ve been at Google.org since 2013, when you started out as a senior program manager. How did your career take you to Google, and what is your role now?
Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink: I’ve always been interested in technology and how it can be used to do things that we didn’t think were previously possible. In engineering school, I grappled with the benefits and challenges that technology can have in society and saw its potential to affect change for vulnerable groups and to help create a sustainable future.
My early career was in international development, working with nonprofits and the U.S. federal government. I later did strategy consulting for major nonprofits and foundations. That experience gave me a deep appreciation for the expertise that practitioners have about the issues they’re working on and populations they seek to positively impact. I also saw that, at a time of massive technological change all around us, the social impact organizations I worked with weren’t effectively deploying technology to advance their missions.
My role at Google.org allows me to help fill this gap by empowering organizations with the resources they need to apply emerging technology in their vital work.
Houde: What do you see as the positive impact of technology on climate change?
Gosselink: For the past few years, we’ve applied core Google AI research and engineering to projects with positive societal impact, some intended to address climate change, others to defend against the impact it’s already having on our planet. Technology has incredible potential to address big environmental problems, but in order to achieve this potential, it needs to be democratized and accessible to organizations already making strides in these areas. Emerging technologies will help us address big social, humanitarian and environmental problems. That’s why we launched Google.org’s AI Impact Challenge.
Houde: How are the 20 chosen organizations using their grants to address issues related to sustainability and climate change?
Gosselink: The projects address a range of issues in the areas of health, economic opportunity and empowerment, environmental protection and conservation, education, misinformation and crisis and emergency response.
Five of the 20 AI Impact Challenge grantees are in the environment, conservation and energy space. Each organization is doing something different, but all of them have the same goal in mind: to use AI to address issues related to climate change.
Another grantee, Makerere University in Uganda, is applying AI to data from low-cost air sensors installed on motorcycle taxis and other locations around Kampala to improve air quality monitoring and forecasting.
And Rainforest Connection, a company that develops open-source software and systems to help preserve rainforests, is using AI and acoustic monitoring to detect immediate threats from illegal logging and track rainforest health.
Houde: What advice would you give a fellow social impact practitioner who wants to ramp up the agenda within their company?
Gosselink: Take what your company is already good at and lend that expertise to those making an impact in the world. In Google’s case, for instance, while we know giving money is an important part of helping to accelerate solutions, we can be especially helpful by lending temporary personnel. Hiring a full-time technical expert can strain many smaller organizations, so this is where we can really add value.
Houde: What are the areas where you see Google.org having the most impact this year related to sustainability or climate change?
Gosselink: We’re applying advanced technology to some of our greatest challenges, like using AI to help predict natural disasters, measure air quality, monitor forests across the globe and more. We believe that making meaningful progress on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals is only possible when people come together across sectors. That’s why we want to find ways to support organizations that deeply understand these issues to more effectively use technology in their work, ideally promoting even more innovative solutions.
Employee volunteering is a big part of our impact. In addition to short-term volunteer engagements, a year ago we launched the Google.org Fellowship program, which allows Googlers to work full-time, up to six months, alongside innovative nonprofits that are using technology to address social problems. We have Google.org Fellows working right now with one of our grantee projects with WattTime and Carbon Tracker to identify power plant emissions using remote sensing.
Houde: How can technology support or enhance corporate social impact initiatives?
Gosselink: Emerging technologies will help us address big social, humanitarian and environmental problems. The trick is to make sure the benefits of new technologies like AI reach everyone, and that those who work on the frontline tackling environmental problems and humanitarian issues are empowered to use it to advance their missions.