Although Google intended to tackle major problems like climate change, global poverty and the spread of pandemic diseases, it declared that DotOrg would not be “conventional” — a four-letter word in Google-speak. For starters, the organization would operate in part as a business, thus freeing itself from various constraints placed on nonprofit groups.
Google hired Larry Brilliant, a public health expert and Silicon Valley entrepreneur with no experience running a major philanthropy, to lead DotOrg, which was set up as a business unit within the company. It then poached prominent experts in development, energy and public health from prestigious institutions like the Aga Khan Foundation, Goldman Sachs and the International Water Management Institute.
“Google.org can play the entire keyboard,” Dr. Brilliant said in an interview with The New York Times shortly after his appointment. “It can start companies, build industries, pay consultants, lobby, give money to individuals and make a profit.”
Nearly five years later, however, the hyperbole looks more like hubris. DotOrg has narrowed to just one octave on the piano: engineering-related projects that often are the outgrowth of existing Google products. Dr. Brilliant was sidelined in early 2009 after his loose management style created much disenchantment in DotOrg’s ranks.
The company’s top executives rarely mention DotOrg, which is now run by Megan Smith, a business development executive who devotes only part of her time to the organization.
Although Google gives tens of millions of dollars to charity each year and says the overall company is meeting its 1 percent giving goal, DotOrg itself is no longer making grants to nonprofit groups or financing new companies. Instead, it focuses on projects like using Google Earth to track environmental changes and monitoring Web searches to detect flu outbreaks. Most of the experts it initially hired have left, and Google, a company obsessed with numbers and metrics, struggles to measure DotOrg’s accomplishments.
Google says it has changed its approach to philanthropy, but not its scope or ambition. Ms. Smith readily acknowledges that the organization has yet to prove itself, but she says it has already had a positive impact in various areas, such as public health and the environment.
“We are a start-up,” Ms. Smith said in a recent interview. “The aspirational goals in the founding of DotOrg are long term. Our hope is to get to that point where we could have the impact that our founders hoped.”
In the philanthropy world, many people have a more skeptical view of Google’s experiment.
“I think there were from the beginning two competing ideas about what DotOrg would be,” said Joshua Cohen, a professor of law, politics and philosophy at Stanford who, after DotOrg was formed, was hired to create seminars to educate Googlers on issues bedeviling developing countries. “The first was a Googley idea that DotOrg would completely reinvent philanthropy and, in doing so, reinvent the world and address a hugely important set of problems with solutions only Google with its immense intellectual talent and resources could find.”
The second idea, Professor Cohen said, was more modest: “that DotOrg could make some headway, maybe a little, maybe a lot, in addressing these really big problems by doing what Google as a company is really good at doing, which is to say, aggregating information.”
“The second idea,” he continued, “won out.”
NOTHING illustrates DotOrg’s approach better than Google Flu Trends, an innovative tool that uses data collected from searches about flu symptoms to predict the location of flu outbreaks. In April 2009, Dr. Brilliant said it epitomized the power of Google’s vaunted engineering prowess to make the world a better place, and he predicted that it would save untold numbers of lives.
Public health officials say the tool is undoubtedly useful.
But “on an individual basis, does Flu Trends save lives? No,” said Ashley LaMonte-Fowlkes, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which helped Google test and develop it.
Instead, she described it as “a really nice adjunct” to other tools that the agency uses to understand the spread of flu. One major shortcoming of Flu Trends is that in poor regions of the developing world, where devastating pandemics are most likely to start, computers are not widely available, so Google has little data to feed into the tool. Even in the United States, during the swine flu outbreak of 2009, Flu Trends had difficulty detecting the relatively small number of H1N1 infections.
Some veterans of DotOrg say Flu Trends is an example of how Google’s engineering-centric approach frustrated and limited them.