How can we use our skills as product managers for good?
In this episode, Hannah Clark is joined by Jen Carter—Global Head of Technology at Google.org—to talk about how Google’s philanthropic division is trailblazing its way through humanity’s gargantuan challenges, leveraging tech for social impact. From the incredible difference being made with their grant dollars to the gamut of volunteer opportunities for Googlers, get ready to be inspired and gain a fresh appreciation for the skills you have as a product manager.
- Google.org [0:02]
- Google.org uses its resources, including grant dollars, products, and people, to tackle some of the most pressing challenges faced by humanity. This approach allows Googlers to volunteer their skills and expertise in various capacities, ranging from one-off consultations to full-time pro bono work for six months.
- AI has the capacity to accelerate the impact of nonprofits, and Google.org has been at the forefront of harnessing this potential.
- Leveraging Technology for Social Impact [3:22]
- The Google.org Fellowship’s origin traces back to the HealthCare.gov launch in 2013, where the site struggled to handle traffic.
- Google employees and others volunteered to help fix the issue, which prompted the creation of the U.S. Digital Service.
- This experience led Google.org to emphasize pro bono and skills-based volunteering to empower nonprofits.
- One of Google.org’s standout collaborations is with The Trevor Project, a crisis hotline for LGBTQ+ youth. Through the application of AI and natural language processing, Google.org has significantly reduced wait times and improved training for crisis counselors. This project has led to a remarkable 79% reduction in response times and the successful training of over 3000 crisis counselors.
- Google.org is actively using technology to help those in need, focusing on user-centered design processes and best practices to provide life-saving information and assistance.
- They’re also using machine learning to calculate and scale up environmental impact scores, setting a new standard for responsible consumption and production.
Our approach to AI must be both bold and responsible. And the only way to be truly bold in the long term is to be responsible from the start.Jen Carter
- Using Tech for Social Impact Opportunities [10:12]
- Google.org begins projects by understanding the problem statement before proposing AI or specific solutions.
- AI isn’t always necessary and may not be the best fit for every project; basic data analytics can sometimes provide substantial benefits.
- A project with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) aimed to assist displaced people with information and humanitarian support.
- Various organizations connect nonprofits with skills-based volunteers for both short-term and long-term engagements, such as design sprints, hackathons, and more. Examples of such organizations include Tech to the Rescue, Catchafire, VolunteerMatch, Taproot, and many others.
- The key message is that technologists have the potential to make a difference, and there are opportunities to use your skills for good, no matter your circumstances.
No matter what your skill sets are, what interests you have, what time constraints you may have, there’s definitely a way that you can put your skills to positive use.Jen Carter
Meet Our Guest
Jen Carter is the Global Head of Technology at Google.org and leads all of Google’s pro bono initiatives. She has been at Google for over 12 years and works to connect volunteers with high-impact, technology-driven nonprofits around the world. As part of this effort she founded the Google.org Fellowship, which enables teams of software engineers, product managers, user experience researchers, designers, and more to complete up to six months of full-time pro bono work with nonprofits & civic entities focused on areas like education, economic opportunity, criminal justice reform, AI for social good, and crisis response, including COVID-19 relief.
Technology is not the answer to every problem, but it has a significant potential to help solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.Jen Carter
Resources from this episode:
- Subscribe to The Product Manager newsletter
- Connect with Jen Carter on LinkedIn and Twitter
- Check out Google.org
Related articles and podcasts:
Read The Transcript:
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Hannah Clark: It's no secret that the 24 hour news cycle runs on depressing headlines, and that's why for today's episode, we are in a good-news-only zone. So, if you're currently doomscrolling on the social platform formerly known as Twitter, kindly quit the app, take a breath, and rest assured there are still good people doing good things in the world, and one of them is our guest today.
Jen Carter is the Global Head of Technology at Google.org, Google's nonprofit arm which, if you ask me, is not getting nearly enough shine from the press. They're working with the people closest to the biggest and most complex global issues and using their resources and technology to make positive impacts where they're most needed. I think you'll be just as inspired as I am by what the org has been able to achieve, but mostly what I hope you'll take away as a new appreciation for the skills you have as a product manager. Stick around to find out how you can use them for good.
Welcome back listeners to the Product Manager podcast. I'm here with the Global Head of Technology at Google.org, Jen Carter. Jen, thank you so much for making time to talk with us today.
Jen Carter: Thank you so much for having me, Hannah. It's great to be here and I'm excited to chat.
Hannah Clark: Yeah. So we'll kick it off with a little bit about your career background. So tell me a little bit about how you ended up at Google.org.
Jen Carter: Yeah. So I've been at Google for about 15 years now in a variety of different roles. I'm a product manager by training. I spent the first half of my time at Google in the trust and safety space. So using machine learning and other advanced technologies to help Google stay ahead of abuse and deliver trusted and safe experience for users.
I worked on everything from Gmail to YouTube to Google Pay and everything else in between. But then for the last six or seven years or so, I've had the privilege of serving as the Global Head of Technology at Google.org, which is Google's philanthropic arm. And then I also lead all of Google skills-based and pro bono volunteering efforts. But in both capacities, my work is really focused on harnessing the power of technology and the expertise of Googlers to accelerate the impact of nonprofits and civic entities.
Hannah Clark: That's an incredible resume and I'm sure very enviable for a lot of folks listening. So let's talk a little bit about Google.org. So how did this initiative come about and what's the mission behind it?
Jen Carter: Yeah. So in their founder's letter back in 2004, Larry and Sergey, Google's founders actually committed 1% of profit and they also explicitly called out contributing in kind resources and employee time toward making the world a better place as well. I would say pretty unusual at the time, but it's meant that giving back has really been a core part of our DNA at Google and really has been since the beginning.
So our mission is to bring the best of Google to help solve some of humanity's biggest challenges. And we do that in a few ways. First by providing our grant dollars, so 1% of profit goes for good. Second, by providing our products. So in kind donations like Ad Grants or Cloud Credits or, Google Workspace. And then finally by providing what we think is our most valuable resource, which is our people.
We try to meet nonprofits where they're at in terms of their volunteering needs. And so there are a variety of ways that Googlers can volunteer. Anything from a one-off, one hour consultation to, know, 20% time over the course of a quarter to our most in-depth offering, which is the Google.org Fellowship, which enables Googlers to complete six months of full time pro bono work with a nonprofit or civic entity. And they typically work together to build and launch a product from the ground up.
Hannah Clark: So this is really interesting. When we talk about nonprofits, it's not, usually the first thing people think about is the technology needs there, can you tell me a little bit about that?
Jen Carter: Yeah, it's a great question. So the origin story of the fellowship actually, I'll start there, is actually the HealthCare.gov launch in the U.S. So it was back in 2013 when HealthCare.gov launched, site crashed, couldn't keep up with the QPS even though it was relatively low by Google standards. So some folks from Google, as well as other tech companies voluntarily took time off work to go and fix it. At the federal government level, that led to the creation of the US digital service, which is an agency within the federal government that now helps with those types of visual services projects.
But for Google.org, it helped us realize we really needed to double down on our pro bono and skills-based volunteering. The government had money, they'd hired folks. It just wasn't the right people because we were consistently hearing from the organizations that we supported that they wanted to do more with technology. But it was really difficult to find and retain the software engineers and product managers and UXers and everyone else that companies like Google rely on to build great products.
So I would say we know technology is not the answer to every problem, but we do believe it has a significant potential to help solve some of the world's most challenging problems. And when we think about how Google can uniquely add value, there's no shortage of problems that we can work on, but we think that we can add the most value when we focus on harnessing the power of technology and the expertise of Googlers to help accelerate the impact of nonprofits.
Hannah Clark: Interesting. So speaking of harnessing the power of technology, so there's lots of conversation happening right now about the ethical implications of AI and large language models, and a lot of folks have some concerns about that technology being used for the wrong reasons. But I'd love if we can talk a little bit about the ways that AI is doing good in the world through the lens of Google.org.
Jen Carter: Yeah. So we know that AI has significant potential to help solve some of the world's most pressing challenges. But as you mentioned, there also are major risks, even when folks have good intentions. So I'll say even with the work that we do or especially with the work that we do, we really always focus on our AI principles, which are sort of detailed practices for how to develop AI responsibly.
And we believe that, I think Sundar has previously shared that, our approach to AI must be both bold and responsible. And we really believe that the only way to be truly bold in the longterm is to be responsible from the start. But when done well, to your point, technology can absolutely be a tremendous force for good and we've seen really huge potential for AI to help accelerate progress towards the SDGs.
I'll share just one example in the mental health space related to, I think it's SDG 3 around good health and well being, and a few others. But we always start with a problem statement, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among young people worldwide. And LGBTQ plus young people in the U.S. are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers and we see similar impacts elsewhere in the world.
And so we worked with The Trevor Project, a crisis hotline for LGBTQ plus youth, actually on two projects. So, the first one was around queue prioritization. Sometimes all of their crisis counselors are on the phone already, so there's a little bit of a wait time for those who are calling in. And so we worked with them and we used natural language processing to determine an LGBTQ plus youth's suicide risk level based on their responses to an initial screening question about how they were doing, so that the Trevor Project could better tailor services for individuals seeking help by prioritizing those with the most time sensitive needs.
And then we also worked with them on a second project. So you don't really need to worry about queue wait times and prioritization if you have enough crisis counselors. But it turns out one of the biggest bottlenecks that they were facing was in training new counselors up. It was incredibly time intensive for Trevor's staff.
So at the time, in addition to sort of all the group training that these counselors went through, Trevor's staff was spending, I think it was something like 14 hours one-on-one with each new volunteer in order to facilitate these role plays where the Trevor staff would play the role of a youth in crisis so that the volunteer could practice the skills that they had learned throughout the rest of the training.
And the idea was to instead use large language models, this was actually a few years ago before sort of they had captured the public's imagination. But we were using large language models to simulate the youth side of that interaction. And so that was the focus of the second project that we worked on with them.
And so the really nice thing about this was the volunteers could still get direct feedback from the Trevor Project. But now they could go through this training really as often as they want. They could go through the simulated experience as many times as they wanted in order to build their confidence so that they were ready to interact with youth.
And then it also provided them with sort of a wider range of experiences. The simulator emulated youth language, it made it feel more genuine and just help prepare them for that emotional experience of helping a young person in crisis. So I think we often think about AI as maybe just helping with automation and best case kind of keeping quality constant, but this was a really great example of tech not just maintaining but potentially even improving the quality of that training, at least in, in a couple of ways. In terms of the impact of that work, there was a 79% reduction in queue response times for that first project.
And for the second one, the Trevor project has successfully trained over 1000 crisis counselors. I think something more like 2000 or 3000 at this point, which is really incredible. And then the other thing that's super exciting about this project is that when we launched it, we got a lot of interest from other orgs in the mental health space who are either working with different populations in the U.S. or with other populations worldwide. And so we're now trying to scale the technology to bring it to additional populations. So we're starting with veterans in the U.S. who are also disproportionately impacted by suicide, but a really promising potential to scale the impact of this work too.
Hannah Clark: Yeah, that's, it's such an intelligent solution to such a sensitive issue. So I, I can really commend that. That's not to say though that AI is necessarily the silver bullet for all the issues. Obviously there's many ways that technology can can help make a positive impact. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the less AI involved technology projects that you're involved in?
Jen Carter: Yeah, it's a great question. As you may have noticed from my previous example, we sort of always start by trying to understand the problem statement rather than meeting with a potential solution or a specific technology. And AI is not always necessary, it's not always the right answer. So we actually do see though, a lot of project proposals that are planning to use AI, but we sort of look at it, evaluate and sort of, it looks like it could potentially benefit significantly from a more basic data analytics that could get an org 80% or 90% of the way there for a fraction of the effort.
And so frankly, a lot of those projects might not be a great fit for AI. So before we implement it, that's often one of the things that we evaluate first. And for example, with the Trevor Project, they actually tried to use some relatively straightforward heuristic to solve that due prioritization problem. But it wasn't working, and so they felt that AI was truly necessary to help them scale, and we agreed.
So that again is an example of when we have used it, but in terms of sort of an impactful project that didn't make use of AI, as just one example related to the refugee crisis, the issue that the International Rescue Committee came to us with is that there were 7 million people who were displaced and fled Ukraine as a result of Russia's war and still others who are displaced within the country.
And they were all in dire need of information or of humanitarian assistance and other support. More broadly, there are currently over 100 million people displaced worldwide. That's the most since World War II. And so we worked with IRC and a local organization on the ground, United for Ukraine, to create an application that provides accurate, accessible, and timely information to help people make critical decisions about where to go and what to do once they get there.
So it provides articles and videos and more to just help answer questions that folks may have. For example, if they can apply for refugee status in a given country. And then it also helps connect them directly to the assistance that they need. So, for example, helping folks find free temporary housing.
In terms of the impact of that project, the tool has ultimately helped hundreds of thousands of folks find critical life saving information. It also matched over 15,000 individuals and families directly with temporary accommodation. And it enabled 6,000 folks to receive one-on-one pro bono legal support.
And then even cooler, or maybe equally as cool from an impact perspective is the potential future impact. So whenever we work on these types of projects, we try to ensure that what we're building is flexible and extensible enough to work in a future crisis. And so we've actually been working with IRC on this tool.
It's called Signpost since 2015, redeploying it in response to each new crisis. And each time we launch a new instance, we also make improvements that will improve all future instances. So for example, this time we did some work to improve the underlying infrastructure and ultimately decrease the time it will take the IRC to respond to a future crisis by 85%.
So going from something like two weeks response time to just 48 hours or less. I will say, so that project, as I described it, did not happen to involve the use of AI. That's not to say AI can't become a part of that solution in the future, maybe, helping personalize the info that's pushed to refugees, or using a large language model to help answer natural language questions about how to apply for refugee status.
But when we talked to refugees, we did, extensive user research and user testing, and we heard things like they just needed access to basic information. We heard that some folks may be using smartphones, but others will be using feature phones. We heard that they often needed this information in low or no connectivity environments.
And so we always sort of focus on understanding the problem, but rather than, as I mentioned, leading with a general solution or a specific technology. And the platform is already providing a tremendous amount of value simply because it focused on, these user centered design processes and best practices, ensuring that the needs and wants and limitations of end users of the product are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.
Hannah Clark: That's really incredible. Speaking of displaced persons, you're also involved in a project to help ensure that the need for any kind of climate related response is deployed correctly, is that right?
Jen Carter: Yeah, we do a bunch of different work in sort of the climate space. There are a wide range of challenges there, but to narrow in on one specific area. So, food accounts for something like 25% of global emissions, and consumers have very little information on the environmental impact of the products that they purchase.
And so, this is again going back to the SDGs, there's one about responsible consumption and production, there's another about climate action. But we worked with an organization based in Paris called Open Food Facts and they're the Wikipedia of food. But essentially it's a collaborative effort to open the data on everything that we eat worldwide to empower people to make better food choices.
So, they had a product that had already helped calculate nutrition scores, but they were just getting into trying to calculate this environmental impact. They called it an eco score. And so we worked together to scale that work, actually using machine learning and a new mobile app. And essentially the way that works is when you're at a supermarket, you can scan a bar code with their app, the Open Food Facts app, and then either one of two things will happen.
Either they already know about the specific food, in which case they send you back the eco-score and all of the associated information. Alternatively, if the barcode is unknown, you'll have an opportunity to become part of the solution by taking a few photos and collaborating with artificial intelligence to compute the scores.
So, essentially, the fellows trained an ML model to compute the eco-score for products it hadn't previously seen based on the product name and the ingredient list. So, in terms of impact, they now have, I think 2.7 million, and I'm sure that number is outdated, but something like 2.7 million monthly active users. And more broadly, using ML really just helped them scale up tremendously. So they went from one country to 50, and there are now over 500,000 products worldwide that have eco-scores.
Hannah Clark: That's incredible. It's it's really setting the new standard. So, hearing about all these projects really puts in perspective just how much potential there is to create change and use the skill sets that we have to create some good, what are some of the ways that folks listening can put their own skill sets to use or get involved?
Jen Carter: Yeah, that is a great question. I think at a super high level, I hope that the one takeaway that folks get from this is that there is no shortage of opportunities for them to give back and that there's potential of each of us as product managers or as technologists to make a difference.
And again, no shortage of opportunities that are available. So, no matter what your skill sets are, what interests you have, what time constraints you may have, there's definitely a way that you can put your skills to positive use. But one of the things that I would think about first is how you'd like to engage.
So, some folks are looking for a full time role in the social impact space or maybe others aren't ready for a permanent change but might be interested in taking a sabbatical from their current position. Still others might just be looking for a 20% project or even a one off volunteering event.
So, I think the first thing I would encourage folks to do is get a better sense of how they would like to give back and use their skills to make a difference. But no matter where you're at, sort of, on that journey and how you'd like to engage, there are a lot of orgs that are doing impactful work. And there's another set of amazing orgs that are helping connect folks to that impactful work.
So, there's definitely opportunities out there, again, no matter what the constraints are that you're dealing with. I'll share a few specific examples, by no means comprehensive, so I would definitely encourage folks to kind of do their own research, but just to get you started. And I'm also always happy to chat if folks would like to learn about other opportunities.
But, I'll start on the full time opportunities. So, we work with an incredible org called Fast Forward. It's the first startup accelerator that focuses solely on tech nonprofits, and they maintain both a directory of tech nonprofits as well as a job board. It has opportunities from over 600 organizations globally that are leveraging tech for social impact.
If instead you're thinking more about a sabbatical versus a full time shift, again, just one example, but the US digital service operates a tour of service model where folks can join for anywhere from, I think it's six months to four years. But there are similar orgs with a more global footprint as well. And then a sort of 20% or one off event space, there are a number of orgs that are doing that work to try to connect nonprofits with skills based volunteers.
So, that could be anything from a 20% project over the course of a few months, or it could be a one off engagement, like a design sprint or a hackathon. So, for a non U.S. example there, we've been supporting an organization called Tech to the Rescue. They're based in Poland, but they have a Europe wide and increasingly a global footprint.
And they, post projects, they post needs from nonprofits and folks can sign up to volunteer to participate. And then again, just to name a few other incredible words in this space, just organizations like Catchafire, VolunteerMatch, Taproot, and many more that kind of help match volunteers to skills based opportunities.
So again, just a small sample of the organizations that you might want to take a preliminary look at, but mostly just a reminder again, about kind of the potential of each of us as technologists to make a difference and that no matter what your interests, your skill sets, your time constraints, there really is an opportunity for you to put your skills to good use.
Hannah Clark: That's an excellent takeaway. And if folks do want to continue to chat with you about the opportunities to get involved or follow your work in any way where can they find you online?
Jen Carter: Yeah, absolutely. So first I will say if you're interested in following the work of Google.org more broadly, you can visit our website at google.org or follow us on Twitter @Googleorg. And then I'm also always happy to chat more if you want to learn again about nonprofits that are doing impactful work that can use your expertise, or if you want to start a tech for good practice at your company, or if you want to share, best practices about these public private partnerships, I'm here to chat.
So you can connect with me on Twitter, it's @jennifer_hope. Or on LinkedIn at Jennifer Hope Carter.
Hannah Clark: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Jen, for your time. This has been really extraordinary conversation and really uplifting to hear about the kind of good that's happening in the world. So thank you so much.
Jen Carter: Thank you so much, Hannah. Really great chatting with you.
Hannah Clark: Thanks for listening in. For more great insights, how-to guides, and tool reviews, subscribe to our newsletter at theproductmanager.com/subscribe. You can hear more conversations like this by subscribing to The Product Manager, wherever you get your podcasts.