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Patrick Copeland of Google.org on risking the brand to empower people with information

In this video, Patrick Copeland, Senior Engineering Director, Google.org reveals his mission to create “disruptive technology for a better world.“ From tornado warning systems to the Kenyan elections, he and his team are live-mapping the world to empower people with information.

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Video – 10 mins plus

When Patrick joined Google in 2005, there were 1,000 engineers working on 3,000 projects – it was both a dynamic and a totally chaotic organisation. Problems with productivity were starting to show – things were slowing down due to poor processes and tools and that sense of chaos itself.

One of Patrick’s goals was to incentivise engineers to write more tests on their projects. This he saw as crucial to speeding up the organisation because the more you test a product then the less de-bugging there will be post-launch so ironically the process gets faster. He focused on the culture of Google, how to social engineer the organisation to instil a culture of testing. He tried a number of ways to communicate people, including:

  • ‘Testing on the Toilet’. Where do you have someone’s undivided attention? He gave them something funny to read about their job and the power of testing to read on the loo.
  • How do you make an organisation become ‘test infected’ or ‘quality infected’? He built groups that went into other parts of the organisation, become immersed in that group, and encouraged culture change from within.

Eventually, Patrick realised that, despite all the best processes and tools, it’s still hard to build software that people love. He built a team around him that became Google.org focusing on “disruptive technology for a better world.” Patrick uses two examples to explain what that means for him:

1.    A tornado in the USA

Tornados strike very quickly, often within 10-15mins, causing appalling devastation and with virtually no time to warning residents or loved ones.  Patrick and his team asked: what could we do? They realised that many countries have Common Alert Protocal that aims to give prior warning. They created a system that hooks into the CAP and amplifies it through all Google properties giving local people immediate information about what to do. They did lots of user testing to ensure they were giving information people needed to know – who, what, when, where, what do I need to do.

When a tornado strikes the team works in shifts, firing live alerts which only pop up if you are on Google GPS in the area or on the local Google map. They produce live crisis maps, showing escape routes, bridge closures, locations of shelters, flooding, etc.

Post-event they produce maps such as a “people finder” where you can post details of missing people or find where relatives/friends are located. The team also track and measure whether people took action as a result of the information Google.org was able to send out.

Feedback: Google.org don’t actively ask for feedback, just having a discrete link at the bottom of the map, but many people want to share their experiences and thanks with them.

2.    Mapping the Kenyan election

Around 98% of citizens in the USA do not believe that their government representatives accurately represent them and their views. Patrick and his team started to wonder how they could empower people with information– how to help to create better democracies.

They decided to focus on a seemingly trivial aspect of elections: helping people find their correct polling location. It sounds simple but in the 2013 Kenyan election the stakes were sky high – only the second democratic election in the country’s history, the previous election had resulted in genocide, in hundreds of thousands of people displaced, in voting fraud, and a President indited in The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Kenyans needed to know where to go to vote – they would have to stand in lines for hours and so it would be crucial they were in the correct line or they may miss the opportunity to vote at all – and that the vote counting was honest.

The team worked in Kenya with third parties such as Vodafone and the Election Commission to create a map of voting locations and a system to map the tally of votes coming in from polling stations live through the election day. These live-streamed maps were shown in each polling station and also on national television.

Patrick knows that the work of Google.org is risky for the brand and for the individuals in the team. On election day the live-streaming feed dropped out – there were no results showing on national television – and there was a genuine fear of civil war. Fortunately after a number of hours work, the team managed to get the streaming back online and the feared unrest failed to materialise.


Patrick Copeland was a key speaker at Wavelength Connect event Reconnect 2 (Making Change Happen). To view more videos from this event go to Reconnect 2 (Making Change Happen).

Click on the link to view more videos from Patrick Copeland


About: Google’s mission is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. A $30 billion business of 53,000 people, Google truly has changed the world – and continues to push the boundaries of our imagination with products such as driverless cars and Google glass. In 2012, Google ranked Number 1 in Fortune Magazine’s prestigious ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list. Innovative benefits and the opportunity to pursue ideas that challenge the status quo are just a few of the attributes that have continued to maintain Google’s place as one of America’s most in demand companies for top talent.

 

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