On Google saving lives and other disappointments

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At a recent event I attended discussing coordination in humanitarian action I was curious and excited to see that Ann Lavin, the current director of Public Policy and Government affairs for Google Asia Pacific was talking about Google’s role in the humanitarian space. But my hopes were soon to be crushed.

For the humanitarian community, the role of the private sector is only just now starting to receive much needed attention, and I have to say our government counterparts and UN agencies are doing a much better job so far. The role of for-profit organisations in the humanitarian space is gaining much momentum and little is known about their approach, other than the ‘corporate social responsibility’ bottom line we have all heard, but know little about. And I am not talking about big donations, I am talking about involvement in direct assistance. Everyone is doing it, it seems. In the response to Haiyan in the Philippines Samsung, Korean Airlines and Boeing were some of the few private sector organisations delivering relief aid. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs even put out a Business Brief as part of efforts to avoid duplication and maximise the effectiveness of efforts. Deutsche Post DHL have a global department dedicated to training their staff and assisting them to become involved in humanitarian operations. More and more organisations are becoming involved in very visible roles and in direct assistance activities.

So back to Google. Google has set up their google.org, which aspires to become a fully accessible portal dedicated to sharing information in times of crisis (among other initiatives). When a disaster strikes, they will put a link on the page for people to view and update, or that is how it was explained. The kind of information shared will be, as Ms Lavin put it, anything and everything, although they would prefer if it was from reputable sources. This was not a caveat, however. In my anticipation for what she was going to say I begun to hear alarm bells. Unchecked, potentially sensitive information was going to be made available on the world wide web, in real time? I remembered when doing a child protection training course that we were given a very troubling piece of information. In the days following the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami, a very high number of registered paedophiles from Australia and New Zealand booked tickets to Thailand. Now these people and other criminal minds could just check the internet to find out where the most vulnerable will be located, which roads will be closed and therefore what areas could be open for looting, potentially highlighting the weaknesses and security vacuums of incredibly vulnerable communities that have just been hit by a disaster. They could even use the tool to their own advantage!

I put this question to Ms Lavin. She was enthusiastic about the value of information, Google’s main asset. So I asked, given the situation with the paedophiles in Thailand, what mechanisms and processes does Google have in place to avoid the unintended consequences of making sensitive information available to the whole world? Call me naïve, but I thought the context setting and question formulation was clear. And I also thought that the question was of a worrying enough nature for her to take it seriously. But Ms Lavin heard “paedophiles” and “Thailand” only. She laughed off that there should be limits put on the kind of information available online. And she proceeded to make a joke about “not searching for child pornography” in crisis situations or any situation because “Google will turn you in”. The male (military) dominated audience laughed, except for very few who knew exactly where I was coming from. My question brushed aside with great flare, I was left extremely disappointed at Google’s lack of accountability.

I was somewhat consoled by the fact that my peers had been left equally disappointed. These are the kind of people Ms Lavin was calling upon to work with Google to make information available, ultimately to make Google look like the ultimate corporate socially responsible citizen. Well, I have news for you Google, corporate social responsibility is more than just a label. It is not just about picking a feel-good cause, put resources into it to make an underdeveloped idea a reality and take the credit. Humanitarian crises are situations in which hundreds, thousands of people often living in already precarious situations have their vulnerabilities multiplied by 1,000 million. Humanitarian crises are situations that take an enormous amount of time, resources and accountability to even begin to make right. Humanitarian crises require professionals that take their work and their approach seriously and responsibly (and we have our fair share of idiots too). The humanitarian community has been on a decades-long learning curve and I am not sure what exactly makes Google think that it can just get it right, the first time around, by the click of a button (quite literally).

As for the Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs, her ways might be quite a hit in the male-dominated, superficial and  uninformed on humanitarian issues world of business. The humanitarian community does not have a monopoly on knowledge, but they have been doing this, as their sole occupation, for slightly longer. Right about the time when the internet was just being made available publicly. And some for even longer, Henry Dunant comes to mind. There is yet much to be learnt by Google and peers about the sort of impact that their actions can have, other than adding to their bottom line, in whatever way they want to think about it. And I welcome the opportunity to again remind them that child protection is an incredibly serious business. It makes no money, takes lots of resources, but it most certainly is not a joke.

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