Stef van Grieken: ‘With Google I can make a huge positive impact on the world. That’s my mission’

September 15, 2014

Ask people about Google and what they think of the company, and they’ll give you lots of answers. Little chance though they say that Google is ‘giving back to community’. That Google is helping civic innovation with tools that can make social impact. Precisely that is what – mind the extension!- is doing. Stef van Grieken, Google’s Technical Program Manager, will share some of Google’s best practices during Open Development Camp (ODC). In an interview with ODC’s social reporter Petra Kroon he lifts a little corner of the veil. ’We don’t have a monopoly of wisdom. We want to share what we’ve learned, and learn from the ODC-community.’

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‘We think it is important to give back. We try to help people to innovate in the non-profit space. We do that through things we’re good at, technology in this case and access to information. In some cases we use our own products, in other cases we try to open up other information to help people. To vote for example or to tell aid organisations where they need to bring their stuff and people after a major disaster. We launch these new tools, and sometimes they fail, sometimes they work. But we do things that we think can make the world a better place.’

Any example?

‘Take for instance Haiti’s earthquake. It is very critical for an aid organisation to come in and to know where they have to send their workers and their aid. We shared new mapping materials so aid organisation could instantly see the affected areas as well as where people are flooding, and where the resources are. We used this experience, information and knowledge to build tools for other crisis situations.’

Is that what you mean by your phrase in your introduction on our website: We need to better understand what it takes to build a successful tool for social impact?

‘Well yes, that’s an example of it. What we learned from this case is that opening up information especially on government side will really help others improve.
Another great case is the German election case. We did a large election project: we made information available on the candidates and on the topics through search and through other things like graphics and charts.
One of the things we learned in this case is how do you get sufficient enough information on who those candidates are into one tool. And we learned that different governments [Germany consists of different federal states which all have their own candidates PK] have different ways of formatting data or sharing data. How do you aggregate that in a way that it makes sense to the user? That was an interesting challenge especially trying to aggregate lot of localised information.’

Before you joined Google in February 2014 you worked primarily at small, independent organisations like Hack the Government. You were one of the founders. Aren’t people wondering why you made such a big step to an international commercial business like Google?

‘Of course people ask that question. But if I didn’t have the feeling that Google is doing good things, and is only doing just evil things, I wouldn’t even consider working here. Google is a smart company with very smart people working on tools to make a better world. We have the money, the means and people and resources. I can make a lot of social impact here. And that is what I want. Make a huge positive impact on the world.’