Google finds a serious use for Twitter and Facebook

Yesterday, announced more details of its plan to spend $175 million over three years on philanthropic and humanitarian focused projects.

I chatted to the President and CEO of one of them, Dr Eric Rasmussen, who’s running the nonprofit, InSTEDD and who got a $5 million chunk of the Google cash (also money from the Rockefeller Foundation). InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters) will focus on bringing technology into play in extraordinarily difficult situations. The applications it develops (for data visualization or information flow, say) will be offered for free to humanitarian agencies working in global hotspots around the world.

Rasmussen, who’s running a team of ten, has certainly been in many of them: having worked on naval submarines for years, he also led efforts in both New Orleans after Katrina and Banda Aceh in Indonesia after the tsunami. He also ran the extraordinary Strong Angel workshops/demonstrations of varying types of integrated disaster responses.

So… Is technology really going to provide a solution in these kind of scenarios? Rasmussen is very clear.

In fact, he says, they've banned the word 'solution' from the office. "I used to be Fleet Surgeon [in the Navy] and people from commercial companies would bring me very expensive solutions. And they were the solutions they happened to own," he told me. "So I took people out at sea and said: 'Put your solution in this context. Now how sensible is what you brought me?"

Instead, and in keeping with the theme of this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Rasmussen is all about collaboration. And he's also more than aware that on some level, very basic forms of communication could immensely improve conditions in the field. And that some commercial applications might just need a gentle tweak to make them really useful in this context. Already, his team are working on developing an SMS-based Twitter service to pinpoint where aid workers are located in a disaster zone -- what they're doing and what they need. This will hook into a Facebook application which pinpoints those workers' location on a map, and allow them to see who's in their area (people they know; friends of people they know) and thus make vital connections and build relationships.

So here it is: The whole social networking phenom applied to humanitarian aid. As Rasmussen puts it: "It’s very common to turn up at the site of a problem and know that there are people there you should be working with but you don't have time to find them because there's other stuff to do." This, er, solution allows workers to figure out who's where and get a real jump on a situation where minutes matter.

Then of course, there's the whole Google dimension. "Developing technology for the deep field that is robust, scaleable, secure, able to withstand the environmental challenges and able to adapt to the variable bandwitdth, forms a crucible that makes the technology better," acknowledges Rasmussen. "If it works in these situations, it will work better for your customers." So how will these experiments with Twitter and Facebook play into the Google enterprise writ large? Way too early to tell just yet, but it's certain we'll see before too long.