“At the end of the day, it’s about how technology can create the possibility of something better for all of us.”

Google.org
Nov 25, 2020 · 6 min read

Micah Berman built his first website when he was 7. Today, at Google.org, he looks for opportunities to use technology to create social change. Continuing our series of Google.org Team Profiles, Micah shares how AI can help nonprofits deliver the impact they seek.

Micah, age 10, using a laptop borrowed from a family friend

When did you first become passionate about technology?

I read a book on the basics of HTML programming during a long drive from my childhood home in central Illinois to visit my grandparents in Missouri. The day after we arrived, I sat at their old computer and put together my first website. I was hooked by how I could harness the power of the computer with the code I wrote, changing what showed on the screen. I had an avenue to share my 7-year-old ideas with the world. I never had any formal training, just kept coding and learning, mainly by doing projects. My first paid job was building a website for my elementary school. In high school, a friend and I built software to manage schedules for all students in the school. But it’s as much about the technology as what it can do for humans: what problem can it solve? What can it enable? I studied psychology at Pomona College, and figuring out how technology can help solve human problems has been my focus ever since.

Micah installing bioacoustic monitors in Sumatra with Rainforest Connection.

How did this lead to a career in philanthropy?

I’ve never had a grand plan, but instead have followed one interesting opportunity to the next. I was lucky to get a job at Google out of college, working as an engineering analyst fighting abuse of Google’s search ranking algorithms. While in that role, I started volunteering with a Google.org grantee based in Oakland, Hack the Hood. I would spend an afternoon each week over the summer with students as they built websites for local small businesses. I connected with their model: learn by doing.

I’d look forward to my time at Hack the Hood all week. I joined their board and got to see first-hand the catalytic impact that Google.org’s investment and support had on the organization — supporting its leadership as it transformed from an upstart with a bold idea to a mainstay that opens the door to digital careers for hundreds of new professionals. When I had the chance to transition to the Google.org team full-time, I jumped at it. My first job on the team was managing our data systems, and then I ran the Impact Challenge, our global open call program. I still feel lucky every day to work with such talented and inspirational people.

Can you walk us through your current role at Google.org?

I’m focused on helping nonprofits apply advanced technologies like AI to some of our world’s biggest challenges. I work closely with nonprofit leaders and technologists, as well as with Google’s engineering and product teams.

Sometimes, this means focusing on the technology. I’ve been working closely with the team at WattTime, a grantee from our AI Impact Challenge. They are building a system that uses satellite imagery to predict power plant emissions, so that the world ultimately has globally accurate and independent data. Building on their work on power plants, they’ve founded a consortium of other organizations doing similar work for other types of emissions.

But we’re always focused on how these technical advancements have the most impact for people. Take floods, for example: they are the world’s single most deadly and costly natural disaster, with the majority of the impact in Southeast Asia. A Google Research team built and deployed AI-powered alerts that predict flooding accurately days in advance — but alerts weren’t reaching people without smartphones. For the last few years, I’ve been collaborating with nonprofits in rural northern India to set up community-based systems that can ensure disaster information reaches those who need it most.

AI-powered flood forecasts alert users at risk from rising water

Is there a cause that’s close to your heart?

I’ve spent most of my personal volunteer time working toward affordable housing and criminal justice — but the more I learn about our world, the more I realize how interconnected systems are. But, the thing that gets me most excited is the way that technology can fundamentally expand the fabric of what’s possible in our search for solutions to so many problems.

I’m passionate about innovations that can help more organizations and more people benefit from that expanded possibility. For example, I’ve been working with a group of other funders to create Lacuna Fund. The organization seeks to create data relevant to the problems faced by underserved populations so that AI can help solve them. While AI makes life easier for many, there’s no AI without good data; and there’s often not good data that addresses the problems that matter to much of the world. Whether it’s a farmer in Kenya trying to identify pest threats to her crops or a human rights advocate in Mexico trying to access government services in one of thousands of widely-spoken languages not yet supported by speech and text recognition, relevant and representative data is one key to unlocking the progress offered by AI for everyone.

What’s something unexpected that you’ve learned through your work?

How much more there is to learn, every single day. And, how much it’s about the “how” in addition to the “what”. In my job, I’m surrounded by people who know a lot more about any given field than I do. In many cases, the people I’m working with have direct, lived experience of the problem we’re discussing. I’m constantly reminded that I personally don’t hold all of the answers. Because of that, I’ve learned how important connecting as humans first is to the work we do.

I’m grateful to have a role where I can make a difference, and I’m continuously thinking about how we can push ourselves to be more intimately connected to the issues and communities that we serve. How can we better use the many resources that Google has, like employees’ time and talent, to make even more of an impact?

What would you say to other nonprofits or funders looking to support AI or other technological tools?

First, I’d say that I’m glad they are interested. There is an enormous amount of opportunity to deliver significant progress.

Then, I’d share three tips below. Want more? Check out this report.

First, stay focused on the problem you’re trying to solve rather than on the novelty of any particular technology or solution. Machine learning and AI are powerful tools, but they are also just tools — and they’re the wrong tool in plenty of cases. Resources like Google’s Machine Learning Problem Framing can help break down where machine learning is a promising solution to explore and where it’s not.

Second, know that transforming AI insights into real-world impact requires advance planning. I frequently talk with organizations that have a clear AI idea, but a murky path to make sure the data necessary for a model is updated frequently, or to translate model output into on-the-ground benefit. Lots of AI technology is now relatively straight-forward, so figuring out exactly where and how to apply it, how to keep data updated, and how to put decisions into action can be the hardest parts.

Third, as in any tech-for-good work, we all have a responsibility to avoid unintended consequences. This means following a principled approach, seeking a variety of viewpoints, and deferring to people who know the problem best, right from the beginning. When making grants, the organizations we’re working with guide us in where, how, and why they find technology useful and appropriate. Google’s People + AI Guidebook is a great resource for building human-centered technology.

At the end of the day, it’s about how technology can create the possibility of something better for all of us.

Micah Berman leads product and technical grantmaking at Google.org and is based in San Francisco. He is a passionate advocate for the responsible use of technology for social good. From equitable access, to flood forecasting alerts, to global consortiums to creating diverse datasets for AI projects, he works to ensure robust technical solutions that put people first are the core of Google.org’s work.

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