How Google can be part of the Mountain View Community

On Wednesday 12 October 2011, Google participated in a Civility Roundtable in Mountain View.

Google was the only large company to participate. For all others, paying taxes is their only participation in the community.

That meeting was the first step. This post is how Google can take the next step.

Being missed

A recent post from Seth Godin asked about being missed:

Expanding the circle of ‘missed’
Would they miss you if you didn’t show up? Would they miss your brand or your writing or your leadership?

If you work at the local fast food joint or the local library and you don’t show up for work, do they consider shutting the place down?

If you’re on the team at the ER and you have a bad day, would someone die?

Everyone is capable of being missed. Most of us would be missed by our family if we secretly moved to Perth in the middle of the night. The question, then, is not whether or not you’re capable of being missed. The question is whether you will choose to be missed by a wider circle of people.

It’s a risk, of course. You have to extend yourself. You must make promises (and then keep them.) More pressure than it might be worth.

Except when it is.

Would Google be missed if it was to leave Mountain View?

Google’s buildings are former SGI buildings. Did anyone miss SGI when it went out of business? The property taxes would be paid on the empty buildings, the traffic would be lighter, existing businesses would find office space cheaper and more abundant.

Challenges for Google

Google has a hard challenge if it truly wants to be part of the whole community. Because it is large, well-funded, and powerful, it can do enormous harm without meaning to.

Challenge #1: Bringing back to zero, creating a positive impact or cure worse than the disease?

Google employees a number of charter buses with which Google brings their employees in from all over the Bay Area. This saves the air pollution and traffic congestion that would otherwise be caused by each employee driving to Google’s location.
Clearly the negative aspect of all of the Google employees driving has been reduced with the buses. However, the buses are still there and the Google parking lot is still full. If Google was to move out – the traffic situation would be even better.
Is the private shuttle bus service similar to that offered by Apple as good as Google can do?
Does this private shuttle service actually worsen things for the Mountain View residents?

Challenge #2: How can Google make a lasting impact on the quality of life that will outlast Google?

Google is doing wonderful things with energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability. For example, Google invested in residential solar with a $280 million dollar fund run by SolarCity.
Google has driven improvements in data center energy efficiency.

  • Can Google continue this investment in a way that Mountain View and surrounding cities gains direct visible benefits ?
  • How come 2 miles from Google’s campus I can’t get quality internet?

Challenge #3: How can Google do charitable works in a sustainable way with greater impact?

Recently, Google contributed money, computers and helped clean up Stevenson School. ( ). GoogleServe is a good way to build team spirit within Google. Many companies have such community work days because they recognize the team building aspect of these days.

In 2009,

Over the past couple of weeks about 5,000 Googlers from 60 of our offices took a break from their regular jobs to participate in volunteer opportunities. We’ve found that community service helps to revitalize and deepen our connections with the communities where we live and work, as well as bring us closer together as a team.

And in 2011,

Over the last month, more than 7,700 Googlers helped serve their communities across 400 different projects as part of GoogleServe, an employee-driven initiative organized almost entirely by volunteers.

GoogleServe results in a lot of Google employees feeling good. However, these massive push days have a dark side for the non-profits involved.

  • The organization being “helped” is given a temporary burst of labor. Its like drinking a bunch of caffeine – there is a burst of energy and followed by a crash.
  • The volunteers are not self-directed. For example, the volunteers do not know where the paint is or the brushes.
  • Only projects that can be completed in a day are possible.
  • The labor is “dumb” – it can’t figure out what needs to be done, it needs to be told.
  • The organization must supply the leaders.
  • Only “big” projects are possible ( paint an entire school )
  • The organization assumes the burden of planning.
  • The organization must “entertain” the labor – heaven help the organization that can find enough brass-polishing projects to keep everyone busy.
  • The organization is not better off in a sustainable manner.
  • Can Google move beyond massive single day events to focused sustainable efforts?
  • Are these massive team efforts the best help to the community?
  • Do these massive work days have a meaningful and sustainable impact?
  • Are these work days the best use of time and resources?
  • Do these work days have the best impact?

Challenge #4: Is Google aware of the true needs of the community?

Google employees are well-educated, financially secure, and technologically literate. They have access to quality health care, sick days, and quality child care. Google employees are not personally experiencing the needs of community members that are not like them. These invisible people cut hair, serve food, wash cars, clean toilets.

These invisible poor survive on $35K/year (or less) for 4 people. They work just as hard as Google employees. They have no access to healthcare. Many are transit-dependent, they use bikes and buses. The services they depend on are the first to be cut. “Small” changes have devastating impacts on them. Walk along California Ave between Showers Dr. and Shoreline. Look at the community between California Ave and El Camino Real. Did you know that Mountain View has had gang killings? I remember the flowers.

Consider this article and read how the poor pay extra for everything.

  • Can Google do good in a way that makes good business sense?
  • How is Google finding out the true needs of the community members who are not like Google employees?

Challenge #5: Is Google casually harming the community?

In 2006, another Mountain View company, Intuit, made life worse for the needy :

November 2nd, 2006: A few years ago, the Franchise Tax Board, California’s tax collector, pioneered a free on-line tax program called “Ready Return.” State Controller Steve Westly championed this program. The program enabled taxpayers with the simplest forms (single, no itemized deductions, and no tax schedules to fill out) to go to a secure website, obtain their tax information from the state, fill out a tax form and, if the taxpayer desired, calculate the amount of tax owed or refund due. Taxpayers had the option of doing the calculation themselves.
The program eliminated tax filing headaches for thousands of Californians, allowed low income taxpayers to more easily collect earned income tax credits, and increased compliance with state tax filing requirements.

Intuit lobbied hard to kill the free state program. It introduced “do no math” legislation to stop the free state software from performing calculations, thus rendering the program useless for taxpayers. It lobbied successfully this year to strip the funding needed to keep the free tax filing program alive.

Part of the fallout of Intuit’s actions was the closing of several battered spousal shelters.

Businesses have this maniacal focus on making money that leads to this indifferent damage. It shows up in many ways. Intuit will claim otherwise but how many people’s lives were negatively affected. Did someone not get a refund that would have helped pay for another semester at college because of Intuit’s actions? Did a woman die because the shelter was closed? The invisible poor are not organized. They exist in the shadows. But you walk by them every day they are part of your life even if you do not recognize it.

Does Google casually harm the poor the way Intuit does? The recent expansion, Google’s real-estate developer’s “our way or the highway” attitude, as relayed by another member of the breakout session, is believable because it is the norm.

How can Google listen, get Google’s needs met, and make life better for all?

Possible responses to the challenges

My suggestion and thoughts on the challenges posed.

Response #1: Bringing back to zero, creating a positive impact or cure worse than the disease?

A private shuttle bus that serves only Google employees is harmful to the community. This VTA map shows how limited the public transit options are to reach the Google campus. The options are a single bus (line 40) that does not connect with downtown Mountain View. There is no public transit between downtown Mountain View, Shoreline Park, the Amphitheatre, the Computer History Museum or Google.

The Dumbarton Rail project is a project that would enable Caltrain to connect with the East Bay and BART. This project would also enable Altamont Commuter Express to run trains up the Peninsula from Redwood City to San Francisco and down the peninsula to Palo Alto and Mountain View. This single project would connect the East Bay with the Peninsula would change the face of rail transit in the Bay Area in a way that no other project would.

Currently this project is languishing because it is the favorite of no one — except the people that need it the most. Google’s shuttle buses enable Google to also be indifferent to this project.

Because Google employees can successfully avoid public transit, they are less familiar with it, they are less invested in helping it improve. Google is denying VTA and other public transit systems ridership, participation, and awareness that they desperately need. Google employees are “above the fray” that the rest of the community faces. In the Bay Area often times transit is built by well-meaning people who don’t actually use the transit.

Verdict: Private bus system: Better than cars but still a net negative.

What could Google do:

Work with public transit agencies with grants to enable public transit routes to replace selected Google’s shuttles.

  • For example, VTA’s line 40 and line 51’s frequency could be increased in part with a subsidy by Google.
  • Reach to other businesses, Intuit, Microsoft in the Shoreline Business Area to create a sustainable, funded plan that is built in to the tax structure for the Shoreline Business Park that is dedicate to providing a quality public transit option for the all employees.
  • If Google has to go it alone,
    • attach a covenent to the Google property that obligates the next owner to subsidize the transit.
    • negotiate the VTA buses subsidized in this manner are ad-wrapped with a Google ad: “Google cares – it is time you joined a company that gets you where you want to go http://google.com/jobs”

Work to make Dumbarton Rail project get built.
No two ways about it – do the outreach and the marketing to help persuade businesses that private shuttle buses are a hack. Do the persuasion in the business community that a better solution is a world-class transit system.

Create tools with Google Maps to help with trip planning with unbuilt projects
The public is promised wonderful benefits from transit projects. Yet in many cases the projects are poorly built in ways that are only obvious after the project has been completed.

For example, the BART to SFO extension replace a bus shuttle service between Caltrain and SFO. The bus was faster and better than BART. The BART to SFO proponents dreamed that everyone would transfer from Caltrain to BART. The reality is that doing the transfer is costly and slower.

Similarly BART is being built toward downtown San Jose. Once again, this project will not deliver quality, fast, world class transit.

The Google Maps team could extend their code to help with building quality transit:

  1. enable users to draw proposed transit lines on maps
  2. define the simplistic characteristics of the transit vehicles ( acceleration, station dwell times, speed )
  3. For surface running, use existing information available for calculating car travel.
  4. Enable existing transit options to be incorporated so that a total hypothetical trip time and cost could be calculated.

Response #2: How can Google make a lasting impact on the quality of life that will outlast Google?

As outlined in Response#1, helping get the transit situation permanently and sustainably helps enormously.

Google’s investment in renewable energy should also be leveraged.

How come Mountain View does not have solar panels on more residential buildings and downtown? Unemployment for non-software developers is very high. There are also a large number of people who are not computer people, who are not interested in working with computers. Some of these people are the least “desirable” members of society: parolees, ex-convicts.

Google should built an ecosystem of solar installers and insulator contractors by investing in area to create a high density of solar installations. Scattered installations do not create an ecosystem. Obviously, I would like Mountain View to be one such place but how about out in Stockton and Tracy? Google could help reduce the operating costs for cash-strapped cities in the Central Valley.

I challenge Google to make it a goal that every public building in the state would have a solar installation. Every library, city hall, police station and fire hall would have a SolarCity installation.

Internet access

How come 2 miles from Google’s campus I cannot get an internet connection better than DSL or Comcast? A developer that works for me in Siberia ( Irkutsk ), has fiber to his house. Why is it that Google, Intuit, Microsoft are not bringing that same benefit to Mountain View residents?

I challenge Google to make it a goal that every library in California has fiber access to the internet.

Response #3: How can Google do charitable works in a sustainable way with greater impact?

I have seen lots of “technology days” where the technology companies drop a bunch of computers, wire up a non-profit and then leave.

In about a month something goes wrong and the non-profit “beneficiary” does not know how to fix the problem. A windows upgrade goes bad, the linksys box gets misconfigured, a system file gets accidentally deleted, the computer get stolen, or a piece of software needs a non-trivial upgrade.

Google can do better with GoogleServe.

First, spend the time to learn the non-profit.
Some times technology is the poorest solution to a problem. For example, is an Android phone the best way to gather data or is a scanable piece of paper that can be scanned better? The paper won’t get damaged by water, not likely to get stolen, and getting lost is not that big a deal.

Second, be there for the long run. Rather than massive labor for a day how about being there with 1/24th as many people every 2 weeks? When the computers have problems GoogleServe can be there to fix the problems and make sure the donation is truly useful. Or to discover a better solution for the community’s need. GoogleServe in this sustained manner would allow relationships to the community to be established. A one day work day doesn’t build relationships.

Response #4: Is Google aware of the true needs of the community?

Google needs to embed themselves in the community. Open an office at Food Street Restaurant (Dana and Castro) and get to know the community. Talk to the business owners.

Talk to the Hispanic community.

Learn from the gang members.

They will not know how Google could help because they do not know what Google can do. But together the community and Google could help figure that out.

Response #5: Is Google casually harming the community?

Unfortunately yes. The rents are going up Mountain View is being gentrified. But Google can help in a way that does not turn Google into a charity.

First, the Community Health Center is ideally located to help low income people. It is on transit and is centrally located.

Second, The North County Social Services is also being impacted.

The Pacific Euro Hotel home to many low-income people between permanent residences is also impacted.

Google could provide a 99-year lease in one of their new buildings that is close to transit for both the Mayview center and the Social Services Center. A single floor would mean a lot. Contract with the mayview center to also provide health services for Google employees as well, so the low-income of mountain view gets some of the benefits of Google employees.

If Google is really daring they will make it so that the low-income people that they aid mix with Google employees. Make the invisible poor less invisible.

When Google considers building employee housing, make room for teachers to have an apartment as well. Give room for the janitors and haircutters to live. Practice economic desegregation.

The Future Challenges

Many of these thoughts and suggestions are relatively inexpensive. But they require that Google actually care to do them.

Can Google move from “Don’t no evil” to “Achieve greatness in good”?

Can Google create an impact that is self-sustaining and permanent. What will Google’s legacy be in 100 years? Paint will have long since peeled off. Google should do more than coat a surface.

Google took the first step. Can it take the second?

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