Google product manager

Google product manager

Think fast

Google product manager Ganesh Shankar is part of a growing number of coders finding new and better ways to respond to emergencies.

By Ben Skuse

The 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa shook the world. A fatal disease for half of those who contract it, the ongoing pandemic has caused more deaths (so far, the count is over 11,000) than all previous outbreaks of Ebola combined. So when Sydney-raised Google product manager Ganesh heard Google was putting together a team to work out how technology could be used to fight the disease, he volunteered on the spot.

Ganesh helped medics from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors Without Borders) to find safe and efficient ways to send patient health data from the isolation centre to the diagnosis tent. It’s a major infection risk to take paper outside the isolation zone, so health workers had been shouting updates over a fence to colleagues on the other side.

With a team from Google and MSF in London, Google product manager Ganesh built an open-source medical information system for relief missions.

“We developed custom servers, tablets, and client and server-side software in under five months from concept to launch,” he says.

The central part of the system is a standard Sony Android tablet with a specially designed casing that allows it to be repeatedly dunked in a chlorine solution, which kills the Ebola virus.

The tablet also needed to be mobile and able to be used in isolation with little power. So the team came up with a network server the size of a postage stamp that can be rapidly recharged with a generator.

Another challenge was recharging the tablet itself – standard chargers often have sharp edges that can puncture protective suits. In this emergency response system, tablets can instead simply be placed on a table to be recharged.

Google is highly active in developing and providing this kind of emergency response technology. “I wanted to work for a company with a conscience; one that supports and encourages me to work on projects like this,” says Ganesh.

Many of these efforts are coordinated by the Google Crisis Response team, formally set up after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Crisis Response provides updated satellite imagery of disaster areas, relief money and enhanced web services for people on the ground.

Another initiative is Google Person Finder, which anyone can embed in their website to help people find each other in the aftermath of a disaster.

There are plenty of roles for those with a talent for coding and a drive to help people. Computer scientists are working on early warning systems, disaster preparedness, emergency response coordination, post-crisis rebuilding and more.

“This is a wonderful time to work in tech and make an impact on the lives of those who need help the most,” says Ganesh. “Volunteering to help an organisation like MSF is a great way to get started.”

“This is a wonderful time to work in tech and make an impact on the lives of those who need help the most.”

Ben Skuse

Author: Ben Skuse

Ben Skuse is a UK-based former mathematician turned professional science writer, who has written for the Careers with STEM magazines for over 5 years. You can follow him on Twitter @BenSkuseSciComm.