Friday, March 30, 2007

Google Came to Canberra

On Thursday, Will Blott and Alan Noble from Google's Sydney office and Neetu Sabharwal from their ANU in Canberra:
"Google Australia is looking to forge relationships with key universities as they now have a dedicated 'on campus' focus in Australia. Google is keen to explore opportunities to partner that will add value to students' experience and help develop computer science engineers for Australia. ".
The overall message from the visit is that Google is looking for staff who can write useful computer programs. They are happy to provide support to researchers, to offer students the opportunity to work with Google people, but in the end they want people who can write useful computer programs, not just research papers. This was a refreshingly down to earth view.

One aspect I found interesting was Google's global nature. The company has a US West Coast base. This results in some slightly annoying cultural aspects of their promotional material making them a bit like a cross between the McDonalds hamburger chain and The Wiggles. But Google is developing labs around the world which are growing rapidly. While the staff are physically located in one lab, they work with those in others.

National research offices for global corporations can have their problems. When I visited Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge (UK), there seemed to be a fear that they would be out researched by low cost PHDs at Microsoft Beijing. Google use their company culture to attempt to overcome this.

One interesting aspect of having a Google center in Australia is that students from the Asian region at Australian universities might have a better access to Google scholarships and jobs than they would at home. There is a much smaller pool of students in Australia to compete for attention, than at an Indian or Chinese university. Once in the Google door, they then have access to the Google center in the home country.

Google Work With the ANU

Before Will and Alan gave a seminar, there was a discussion of possible areas for cooperation. Three areas I thought worth looking at were:

* Digital Mapping for the Public Good: Mobile phones for bushfire mapping, and applications for a GPS open source smart phone.

Sentinel Interactive Fire Tracking Map DemonstrationBushfire mapping

One student evaluated what was needed for an emergency management web site.

One application is adaption of the Sentinel Fire Mapping System for mobile devices. An experimental alternative web interface is available.

* Broadband Applications for Non-Broadband Users: New web applications are tending to require more and continuous network access. This makes it more difficult for those still on slow dial up connections and for wireless users with slow intermittent connections. These could be people in developing nations, such as India and China, but also in regional parts of places like Australia. These might not sound like high value customers for a company to target, but many of the same techniques used to provide Internet applications to rich people with smart phones can also be used for slow dialup users.

Sahana home page on a mobile phoneAn example is to modify the Sahana open source disaster management system for a phone.

* Cultural Links: As I found when teaching web design to museum workers in Samoa, there is great interest and value in providing web access to cultural material. But this tends to result in relatively dull, academic web sites, separate from the lively commercial stuff. Creating lively web sites is hard work. It should be possible to enhance the culturally worthy stuff, using some automated techniques like those applied commercially.
Ten Canoes Study Guides
Two students undertook projects to provide a better web interface to Australian museum materials, including those which inspired the movie Ten Canoes.

One student now working out how to use this to provide more relevant links from the ACS Digital Library to services such as Google.

Google Apps

There was a little of a sales pitch in the visit, with Google saying how good their Google Apps Education Edition. I am not sure how many universities, or companies, would be convinced of this. While organizations may be willing to use free third party systems to allow people to interact remotely, they are reluctant to have these systems as part of their "mission critical" applications. They are even more reluctant to have their data stored on someone else's system at an indeterminate location in some other country under that country's laws.

A lot of this reluctance to use external providers is irrational. Shared and remote systems used to be an everyday part of computing. Google's system is likely to be more reliable than the average corporate system and there are benefits in having your data stored away from head office. In a recent case a hail storm closed several buildings in Canberra for days. The ANU campus was closed, but the computer systems kept working and people were able to work remotely. With something like Google Apps an organization would be able to keep working remotely (perhaps even via smart phones).

However, I have to admit that while I use Google's Blogger service to prepare my blog, I still get it to put the files on my own web server located in Australia. I like the comfort of my data on a system I am paying for in a location under the same laws. Google will be hampered in promoting Google Apps in Australia, as their data centers are located in other countries, and so mostly not subject to Australian law.

Google would have difficulty locating a data center in Australia, as there are limited international telecommunications links to Asia and the USA. Perhaps the ALP could dip into the Future Fund some more to pay for extra fibre optic links to the USA and Asia. Given the amount of traffic coming from Google, this may have a significant impact on Australian telecommunications.

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