Google’s T.V. Raman on Open Source Technology as a Force for Social Good

By Benetech, posted on

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Google Research Scientist, T.V. Raman, for a conversation about tech volunteerism, the social impact of open source technology, the future of accessibility, and more. Following are highlights from our conversation:

I’m wondering how you would introduce yourself to a community of people interested in harnessing the power of technology as a force for social good?

I am a Mathematician turned Computer Scientist who now builds technology solutions that qualitatively improve people’s lives. The leverage provided by such open technology solutions when deployed at scale is enormous!

Can you share a bit about your work and vision for the future of accessibility through your research at Google?

In pursuing the mission of organizing all of the world’s information, Google has gone from indexing/searching the Web to playing a critical role in bringing more and more of the world’s information online. Thus, Google Maps and Google Earth bring more of our physical world online; Google Books brings more of the world’s knowledge online. Google platforms, such as Android and Chrome OS, as well as longer-term projects, such as autonomous vehicles and robots, provide interesting tools for users to view and manipulate this information. At the intersection of such projects lie innumerable opportunities for enriching user’s lives by creating end-user solutions that work for a given user’s needs and abilities — this has been my primary focus throughout my time at Google.

Today’s accelerating technologies certainly hold a great promise for overcoming barriers of accessibility, but at the same time also pose new challenges. What are some of these new challenges on the path towards equal access to information and knowledge?

Many of today’s concepts underlying “Accessibility” and “Equal Access” were formulated in the age of the desktop PC where all computing was mediated by a single visual interface. That naturally led to “equal access” being equated to “translate the visual interface to modalities such as speech”. Today, computing has moved out of the PC in the corner of the room into the very center of our lives. The information we work with is no longer simple blocks of text displayed on a screen that can be read out aloud, or piece of spoken output that can be transcribed to text. Rich user interaction mediated across multiple devices and screens in vastly varying usage contexts, ranging from the traditional desktop to fully hands-free, eyes-free environments, requires a fundamental rethink with respect to how we deliver information to users. Solving this question is not one of special needs access, but a far broader question of usability that will eventually raise all boats.

Has mentorship (being mentored, or mentoring) played a role in your success?

I’ve never had a formal mentor, but I have benefited hugely from a large number of smart people that I have interacted with over the years, ranging from my time as a student at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay to Cornell and later at the various companies where I’ve worked.

You’ve been a longtime Benetech supporter. How did you first get involved with Benetech?

I first met Jim Fruchterman in the summer of 1993 when I was finishing Graduate School at Cornell; later I got to know him better during the Learning Ally (formerly RFB&D) Conference on Math And Science in May 1994. Jim and I have been in close touch ever since, and sometime in late 1999, I got Jim to read the book Voices From The Open Source Revolution (I’d been a Linux user since 1994). Jim became a convert, and we talked about all the wonderful things one could achieve in terms of positive social impact by leveraging open source technologies. A few months later, Jim launched Benetech and Bookshare — and the rest is history; I’m happy to have benefited from the very beginning!

SocialCoding4Good is a Benetech Labs initiative that helps match experienced technologists with humanitarian, open source projects. From your perspective as someone who has helped champion this initiative at Google, what would you say are some of the benefits that technologists gain from lending their skills to open source projects like Mifos, Benetech’s Go ReadUshahidi, and others?

Over time, I’ve observed that technologists in general, and in the Valley in particular, find the end-user impact of their work extremely motivating. Combine this with the fact that software can be highly leveraged when deployed at scale, and it becomes a really easy sell. To make this concrete: if a group of people spend six hours working on building someone a house, at the end there is one house for one family. When that same group of people build a piece of software that solves an end-user problem, that solution can be immediately made available to thousands if not millions of users.

What do you view as the most important impact that the gift of time and skills can have on social causes?

Bringing these causes to the fore-front is often the first step. Next, creating software frameworks for a given cause can often be re-purposed to the next adjacent use-case, especially if the initial solution is open sourced and freely available. Finally, deploying such solutions help surface information that would otherwise never bubble-up to the surface. By achieving this, we create a feedback-loop; notice that bubbling up of information that was previously not widely known automatically brings more attention to the next underlying social cause.

Was there anything else you wanted to share with regards to SocialCoding4Good, Benetech’s Go Read app, or tech volunteerism?

Tech volunteerism is extremely rewarding. I would encourage everyone to try it, independent of your skill level or role.


You can follow T.V. Raman on Twitter @TVRaman, and his publications via his Google Scholar profile.

This post originally appeared on the SocialCoding4Good blog.