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Summer of Service: During the summer of 2013 the IOP is proud to sponsor and work with over 250 students who are spending their summers in politics and public service around the world. Learn more about this program.

Michael Lai '14 is a 2013 summer Director's Intern working with Google's politics and elections team.

The Dance Floor & the Balcony: Google Politics & Elections team

“Let’s say you are dancing in a big ballroom…Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to make sure you don’t collide with dancers close by…But if you had come up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture…The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray…If you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.”

--Professor Ronald Heifetz, Harvard Kennedy School

Despite my lack of dance skills, I've spent a good deal of my Harvard experience on the dance floor: Fall of my sophomore year, I helped start a civic engagement technology startup Townhall140 out of the Harvard Innovation Lab. The idea was simple: a video chat townhall platform for politicians to discuss and debate issues with citizens, complete with a democratic up vote/down vote system, much like Reddit.

While people generally liked the idea, bad team chemistry and lack of technical expertise meant the project sputtered to a close. That was my first experience in the startup world, and I loved it. Only a couple of months later, when I had the serendipitous opportunity to join higher education tech startup TurnRight as the first employee, I took it without a second thought.

Leadership expert and HKS professor Ronald Heifetz draws a contrast between the "dance floor" and "the balcony." Leaders, Heifetz says, "have to be able to view patterns as if they were on the balcony." Having cut my teeth at startups, I wanted to gain a different perspective this summer at a large yet innovative company in a field I am passionate in. Harvard's IOP Director's Internship at the Google Politics & Elections team was the perfect opportunity.

What does the Politics & Elections team do? To put it simply, we organize information and build technology to make elections more free and fair. In 2012, we spearheaded the Voter Information Project in partnership with Pew, New Organizing Institute, Microsoft, and some other influential stakeholders in the digital democracy movement to drive common standards for voter information.

The end result was a Voter Information API to empower civic developers to build applications on top of common elections data, such as polling places, who's on the ballot, etc. The Voter Information Tool application that was built on top of the API helped citizens figure out their polling place and was embedded in thousands of websites all over the web, from Google products like Maps to media hubs like CNN to politician websites like BarackObama.com.

Outside of the U.S., the Politics & Elections team also works with local Google offices, local election commissions, and local software companies to build applications and tools, such as elections results visualizations, news aggregators, and G+ Hangouts with candidates, to empower voters with more information and hold politicians accountable. From the Egypt 2011 parliamentary elections to the Kenya 2013 presidential elections, if there's been an important foreign election recently, chances are we helped build infrastructure and tools for it.

Organizationally, the Politics & Elections is part of Google’s efforts to use technology with the primary goal of having positive social impact. Other efforts include Google.org, which incubates new technologies to make the world a better place, innovative crisis response tools, a human rights focused think tank, and a reinvention of nonprofit donations. What this means in practice is a rare opportunity to both see from the balcony and dance on the dance floor: with a mission-driven focus on innovating for social impact, teams such as Politics & Elections are in the rare position to convene cross-sector leaders to grow entire ecosystems; with Google’s massive brand and user base, steady funding, and top engineering and business talent, any project we execute achieves massive scale and thus, impact.

This summer, I've tried to contribute to my team's work and Google.org’s broader work in a couple of ways: I started my internship conducting research on the political technology ecosystem and designing a visualization to help my team better understand developing trends and new technologies in our space. Currently, I'm helping to define common specs for city governments to publish interoperable datasets, enabling civic developers to spend less time weeding through data and more time building powerful tools. In many ways, my experience has been a refreshing change from the action-packed lifecycle of a startup, which is always a race against the clock to grow a user base and iterate a product before money, time, or both runs out.

In some ways, however, Google is not unlike a startup: I've been impressed by the culture of transparency and information sharing, the seamless workflow and communication via Google apps (Gmail keyboard shortcuts are game changing), and the flat organizational structure (for a 40,000 person corporation), which promotes fluidity and collaboration among cross-functional teams. Yet, what's been most rewarding for me is meeting brilliant and friendly people from various backgrounds and different functions throughout Google, all willing to offer their perspective and lend a hand.

This is not say Google is a utopian place (Google.org has its critics), or that the work we do is unequivocally good--for example, the recent NSA fiasco sparks sobering questions about not just the government, but the role of Google and other powerful institutions collecting individual level data in our society and democracy. It's been exhilarating and conflicting at the same time being caught in the middle of some of these questions, and I can't wait to spend sleepless nights debating them back on campus in the Fall. In the meantime, I can't thank Harvard's Institute of Politics and Google enough for this amazing opportunity to both see from the balcony and dance on the dance floor.

Disclaimer: this is my personal view and the opinions I express here are solely my own.