These 20 social enterprises and nonprofits just won Google’s AI Impact Challenge

From improving fire department response times to tracking illegal logging, these organizations are using artificial intelligence in innovative ways to drive impact. Now they’ll get a technological boost from Google.

These 20 social enterprises and nonprofits just won Google’s AI Impact Challenge
Makerere University [Photo: Liam Arthur/courtesy Google]

As the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning grows in the business world, “we’re not seeing it as much in the social sector,” says Jacquelline Fuller, president of, Google’s philanthropic arm. Last fall, the organization launched the Google AI Impact Challenge, which offered winning nonprofits and social enterprises a chance to get free use of the tools. Of the 2,600 applications Google received, more than 40% were from organizations that hadn’t used AI in the past. “I think it really speaks to the fact that the sector is really hungry and really would like to apply these important techniques and technologies but just really didn’t have the resources and the expertise to do so,” she says.

New York University [Photo: Jonathan Mehring/courtesy Google]

Today, Google announced 20 winners, who will get a combined $25 million, mentoring from AI experts at Google, credit and consulting from Google Cloud, and who will go through a new accelerator program. Each of the projects was assessed for impact, feasibility, how it used AI (and whether it used AI responsibly), and scalability: A project to improve fire department response times in New York City, for example–or to help refugees find jobs in Amsterdam–could be replicated in other cities. Here are the 20 winners.

  • American University of Beirut is developing a tool that farmers in the Middle East and Africa can use to irrigate fields at the optimum times to save water.
  • At Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a university in Colombia, researchers will use satellite images to detect illegal mines that are polluting community drinking water.
  • Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit that connects people experiencing a crisis with volunteer counselors by text message, uses AI to evaluate messages and move the people who are in most danger to the front of the line.
  • In Australia, a public health service called Eastern Health will use AI to comb through clinical records from ambulances and find patterns in suicide attempts–and ways to intervene earlier.
  • Full Fact, an independent fact-checking organization in the U.K., is using AI to help human fact-checkers more quickly assess claims made by politicians and the media.
  • An Indonesian organization called Gringgo, which builds tech to fight the country’s plastic waste problem, uses image recognition in an app for informal waste collectors, who can learn where to sell recyclables to make more money.
  • Hand Talk, based in Brazil, uses AI to translate Portuguese into sign language for deaf and hard-of-hearing Brazilians, many of whom haven’t learned to read and write.
  • Using machine learning and natural language processing on legal documents and laws, HURIDOCS (Human Rights Information and Documentation Systems–Switzerland) is creating a tool to help human rights lawyers research cases more quickly.
  • In Uganda, the computer science department at Makerere University is using machine learning on data from low-cost pollution sensors attached to motorcycle taxis to track and forecast air pollution.
  • The Médecins Sans Frontières Foundation, the foundation arm of the organization sometimes called Doctors Without Borders, is using image recognition and a smartphone app to help less-trained medical staff prescribe the right antibiotics for a particular infection.
  • Researchers at NYU are working with the New York City Fire Department to build models of its emergency response times, based on factors like weather, location, and the time of an emergency call, in order to improve those response times.
  • Nexleaf Analytics is using AI to build data models that track vaccines as they’re delivered around the world in order to better understand the viability of vaccines–which have to stay below a certain temperature to work–throughout the supply chain.
  • Using deep learning tools, Penn State University will predict the location and time of landslides and create a new warning system.
  • Quill, a website that provides free online education tools to low-income students, will use deep learning to automate grading and give instant feedback.
  • Rainforest Connection uses acoustic monitors and AI analysis to detect signs of illegal logging in rainforests–like the sound of chainsaws or trucks–and then sends real-time alerts.
  • Skilllab, based in the Netherlands, uses AI to automatically translate skill profiles for refugees, and then connect those skills to local occupations.
  • Talking Points will use AI to build on its translation system, which connects non-English speaking parents in the U.S. with their children’s teachers.
  • The Trevor Project will use sentiment analysis and natural language processing to determine the risk of suicide in LGBTQ youth.
  • Wadhwani AI will use image recognition to track pest traps on farms India to help advise famers about how to reduce the use of pesticides.
  • WattTime will use satellite images and image processing algorithms to monitor emissions from power plants.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley