Google honours tech innovations that will make an impact

Recently, Google held its Impact Challenge awards, supporting non-profits using technology to save lives with AU$3.5 million in grants.

Michelle Starr
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
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Google Impact Challenge Australia

Ten Australian non-profits have been awarded AU$3.5 million in grants after competing in the Google Impact Challenge -- wherein non-profits submit their ideas for technology that can help make the world a better place. This is Australia's first year completing the challenge, which has also been held in the UK, the US, India and Brazil.

Australians have a long history of world-changing innovation, and the awards saw three winners each awarded AU$500,000, as well as a people's choice award. Additionally, the six runners-up received a grant of AU$250,000 each, as well as mentoring from Google to help bring their idea to life.

Click through the gallery to see the amazing ideas on offer.

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People's Choice: Fred Hollows Foundation

Left untreated, diabetes will eventually render the patient blind -- and, in developing regions, where access to health care is limited, this is usually a matter of "when", not "if". The Fred Hollows Foundation plans to develop a tablet device called MARVIN that will use a mobile diagnostic platform to take high-quality images of the back of the eye, checking for damage caused by diabetes.

"MARVIN can be operated by anyone and is a solution for millions of people living in remote communities by providing on-the-spot assessment and diagnosis. In 3 years, 200 MARVIN devices will be deployed, screening 6 million people for diabetic retinopathy per year."


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Winner: Engineers Without Borders

In developing regions, lack of proper sanitation can cause serious problems -- and, according to Engineers Without Borders, 66 percent of rural Cambodia lacks access to sanitation infrastructure. EWB proposed to establish a network of entrepreneurs to manufacture and install biodigester toilets to both address the lack of sanitation and provide an affordable source of renewable energy.

"In three years, EWB will enable 25 local entrepreneurs to install 2,500 biodigester toilet systems benefitting 15,000 people. In 10 years, the project will provide sanitation and energy solutions to 1.2 million Cambodian people," the company wrote.


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Winner: Infoxchange

According to Infoxchange, Australia currently has 1,200 specialist homeless services and over 300,000 health, welfare and community support services -- so it can be difficult for homeless people to find the support service they need. "Homeless Assist" proposes a mobile app and website so that the homeless and nearly homeless can more easily locate access to shelter, food, health and other services.


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Winner: AIME

In Australia, Indigenous students graduate school at a rate of just 41.5 percent, compared to a rate of 81.2 percent for non-Indigenous students -- and Indigenous students are, on average, 2.5 years behind the national average in maths and science.

AIME aims to boost these figures with an online game -- AIMESTAR. "AIMESTAR...sparks the interest of young Indigenous students to learn and excel in maths and science, connecting them to possible career paths in science, engineering, technology, design and innovation. In three years, AIMESTAR will be used by 10,000 Indigenous students across Australia to increase ability and interest in maths and science."


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Runner-up: Zoo & Aquarium Association, Australasia

The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth around $20 billion every year, impacting endangered species and their environments in a massive way. In Southeast Asia, ZAA says, wildlife and their body parts are often traded openly in markets and restaurants. The organisation plans to further develop the Wildlife Witness conservation app, which allows users to photograph and report instances of illegal wildlife trade.


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Runner-up: Penguin Foundation

Cleaning oil from wildlife is time consuming and labour intensive: cleaning a single penguin takes an hour of washing by two people, cleaning each of their feathers by hand. The Penguin Foundation aims to make this process simpler, safer and more environmentally friendly through the development of a cleaning method that uses magnetic iron particles to lift the oil, rather than grease-cutting detergent.

"In three years, the Penguin Foundation will deploy a fully-tested, ethically-sound and operational oil removal kit. This will improve the survival of thousands of sea birds (up to 100,000 estimated to be contaminated with oil) and reduce the cost of labour-intensive wildlife oil cleaning and rehabilitation by up to $3 million each year."


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Runner-up: Alternative Technology Association

According to the ATA, roughly 20 percent of homes -- some 40,000 households -- in East Timor will never be connected to a power grid. The organisation plans to implement a solar energy program to provide lighting, setting up local suppliers to assemble, install and maintain the solar systems and thereby also boosting local industry.

"Over two years, Alternative Technology Association will train 75 village-based installers and maintenance technicians, install 2000 systems, and deliver 60 kW of solar energy to 12,000 people."


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Runner-up: University of Technology Sydney

Groundwater -- that is, the water that runs beneath the Earth's surface -- can be a highly valuable resource, yet over-using it can cause significant problems, damaging the environment, causing the land to collapse where it is no longer supported by hydraulic pressure and lowering the water table. The current rates of groundwater use in arid regions particularly, according to the University of Technology Sydney, are unsustainable. It proposes a system of sensors to be attached to trees to monitor groundwater levels and provide an early warning system if too much groundwater is being extracted.

"Over three years, this project will protect 20 of the most vulnerable sites in Australia from excessive groundwater use. This will result in saving $90 million and developing a system with the potential to impact the 1.8 billion people living in arid and semi-arid regions around the world."


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Runner-up: University of NSW ASPIRE

If you grow up disadvantaged -- low-income, in a remote area -- getting ahead in life will be harder. In Australia, according to UNSW, you are 30 percent more likely to be unemployed and more likely to underachieve academically -- and those with disadvantaged background make up only 16 percent of the university undergraduate population. This is largely because of lack of access to educational resources -- which UNSW hopes to address with a series of remote education options.

"The ASPIRE project will utilise online learning and video conferencing technology to address social inequities in the education system. Students will have access to master classes, mentoring and individualised career and tertiary education-focused content. Over two years, the project will enable more than 3,500 NSW-based socio-economically disadvantaged primary and high school students and their parents to access interactive learning material and individualised educational support online."


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Runner-up: Asthma Foundation NSW

In Australia, 10 percent of people -- around 2.3 million -- have asthma. This can be greatly exacerbated by environmental factors, such as pollen and pollution -- yet monitoring air quality is not easy. The Asthma Foundation proposes a mobile and web-based app to aggregate and provide reports on air quality in real-time, along with a wearable sensor to monitor personal respiratory data. This will enable those living with asthma to better understand and make provisions for the air conditions that impact their health.


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