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Yoga devotee bends online search to feed the hungry

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Sep 14, 2020 - 06:50 AM

SAN FRANCISCO — Sean Kelly left the Silicon Valley startup world for a spiritual journey that led to a life filled with yoga on an island in Thailand.

But as a global pandemic disrupted the global economy, Kelly and two others created a search engine with the goal of raising funds to feed the hungry in Africa, Asia and anywhere else there is need.

Launched this month, Seva bills itself as the world’s first independent, socially conscious search engine that lets people feed hungry children by browsing the internet.

“I think technology is one of the greatest enablers of both positive and negative forces,” Kelly told AFP from Koh Pha Ngan during a video call.

The Seva team relies on Microsoft’s Bing to power searches behind the scenes at Sevasearch.org, or on mobile devices with its app.

Revenue from ads linked to the searches generate funds which go to the World Food Programme and Project Healthy Children.

The site promises full transparency about its finances, and within a week had funded more than 169,000 meals for the charitable organizations.

“Unlike other search engines, we don’t track your searches. We’re really just here to feed people.”

Ideals vs. reality 

Created as a US company with a remote team from all over the world, Seva doesn’t store search data or keep track of users, using minimal information such as query subjects and general locations to target ads, according to Kelly.

Kelly and co-founder Ron Piron had been mulling the idea of a search engine while running a Bookretreats.com platform launched five years ago for people seeking yoga getaways.

“We had it on a low burner for a while, then the pandemic hit,” Kelly said.

“Myanmar people in my community lost their jobs, and friends started messaging me asking about where to beg on the streets.”

A hunger crisis loomed, and Bookretreats was sidelined as people stopped traveling due to virus risk.

“We wanted to create a way for people to engage in effortless charity,” Kelly said.

“Seva is allowing people to make an impact with something they do every day; search the internet.”

As idealistic as Seva may be, it faces a challenge in an online search market dominated by Google, according to Technalysis Research chief analyst Bob O’Donnell.

Silicon Valley-based Google had more than 90 percent of the global search market as of August, according to Statcounter.

“It strikes me as a well-intentioned effort that may not have a lot of realistic opportunity,” O’Donnell said of Seva.

“It could absolutely work, I just think it is more than a bit of a challenge.”

Among the obstacles is that Google has become so much of a habit for internet users the name of the company is used as a verb for online searching.

Even privacy-focused DuckDuckGo has not managed to gain significant traction in the search market, the analyst noted.

Kelly grew up in Berkeley, California, graduating from the state university there.

He was an early employee at Modria, a dispute resolution platform spun out of eBay and PayPal.

“I ended up quitting my job at the tech startup to pursue a spiritual journey and really dive deep into yoga,” said 33-year-old Kelly, who authored a book on the subject and taught classes before launching Seva.

“It takes people who are really willing to use technology to try and spread wonderful things, otherwise all the other aspects of humanity kind of bring it down,” he said.

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