Tuesday, December 16, 2014

CEO’s Update: Fall 2014

My personal goal is to channel the aspirations of the technology community to do more social good. More and more of my time is spent around both raising money and raising awareness of how much more could be done with technology to increase social impact. In this update, I’m delighted to be able to share Benetech’s latest efforts to do both. First, I’ll cover our biggest fundraising effort of the year: individual philanthropy is crucial to us; it’s the portion that makes 10X impact possible! Then I’ll share the latest stories on the impact of our tech volunteerism and human rights tech efforts as well our new tech leadership.

Highlights of this Update:
Join Benetech in Making the World Better for All
At Benetech, we touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals in often-difficult situations. From people in Latin America who face severe water scarcity to at-risk human rights defenders and students with disabilities, our users and their families are the ones who best convey the impact of our work.

Bookshare student member Brennan Draves and his mother, Lindsay, posing to the camera.
Brennan Draves and his mother, Lindsay Draves, at school.
Consider third grade student Brennan Draves. Brennan has Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment and blindness. His disability, however, does not stop him from flying through his homework assignments. He reads accessible ebooks from Benetech’s Bookshare library in braille format, and learns as quickly as his peers without disabilities. In fact, his reading skills are above average and he is on track to be an honor roll student. “Bookshare has made my homework easier,” Brennan says. And Brennan’s mom, Lindsay Draves, adds, “Bookshare has made it possible for my son to be excited about learning.”

We want students like Brennan—and disadvantaged people everywhere—to have equal opportunities to make their lives better. We’re thrilled that today’s rapid changes in technology are opening up tremendous new ways to address the problems they face. To do so, we definitely need your help.

That’s why we were excited to participate in the Skoll Foundation’s second annual Skoll Social Entrepreneurs Challenge, a fundraising campaign committed to strengthening the capacity of organizations like ours to accelerate impact on some of the most critical issues of our time. The Challenge ran for six weeks through December 5th. We competed against other participating organizations, racing against the clock to raise funds and secure matching funding from the Skoll Foundation. We did very well, and with the Skoll Foundation’s matching support, each gift to our campaign more than doubled its impact. As we look forward to 2015, we recognize that much work remains to be done, and we definitely need your continued support.

Are you excited about technology benefiting the world? It’s not too late to pledge your support for our work. To help now, please use the Donate Form on Benetech's website and give whatever you can. We build our tech-for-good products and reach dollar-by-dollar, and therefore every gift makes a difference for the people we serve. Thank you!
 
SocialCoding4Good
We are very excited about our SocialCoding4Good project, one of our Benetech Labs initiatives, which is working to increase the engagement of the technology sector with social good initiatives beyond just the scope of our own programs.

Within a short period, SocialCoding4Good has gone from a Labs pilot project to a growing community driving social impact. SocialCoding4Good brings together individual software professionals as well as corporate social responsibility teams from companies such as Cisco, Google, Hewlett Packard, LinkedIn, and VMware to volunteer their technical skills to nonprofit partners that develop and maintain free and open source software addressing critical social problems. SocialCoding4Good is a force multiplier: the nonprofit organizations we work with deliver the social impact; SocialCoding4Good makes them stronger.

For example, this summer, SocialCoding4Good organized “code sprints” at Google and LinkedIn during the companies’ volunteer service events, GoogleServe and LinkedIn for Good InDay. There it brought teams of Google and LinkedIn employees to contribute code fixes and key feature enhancements to the open source mobile tools of our nonprofit project partner Mifos, whose mission is to enable financial institutions to become modern and digitally connected providers of financial services to the world’s 2.5 billion poor and unbanked. Mifos can immediately deploy these new mobile features of its financial inclusion platform, which delivers world-class microcredit services that help open up new opportunities for the poor and their families.

To date, more than one thousand software professionals have signed up to lend their time and skills to SocialCoding4Good’s nonprofit project partners, and we are thrilled to support this growing contributor community with new leadership.

New Tech Leadership
Portrait of Benetech VP of Engineering, Mark Roberts
Benetech VP of Engineering, Mark Roberts
Since my last CEO’s Letter, we have also welcomed aboard a new Vice President of Engineering: Mark Roberts, former head of TiVo Engineering and Operations. Mark oversees the development, testing, and deployment of new technology across all of Benetech’s program areas, including Benetech Labs and SocialCoding4Good.

Portrait of SocialCoding4Good Developer Community Manager, Emma Irwin
Developer Community Manager, Emma Irwin
We are also delighted to have aboard Developer Community Manager Emma Irwin, who guides the SocialCoding4Good volunteers as they join and contribute to the growth and impact of our nonprofit software partners’ open source efforts. Under Mark and Emma’s leadership, SocialCoding4Good recently launched a new blog and forums, enabling its volunteers and nonprofit project partners to share their experiences and the community to better support our many new contributors.  

Human Rights
Our Human Rights Program continues to focus on helping activists and journalists securely document the stories of human rights abuses worldwide. Revelations about government interception of these confidential stories has caused us to redouble our efforts to lower the barrier to the use of strong, secure crypto software like Martus. Martus is our free, open source, secure information collection and management tool. Martus Desktop 4.5 and Mobile Martus 1.2 feature myriad updates, with a focus on improved usability. For example, Martus can now be configured in less than 10 minutes by anyone with basic digital literacy skills. These new releases take big steps forward towards helping communities interested in secure collection of crucially important stories of human suffering, whether on PCs, Macs, or Android smartphones out in the field. And we have even more improvements in our development pipeline.

As toolmakers, our ultimate impact is measured by what our users create with our products. Case in point is our team’s work with local LGBTI groups in Sub-Saharan Africa to help them establish independent human rights documentation initiatives. The capacity building assistance we have extended to our partners over the past three years towards organized data collection of human rights violations is truly bearing fruit. The documentation projects of our partners in Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have yielded so far six high-quality publications or reports about violations against LGBTI individuals in their communities. These are major milestones in our collective effort to build a culture of systematic, evidence-based documentation and advocacy work, and in our journey to make the defenders of human rights stronger in their fight against injustice and abuse.  

Conclusion
Thanks to the commitment of our supporters, partners, collaborators, volunteers, and staff, Benetech is increasing both the scale and scope of our work. We are determined to do far more for the millions of people around the world who most need the benefits of technology and are often the least able to afford them! We want to address pressing social challenges by prototyping new tools in areas outside our established programs as well as better serving and empowering our current user communities. Lastly, we want to go beyond what we can do on our own by igniting the larger tech community to engage in deploying technology for good. As a lifelong geek, I can’t imagine a more thrilling time to make this happen. I hope you join us!

Jim Fruchterman
Founder and CEO, Benetech

Monday, December 01, 2014

Ethics and Responsibility in Technology-for-Good: A Human-Centered Approach

Our networked world has advanced to a point where information technology is touching all aspects of society. The cost of prototyping and deploying new technology tools is now extremely low and data has the potential to accelerate social progress in areas ranging from poverty to human rights, education, health, and the environment. However, we have yet to come to grips with what is ethical and what the laws should be in relation to rapidly changing technologies.

Logo of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
This post originally appeared on the blog of the
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE)
Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT).
At Benetech, we regularly grapple with questions related to this issue. For instance, we ask, how can we harness the power of technology for positive social impact; and how can we mitigate the risks to privacy and civil rights posed by the age of big data? As engineers who want to do the right thing, we follow four general guidelines: first, when it comes to data and technology in the social sector, apply a human-centered approach; second, treat the people you want to help with respect; third, when working to protect vulnerable communities, follow the “do no harm” maxim; and finally, bridge communities and establish partnerships-for-good. Let me explain further. 
  • Context matters
Building technology solutions for the social sector isn’t purely an armchair exercise, based on the thrill of empowering people in principle. We first understand those we aspire to help and the real-world conditions in which they live and operate. We must also put our technology innovations into the users’ hands, see what actually works, and adapt as necessary. This iterative method helps us focus on building products that are responsive to real needs
  • Treat users as customers, not recipients of charity
People in challenging situations must invest their time and limited resources to improve their lives. Our role as technologists is to provide the tools that empower them to do so. Treating them as customers, rather than objects of charity, promotes their sense of ownership and self-agency as they use the tools that we develop to achieve their own goals.
  • When it comes to data, rights, and privacy, first do no harm
Vulnerable groups served by social justice organizations-such as victims of human rights abuse, refugees, LGBT individuals, or survivors of gender-based violence-deserve the same kind of respect for their sensitive information as citizens of wealthy countries expect for theirs. Having long supported human rights activists, we know the importance of confidentiality when working with victims and witnesses. For instance, Benetech’s Human Rights Program is focused on helping human rights practitioners, activists, and journalists uphold their commitments to protect and do no harm to the communities they serve. Our strong cryptography technology, Martus—a free, open source, secure information management tool-makes it easier for groups working with vulnerable populations keep the sensitive information they collect confidential.
  • Community and partnership are paramount
Technology only goes so far in creating social progress, but a galvanized community of partners and supporters who work together toward a greater good can generate lasting impact. Case in point: our accessible online library, Bookshare. Bookshare is the result of joint efforts of our partners in the education, technology, publishing, student, parent, and volunteer communities. Our technical tools by themselves don’t make change: it is these communities using our tools that create social good. As toolmakers, our ultimate impact is measured by what other people build with our tools.

In a world where the benefits of technology are still often limited to reaching the richest 1% or 5% of society, we are trilled to see a growing movement of engineers motivated to help humanity. As technologists with a focus on creating social good, we need to keep in mind principles of safety and ethics. While the context and the users may vary in each case, the principles of human-centered design and treating others as we would like to be treated remain the same. If we can keep these principles in mind, we can turn good ideas into proven solutions with lasting impact.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Accessible eBooks for Equal Opportunity

Kevin Leong was in kindergarten when he experienced an organic brain injury that forced him to relearn everything from walking to using the bathroom. For several years, he struggled in school because his vision was blurry and reading normal size print was grueling. He could no longer keep up with his peers in the classroom.

In the United States, there are all too many students like Kevin, who are denied equal opportunity to engage in the same curriculum as their peers without disabilities. One of their main challenges is that they do not have adequate access to educational materials that are necessary to learn and succeed in school.

In 2004, the United States passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requiring schools to provide special education services to eligible students. However, despite such efforts to implement programmes that level the educational playing field, a profound achievement gap persists between expected and actual performance of students with disabilities. For instance, about 40 per cent more eighth-grade students with disabilities are reading below the basic achievement level compared with peers without disabilities.

A significant factor in this gap has traditionally been a lack of complete and timely access to educational materials in alternate formats (like Braille, audio or magnified text) that suit readers with disabilities who cannot use standard print – such as those who are blind, cannot physically turn the pages of a book, or have learning disabilities like dyslexia. Although legal and regulatory requirements stipulate that schools must provide accessible ‘equivalent’ resources for students with disabilities, in practice the majority of these students do not have equal access to textbooks and other instructional materials that make up the primary resources of the general curriculum.

Bookshare student member Kevin Leong sitting outdoors, reading on an iPad.
Accessible ebooks and Bookshare have helped sixth grader
Kevin Leong overcome his reading challenges.
The good news is that major changes in technology are reforming education. In particular, electronic books (or e-books) offer the possibility of dramatically improving access for students with disabilities – and for disadvantaged children everywhere. This is because e-books (unlike traditional print) can easily be rendered in many different ways and presented in the format that best suits one’s needs. E-books, therefore, make access to information an affordable reality, as more and more people, including students, have a device in their pocket capable of operating as an accessible e-reader: from inexpensive mobile phones and MP3 players to Braille note-takers that can store thousands of e-books in digital Braille. It is our collective responsibility to continue unlocking the potential of the e-book to bring equal access to knowledge and learning for all.

Consider how the accessible online library Bookshare – an initiative of Benetech, a Silicon Valley non-profit that builds technology solutions addressing social problems – is transforming the lives of American students with print disabilities.

Thanks to e-book technology, Bookshare today serves over 300,000 students with a collection of more than 300,000 accessible books – the world’s largest library of its kind. When students with disabilities need books for school or simply want to read the same books as their peers without disabilities, they are likely to find that e-book in Bookshare and able to download it in the format of their choice to use at school, at home or elsewhere. Moreover, these accessible books are available for free, since the United States Government funds the Bookshare library to meet requirements in national disability rights and education laws.

For American students with disabilities – including Kevin, who is an active and enthusiastic Bookshare member – the availability of accessible books means staying on top of their schoolwork, and that leads to increased self-esteem.

The Bookshare library is made possible by a copyright exception: Section 121 of the United States Copyright Act, also known as the Chafee Amendment. This exception allows authorized non-profit entities like Benetech to create accessible versions of copyrighted books without the need to request permission from publishers (or pay a royalty), and then to distribute these versions exclusively to people with qualifying disabilities who cannot use regular books. Roughly 1–2 per cent of students in the United States meet these requirements. Students outside the United States are not covered by this national copyright exception, because every country has its own copyright law.

Yet, accessible e-books could be helping millions more students in the United States and worldwide. What can be done today to build this accessible tomorrow?

First, it is critical to keep engaging in legal advocacy for ratification of two landmark United Nations disability treaties. The first is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)—a vital framework for creating legislation and policies embracing the rights and dignity of all people with disabilities. The other is the recently adopted Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled – an international copyright treaty that would make a copyright exception for people with disabilities a global norm and allow sharing of accessible books across national borders.

In addition, it is essential to ensure that all newly created digital content is made accessible from the outset. All e-books should have an audio capacity, using whatever smartphone or music playing device a person has in their pocket. Good design can and should be accessible design. Instead of one-size-fits-all, forcing all students and educators to work within the limitations of a single approach, it will then be possible to adapt content and technology to meet the learning needs of each student. With this universal design approach, e-books that meet the needs of students with disabilities simply work better for everyone.

This is a critical and hopeful moment, as major shifts in the publishing and technology industries will make it possible to realize a vision of equal opportunity and quality education for all the world’s children.

###
This essay originally appeared in UNICEF's The State of the World's Children 2015.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Gift of Reading, a Circle of Life

“Frank” (who anonymously shared his story with us) has always been an avid reader, but the progression of his neuromuscular disease to his arms made reading difficult. Eventually he had to ask others to turn pages for him. It became a burden to his family and caregivers to constantly drop what they were doing to turn a page, so he began seeking out ebooks. Few were available, and he had trouble with the ones that were: they’d often be in a format that didn’t work well with his voice recognition software.

This reality changed when Frank found out about Benetech’s Bookshare accessible digital library for people with print disabilities. “Suddenly I had thousands upon thousands of books available to me,” he says, “at a price I could afford, in a format I could read independently. And the best part? I could request books not already in the collection, and sometimes my wish would be granted. I began a reading binge. Many of the books were ones I already had on my shelves, gathering dust because I couldn’t pick them up.”

A pile of unbound books on a desk, adjacent to a scanner, with a chopped book being scanned.Frank’s story exemplifies the life-changing power of access to information and reading. It also demonstrates how each ebook that is added to the Bookshare collection is a brick in our members’ foundation of independence and inclusion. That’s why a group of Benetech supporters recently came together to give the gift of reading in honor of our long-time board member Jim Kleckner. Jim recently lost his father, retired ophthalmologist James Franklin Kleckner.

We decided to create the James Franklin In Memoriam collection, with a focus on science and technology books written for the lay audience. First we identified the titles we wanted to add—all requested by Bookshare non-student members, including some of the best science books of 2013 as reported by NPR’s Science Friday show. Then, with help from our Director of Content Acquisition Robin Seaman, we were grateful to receive nearly half of the books on our initial list directly from some of our publisher partners:
We could therefore use the donated funds to scan a dozen more books, so they can be converted into accessible formats:
It was a rewarding project that took us to many wonderful recommendation sources. I’d like to extend thanks to Jim Kleckner for everything he has done for Benetech over the years; to our generous donors, who have made this collection in honor of Jim’s late father possible; and to Carol James, our Digital Collection Development Manager, and the entire Collection Development team for their great work ensuring the donated books are processed and now creating more of the “read now” experience for our Bookshare members. They are the one who understand best what it means to have any one of these books available to them on the library’s virtual shelves, anytime, anywhere.

Today the majority of Bookshare’s ebooks come straight in the form of digital files from our socially minded publisher partners, but each year we expand the library by scanning and proofreading thousands of titles not made digitally available to us, as well as books of personal interest requested by our members. Without this service, Bookshare would not be the resource it is today. To continue this work, we depend on the support of generous donors.

A child holding a marker and writing on a whiteboard, set as background. On the front, the words "Today you can make a difference!" appear (the word "you" in bold), with the Skoll Foundation's logo and the URL crowdrise.com/skoll.With a gift of just $50, we can add a new ebook to the Bookshare collection, making that book available to hundreds of thousands of Bookshare members with disabilities. As a nonprofit, Benetech builds the impact of our programs and initiatives dollar-by-dollar, which is why a gift of any amount will make a difference towards ensuring that people with print disabilities have the books they need for their education, employment, and inclusion in society.

You can now give the gift of reading by joining Benetech’s fundraiser campaign as part of the Skoll Foundation’s second annual Skoll Social Entrepreneurs Challenge—a fundraising campaign committed to strengthening the capacity of organizations like ours to accelerate impact on some of the most critical issues of our time.

To help now, please visit Benetech’s Challenge campaign and give whatever you can. With the Skoll Foundation’s support, your gift will have far more impact on our users around the world.

Thanks so much for your help!

This post originally appeared on the Benetech Blog.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Welcome, Mark Roberts!

After an intensive search period, I’m delighted to share that Benetech recently appointed seasoned executive Mark Roberts as our Vice President of Engineering. Mark is former Senior Vice President of Engineering, Consumer Products, and Operations at TiVo Inc. He’s leading the development, testing, and deployment of Benetech’s tools and services across all its program areas.

Headshot of Benetech VP of Engineering, Mark Roberts.
We’re thrilled to have Mark join us in this leadership role. With his proven execution in scaling business systems and infrastructures that shaped the growth of award-winning service products for multiple high profile Silicon Valley technology companies, he has the perfect pedigree to spearhead engineering at Benetech as we continue to innovate in the technology-for-good space.

Until 2011, Mark spent twelve years growing and developing TiVo. Under his leadership, TiVo’s engineering team received many awards for technical innovation, including an Emmy and several CES Best of Show, and the company was in the top 1% of fastest growing stocks on NASDAQ over a five-year period. Most recently, he served two roles at Next Issue Media, a magazine service platform founded by five global publishers (Rogers, Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, and Time Inc.) that designs, develops, markets, and delivers interactive magazine content to consumers through the digital device of their choice. As Vice President of Service Operations and CMS Web Development and General Manager of the Canadian MSO (Management Services Organization) partner, Mark saw the company through rapid subscription growth.

You can learn more about Mark and what led him to Benetech from his bio on the Benetech site.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Join Benetech in the Skoll Foundation’s 2014 Social Entrepreneurs Challenge!

Zach Bryant loves reading non-fiction. This wasn’t always the case, though. Zach has Cerebral Palsy, which causes movement and coordination problems, and which keeps him from speaking and walking. To communicate his thoughts, he uses an alternative augmentative communication device. Tasks like turning a printed page are difficult for him, which makes reading standard print discouraging. According to his mom, this experience is common to children with Cerebral Palsy. “They get frustrated and don’t want to read,” she says, “but access to digital books and reading technologies changed all that for Zach.”

Bookshare member Zach Bryant, wearing college graduation cap and gown, seen sitting in a wheelchair.
Zach Bryant
The change happened when Zach was in high school and his Assistive Technology teacher introduced him to Benetech’s Bookshare library. With Bookshare’s accessible ebooks and reading tools, Zach made a successful transition to college. When our team last caught up with him, he was a busy student at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, rejoicing in his ability to read independently and reach his full potential. “Without Bookshare, my academic life would have been much harder for me and my caregivers,” he said. “It’s amazing that I can find most books I want in the Bookshare collection, even post-secondary textbooks, and no one has to scan them for me. I don’t wait for my books for new classes; I search the library and find them myself.”

Zach’s encounter with accessible ebooks is but one example of how Benetech empowers people who often face difficult challenges and whose needs are neglected. Our software tools change the ways in which individuals with disabilities can effectively read; enable frontline human rights defenders to safely document abuse; and support environmental practitioners in their efforts to protect species and ecosystems.

Our work is made possible thanks to the generosity of our supporters. To continue to provide our services, and to explore new ways in which targeted technological applications could address unmet needs of disadvantaged communities, we definitely need your help.

Please join us in the Skoll Foundation’s second annual Skoll Social Entrepreneurs Challenge—a fundraising campaign committed to strengthening the capacity of organizations like ours to accelerate impact on some of the most critical issues of our time.

Hosted on the Crowdrise platform, the Challenge launched today, October 27, and runs through December 5th. We are competing against other participating organizations—and racing against the clock—to raise funds and secure matching funding from the Skoll Foundation. We build our tech-for-good products and reach dollar-by-dollar, and therefore every gift makes a difference for the people we serve. Now, with the Skoll Foundation’s matching support, your gift will have far more impact!

Logo of the Skoll Foundation's Social Entrepreneurs Challenge.
To help now, please visit Benetech’s Challenge campaign and give whatever you can. Here are some examples of what we can accomplish with your contribution:
Join us, and together we can realize the potential of technology to make the world a better place for everyone. Thank you for your support!

This post also appeared on the Benetech blog.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Team-Up for Textbooks: Volunteer to Help Students with Disabilities

The new school year is in full swing, yet across the U.S., all too many students with print disabilities might not have the textbooks they need for class. To meet that need, the Benetech Volunteer Program is piloting a new initiative—and we’re inviting you to join us!

When a Bookshare student member with a print disability needs a book for school that is not yet in the Bookshare collection, the member submits a request and Bookshare creates an accessible digital version of that book. However, students often don’t know what books they need until the first days of school—a hectic time when Bookshare receives thousands of book requests. During this time, the process of making a textbook accessible can take from 8-12 weeks, with proofreading being the most time-intensive and costly component. Meanwhile, students with print disabilities risk falling behind in school as they wait for the books they need.

Volunteers can now help fulfill students’ book requests faster during periods of peak demand by joining Benetech’s newest volunteer initiative: Team-Up for Textbooks.

Volunteers seated in a conference room at Benetech's offices during a Team-Up for Textbooks kickoff event.
Our wonderful volunteers kicking off the Team-Up for Textbooks initiative
Here’s the idea: through targeted outreach to parents, schools, and community partners, our staff members are recruiting volunteer teams to proofread student requested textbooks. Together, we can not only speed up the delivery of needed textbooks, but also build awareness to strengthen the web of support for students with disabilities. Each volunteer effort makes a difference for a student with a disability today while also creating a lasting resource that will support students for years to come!

To learn more and get involved, please submit the Team-Up for Textbooks volunteer form or contact our staff via email: volunteer [at] Bookshare.org. Thank you for your support!