Monday, September 01, 2014

Master Class on Creating Startup Tech Social Enterprises

I'm looking forward to teaching a Master Class at San Francisco's Presidio Graduate School on September 18th. Current Presidio MBA student and Benetech team member Julie Noblitt wrote a generous blog post about the master class last week.  Julie is not our only connection to Presidio: alum Kristina Pappas runs International Bookshare for Benetech.  Should be exciting to interact with more Presidio students!

My goal is to give attendees (in addition to Presidio students and alums, this class is also open to the public) an inside look at how Benetech analyzes new tech social enterprises.  Julie and Aaron Firestone, our Director of Business Development, will be helping take attendees through key questions about a new tech social enterprise.  We'll be using one of the projects in our current Benetech Labs pipeline, or perhaps a project proposed by one of the students (the deadline to suggest something is this Friday, September 5th).

I've been thinking about this class for months, and recently wrote up a blog post on how we unlock technology-for-good that covers our approach to new projects in our Labs. Hope to have a chance to dig deeper in just a couple of weeks!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Exploring Data for Impact

The world is undergoing a data revolution, and the social sector is no exception. Mobile devices are breaking down the barriers to direct connections to staff, volunteers, clients, partners, communities, and the general public. Social enterprises are collecting more and more data: data about social problems; data about intervention outcomes; data for collective impact; data for learning; data for dashboards to better operate their enterprises; data for funders; and the list goes on. Yet, social enterprises aren’t typically made up of data geeks. They desperately need to use data better and multiply its impact, but they rarely have the skills or infrastructure to do so effectively.

A significant, but neglected, issue is the ethics of data collection and storage. As data collection becomes easier and more widespread, we must remember that so much of the important humanitarian information collected by social enterprises is sensitive. Information about corruption, human rights violations, or individually identifiable data—such as HIV status, experience of violence, age, sex, ethnic origin, political party, medical information, refugee status, sexual orientation, and more—should not fall into the wrong hands. It must be protected from governments, organized crime, and others who may misuse it. As this sensitive data is increasingly stored for long periods of time, we also need to worry about misuse in the future.

So the question arises: how can we use technology to help social entrepreneurs collect and use their data more effectively and securely?

Logo for Benetech Labs.
We are exploring this in Benetech Labs , where, together with our partners, we examine the viability of new software-for-good projects, prototype, and test new applications with the potential to deliver large-scale benefits to society. Imagine the impact on social entrepreneurs and their good work if they could easily design and build their own lightweight mobile data collection apps!

The solution we have been exploring is a semi-customized, open source, secure, data collection and analysis application that makes it easier for social sector users to safely gather and use information more efficiently. It will allow organizations to go online and design a mobile app that pulls together the information they need, all with customized branding. For more advanced app requirements, they would start with their application 90-95% done already on the platform. Because it’s all open source, they could then engage any technology group of their choice to customize it to their particular needs.

This app will be built on Benetech’s strongly secure Martus technology stack, which is free and open source and has provided end-to-end encryption for human rights groups and activists for the past ten years. The power of open source means that we work with and build upon best-of-breed technology components, such as strong crypto libraries, the Tor anonymity tool, and others.

How can one app address the requirements of multiple social enterprises? That’s because, on average, when you look at the data collection challenges of social enterprises, they can be tackled in a strikingly similar way, although they may seem to be quite different to the end user.

At this year’s Skoll WorldForum on Social Entrepreneurship, I spoke with a dozen social entrepreneurs, including eight recipients of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, about their need for different mobile data apps to improve their work. Although they each thought their app need was unique, each one was 90-95% the same. The request went like this:
I need an Android application for collecting certain important information, as text/surveys/videos/pictures, from staff/contractors/whistleblowers/clients/the public that I can upload to a server so we can respond/analyze/put on a map/put into a progress report.
Logo for the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.
Whether it’s Global Witness securely collecting field research on corruption, Fundación Paraguaya’s Poverty Stoplight system having microfinance borrowers assess their own poverty by looking at a pictorial questionnaire on fifty poverty indicators, or Verité’s field inspection teams questioning factory workers about working conditions—the similarity in need is clear. These are all relatively simple data collection problems that require strong security, a relatively simple user interface, and a back end that allows for robust data analysis. Although they look quite different to the end user, under the hood and on the back end the technical solutions to these problems are basically the same.

In fact, a secure mobile app for data collection is merely the beginning. It’s the back end and shared tools that can that truly deliver the benefits of collecting data at scale. Whether it is gathering targets for rapid response, understanding progress against key indicators, looking for patterns in the data that illuminate major challenges, or putting important data on a map to more easily visualize the scope of a social problem, it’s clear that shared tools will lower the barrier to understanding data in the social sector and thus to maximizing social impact.

Although we’re talking about data, what truly is at stake is giving individuals a voice. Traditional aid and charity tend to be unidirectional: the voice of the beneficiary is rarely heard from. The essence of the social entrepreneurial approach is the partnership between the social entrepreneur and the community she or he serves. Technology lowers the cost of and barriers to listening to the voice of individuals in disadvantaged communities, responding to their needs, and aggregating large amounts of data to measure overall effectiveness and shape policy interventions. We think this is about shifting power towards these individuals and communities in positive, effective ways. We can do this while respecting the privacy and personal rights of the people and communities we serve.

I left the Skoll World Forum with a bigger than usual smile: there’s an opportunity here for technology to make a lasting contribution to society. I invite you to join us as we continue to explore the next steps towards realizing this exciting software-for-good solution!

This post also appeared on Benetech's Blog.

Monday, August 04, 2014

How Open Source Sparks Innovation and Advances Social Good

Adopting an open source philosophy has proven to be quite effective for us at Benetech in our work furthering technology-for-good. I recently had the opportunity to give an interview for Red Hat’s online magazine, Opensource.com, and discuss Benetech’s culture of “open.”

Logo for online magazine Opensource.com.
I describe the open source tools Benetech builds; clarify why it is important that cybersecurity tools in particular are open; explain how Benetech’s culture of “open” shapes its product development as well as broadly serves its social mission; and reflect on the reasons why the open source ethos is well suited for creating social impact.

Ultimately, we believe that open source is more about transparency and innovation than about releasing software. Being transparent leads to the best possible outcomes from our work and helps us further our mission goals. The open source methodology also helps stimulate innovation. It allows us to build and improve upon the knowledge of predecessors, as well as to make knowledge available for future users and developers. We always ask ourselves how we can apply technology in new ways to improve people’s lives, and we believe that the open source model helps spark creativity and more technology-for-good ventures.

You can read the complete interview on Opensource.com.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Thank You, Gerardo!

The Benetech team has just bid goodbye to VP of Engineering Gerardo Capiel, who is moving on to his next adventure. A passionate technology-for-good advocate, Gerardo has made major contributions to Benetech’s social mission since he joined us over four years ago. As we are getting ready to welcome a new VP of Engineering, I’d like to acknowledge and thank Gerardo for his many contributions and their lasting impact on the lives of the people we serve.

Gerardo helped Benetech dramatically increase our capacity to benefit larger populations by scaling our services, revamping our innovation process, and establishing a thriving network of industry partners and volunteers. He oversaw the development of numerous products and services that allow us to drive social empowerment through technology across all our programs. He also championed an open source ethos so that our work can be broadly shared (you can view all our open source projects on GitHub). Gerardo’s contributions related to the Benetech Global Literacy Program include:
  • Overseeing the building of the tech infrastructure that has taken Bookshare from serving tens of thousands of members to over 300,000 members, with a rapidly growing collection of 280,000+ accessible ebooks.
  • Leading the engineering team behind an expanding portfolio of Global Literacy products and initiatives, such as:
    • Route66, our online instructional literacy program for adolescent and adult beginning readers;
    • The Poet image description tool;
    • Read2Go, the bestselling accessible ebook reader app for iPhones and iPads, and Go Read, the equivalent Android app;
    • MathML Cloud, a cloud-based app that automatically creates accurate images and image descriptions of mathematical expressions, while retaining the detailed math markup for reference;
    • Major new features and formats for Bookshare,  including audio versions of our ebooks; Spanish text-to-speech; web-based reading and organizational tools, and more. 
Former Benetech VP of Engineering speaking with team members during a brainstorming session in Benetech offices.
Gerardo during a brainstorming session in Benetech offices
  • Advising to and leading Benetech’s collaboration with standards organizations and groups that advance the field of accessibility in education, such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the DAISY Consortium. These efforts helped drive Benetech’s new work on accessible widgets, experiments with scalable vector graphics (an open standard for rendering graphics in web browser, developed by W3C), annotation as a tool for accessibility, and more.
  • Overseeing the Accessibility Metadata Project, with which we led a collaborative effort to develop standards for accessibility metadata. As Gerardo explained in a recent blog post, Schema.org—the organization that keeps a list of agreed-upon tags that all search engines can use in common—adopted our proposed standards, so that search engine users can refine their searches to easily find accessible learning resources online.
  • Inspiring hacker-led efforts to collaboratively experiment to advance the field of accessibly in education through initiative such as an accessibility sprint with OERPub, or work on MathML protocol handler.
Additionally, Gerardo helped conceive our major new effort to ignite new tech social enterprise through Benetech Labs. Select examples of Labs initiatives in which he was instrumental include:
  • SocialCoding4Good, a major tech volunteerism initiative bridging the open source software, nonprofit, and corporate tech communities. SocialCoding4Good connects software developer professionals from companies like VMware, HP, and Google to volunteer their time and technical talent to open source social good projects at Benetech and our peers, including the Mifos Initiative, Wikimedia Foundation, Medic Mobile, and Mozilla.
  • Clean Water Project, an effort to strengthen the capacity of Latin American clean water organizations through enhanced data platforms.
Gerardo has shared many of his presentations on these and other topics, which are available via SlideShare.

On behalf of the Benetech team, thank you, Gerardo, for the immense impact you helped us create in the lives of multitudes around the world, and for establishing Benetech in such a strong position to create more impact than ever in the coming years!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Road to Accessibility without Borders: Celebrating the One-Year Anniversary of the Marrakesh Treaty

One year ago, on June 28, 2013, at a diplomatic conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) agreed on a historic international copyright exception for people with print disabilities. Hailed as “the Miracle in Marrakesh,” the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled paves the way to expanding access to books for people with print disabilities and provides the necessary legal framework for authorized organizations, like Benetech and our Bookshare initiative, to deliver those books across international borders.

Stevie Wonder standing holding a microphone, smiling
As a long-time advocate for a global copyright exception and the founder of Benetech—which I started twenty-five years ago in order to make technology tools to address the needs of people with print disabilities—I was thrilled to become an active player in global diplomacy and witness the adoption and signing of this landmark Treaty. I have previously written about the top issues addressed by the Treaty, but to recap, the Treaty is a wonderful instrument because it requires exceptions for people who are blind or have other print disabilities in national copyright laws. As a result, the Treaty closely follows the Chafee Amendment, which is the copyright exception that has made Bookshare possible in the United States. During the diplomatic conference, Bookshare was the most-cited model of what other countries could hope to achieve with the Treaty.

The Treaty also aims to free up cross-border access to books that serve people with print disabilities, which will make it possible for libraries like Bookshare both to deliver our entire collection directly to people with print disabilities living in other countries and receive more content, in more languages, for Americans from sources outside of the United States.

Thus far, more than 75 countries have signed the Treaty, and in June India became the first country to ratify it. This is a major step forward and is especially exciting for Benetech, as we have an active Bookshare presence in India, where we have developed strong relationships with key organizations such as Saksham Trust (New Delhi), Xavier's Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (Mumbai), the Worth Trust (Chennai) and other groups associated with the DAISY Forum of India.

We hope that many other countries will follow India’s ratification. The Treaty will take effect only after 20 ratifications are presented to WIPO. Its signature period has now ended. Going forward, new countries that want to abide by the Treaty provisions would need to directly ratify it. In order to ratify the Treaty, the ratifying country must have in its own copyright legislation the minimum standards that are in the Treaty. As part of the celebrations around the first anniversary of the Marrakesh Treaty, WIPO launched the Accessible Books Consortium, to help increase global capacity to deliver books to people with print disabilities.

We certainly have plenty to celebrate on the first anniversary of the signing of the Treaty, but the road towards equal accessibility for all is still long and there is much that remains to be done. First, WIPO, with a mandate from its member nations, is working to address the need to change national laws and get more accessible books flowing—a process that will take a long time. There are also multiple issues that are yet to be negotiated, such as the commercial availability condition, that is, the question of whether the ability to exercise an exception or limitation to prepare a copy of a book in specialized format for those with print disabilities should depend on whether the material was commercially available in that format.

In his lecture at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society on April 23, 2014, law professor Justin Hughes, chief negotiator for the United States for the Marrakesh Treaty, indeed emphasized the arduous journey ahead:
I do think that [the Treaty] is somewhat of a paradigm shift in the intellectual property context, but the real policy goal, the real thing we should care about is getting educational, cultural, informational materials into the hands of persons with print disabilities. And when you sign the treaty, you haven’t succeeded. Success is when the person in Panama has access to 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 titles; success is when the blind person in Durban has access to all the books that the blind person in Denver has access to […] The miracle comes when I know that the 300 million people around the world with significant visual impairments are getting more access to books.
On the bright side here in the United States, it’s now fully accepted that making accessible versions of books for people with print disabilities is lawful based on fair use, as has been recently affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Authors Guild v. HathiTrust. Furthermore, the accessibility community can work together to prepare the ground for providing accessible books for people around the world. That’s why Benetech is looking forward to continuing to collaborate with publishers, content creators, libraries, leaders in the technology sector, and key groups in the disability and accessibility movement, like the World Blind Union, as we support the ratification and implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty both around the world and in the United States.

Access to written materials and education is not a privilege, but a basic human right—fundamental to personal, economic, and social development. I hope you join us as we advance this global right and work towards making the Marrakesh Treaty as successful as possible, so that it can empower people with print disabilities—particularly those in developing countries—to live fuller lives based on equal access to knowledge.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Martus 4.5: Lowering the Barrier to Better Information Security through Strong Crypto

Last week, the Benetech Human Rights Program released version 4.5 of Martus—our free, open source, secure information collection and management software—which includes major updates and usability improvements. Our goal is to make it far easier for groups that work with vulnerable populations keep the sensitive information they collect confidential. Having long supported human rights activists, we know the importance of confidentiality when working with victims and witnesses.

The biggest highlight of this release is that Martus 4.5 can now be configured in less than 10 minutes by anyone with basic digital literacy skills, so that even less tech-savvy users can easily and quickly implement Martus’ secure documentation capabilities with distributed backup. Martus 4.5 features a new Configuration Wizard for account setup, offering fresh look-and-feel and greatly improved user experience. Additionally, major enhancements to its architecture simplify the secure backup, sharing, and distribution of information to trusted partners.

Screenshot of the new Configuration Wizard for Martus account setup, available with the newly released version 4.5 of Martus.
Martus 4.5 can now be configured in less than 10 minutes
by anyone with basic digital literacy skills
I’d like to thank everyone on the Benetech team who has worked on this release, and express our gratitude to our programmatic partners and financial supporters who made it possible.

We’re very excited about Martus 4.5. We see it as a milestone in our continuing effort to better serve our current users as well as the larger community involved in human rights documentation, including journalists and citizen reporters. Our goal is to make the defenders of human rights stronger in their fight against injustice and abuse, and to help them uphold their commitments to protect and do no harm to the communities they serve. You can read more about Martus 4.5 in the post by our VP of Human Rights Enrique Piracés on Benetech’s Blog.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Reimagining the Power of One Billion Dollars

“What would you do with a billion dollars to combat economic inequality?” asked Chris Anderson, head of TED, at the closing session of this year’s conference. More specifically: “how would you audaciously reinvest that amount of money to best help the world’s 3.5 billion poorest people?” he probed.
Having just heard the new director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito, present the Labs’ latest approach to innovation—“Deploy or Die”—I was inspired to answer the question.

Bottom-Up Innovation

Joi’s new motto underscores the need for more than just tech demos to change the world. To make them truly count, we must put our technology innovations into the hands of real people and see what actually works.
Technology has advanced to a point where it is easy to do so. Whether it’s software, hardware, or even biotech, the cost of prototyping and deploying new tools, then adapting them and iterating, is now extremely low.
As I previously described in a Huffington Post op-ed, it was then that the idea struck me. What if we applied Joi’s agile, bottom-up innovation approach to the global development challenge posed by Chris? What if we invest philanthropic capital in creating products that are geared towards the underprivileged, in their customer-focused deployment, and in scaling those tools that prove to work best?
I believe such an investment in technology-for-good innovations could open up new frontiers for tackling the toughest problems of the world’s poorest populations, from poverty to disease to social injustice. Let me explain. 
What could a billion dollars do?
For one, it could scale Joi Ito’s approach by creating a Media Lab-style network whose goal would be to build and deploy hundreds of technology solutions customized to the needs of the bottom billions of humanity. We’d pick projects that had the opportunity for a five- or 10-fold improvement in results, or might revolutionize the way people do something. The solutions that catch fire with their intended users would then be scaled up.
Why is this idea exciting? Because it inverts the power structure and pushes innovation to the edges. By making technology applications suitable and relevant to the lives of the world’s poorest people, we can advance a future in which everyone has a fair shot at sharing in the abundance created by today’s accelerating technologies.
Moreover, since the nature of technology is such that it comes instrumented for measurement, this approach also supports the development of best practices in the delivery of social outcomes, which is essential in order to create meaningful, lasting change. 

The Innovation Bucket List

Based on conversations I’ve had with groups dedicated to applying innovative solutions to the needs of the bottom half of humanity, here is a very partial list of what we could possibly do:
  • Exposing corruption: Help the fight against large-scale public corruption, which is so damaging to the poor, by marshaling the power of citizens to shine light on corrupt anonymous corporations and their beneficial owners—one of the goals of this year’s TED Prize Winner, Global Witness’ Charmian Gooch.
  • Self-assessment for the poor: Empower the poor to improve their lives with a simple assessment tool, the Poverty Stoplight, invented in Paraguay that helps them assess their poverty with 50 simple questions with three pictures showing the possible answers. This empowers each individual to set his or her own priorities rather than one-size-fits-all aid programs.
  • Empower Medical Paraprofessionals: Ensure that a simple tool providing step-by-step medical emergency instructions was in the hands of every medical paraprofessional on the planet, saving untold lives in developing countries.
  • Solve the problem of access to printed information by the worlds blind: By putting the right tools into the hands of this traditionally underserved population, we could ensure that blindness is no longer a barrier to education, employment or social inclusion.

Technology for Good

The list could go on and on. These ideas aren’t mine: they are the ideas that come to our team at Benetech, a Silicon Valley nonprofit technology company that I founded.
We build software applications focused exclusively on addressing unmet social needs and see hundreds of ideas for tech applications for good for each one that we can create. Imagine how many millions of lives would be improved—even transformed—if the technology-for-good movement had the freedom to build and deploy hundreds of best-of-breed products specifically designed to address these complex social problems.
Now is the time to apply an agile approach to innovation—Joi Ito’s “Deploy or Die” at scale, if you will—to social sector problems. For in this After Internet era, as Joi calls it, information technology is touching all aspects of society. Every area—whether health, poverty, education, human rights or the environment—is now information technology and thus can be improved with the right technology tools.

Innovate, Connect, Adapt

Now don’t get me wrong: technology alone is no panacea for humanity’s toughest problems. And building technology solutions for the social sector isn’t purely an office-desk business based on the thrill of empowering people in principle.
Years of working closely with partners on the ground in often-difficult situations –including people with disabilities and at-risk human rights defenders – have taught us that we must get out there and truly understand the people we aspire to help and the contexts in which they live and operate. We must also treat our beneficiaries as customers and partners in social change, not as passive recipients of charity.
These principles themselves—innovate, connect and adapt—aren’t new. They are at the core of the Silicon Valley venture world and the technology revolution. What’s new and timely is the opportunity to apply them globally with philanthropic support by making technology suitable and relevant to the lives of the world’s most underprivileged communities.
What if we brought the power that creates so much wealth in the tech community to bear on the inequality challenge? If we can do that, it could be the best and most powerful billion dollars ever spent!

This post originally appeared on CSRwire TalkBack.