Friday, April 18, 2014

Work on the Biggest Social Challenges of Our Time!

Are you motivated by the power of technology as a force for good that can directly help the world’s poorest communities thrive? Do you believe ours could be a world in which the benefits of technology touch the lives of all people, not just the wealthiest and most able five percent of humanity? Are you driven to make a real difference from a leadership position in the open source community, at the heart of Silicon Valley and at the unique intersection of technology and social change?

Are you willing to work on delivering maximum good for humanity, rather than maximum profits? 

Then read on: we might just have the perfect job opportunity for you.

Benetech is seeking a Vice President of Engineering to spearhead and expand our team of technologists committed to delivering social good at scale. We’re a nonprofit technology company on a mission to address unmet social needs by providing targeted software tools and services to groups left underserved by the market, such as human rights activists and students with learning differences. We’re passionate, agile, and growing, and we need you: an accomplished, entrepreneurial technology leader motivated by creating lasting impact for the betterment of society.

You’ll be responsible for the overall development, testing, and deployment of new technology in all of our multi-issue initiatives, but you’ll need to transcend the technology requirements alone. Success in this position means you have built and delivered products that have scaled in the marketplace, understand the ins-and-outs of the technology sector, and are able to foster collaborative environments between diverse groups and organizations.

We’re looking for an innovator who can help us strengthen Benetech’s reputation, recruit the greatest talent to enhance our team, cultivate and forge new relationships with partners, funders, and technologists, and guide our growing community of open source developer volunteers.

Do you like taking on big challenges? We’ve got plenty of them for you to tackle. Here’s a taste of what’s on the plate at Benetech:
  • Promoting Internet freedom by building and deploying strongly encrypted, open source tools for human rights groups and journalists;
  • Advancing equal education by helping students with disabilities and learning differences read and succeed at school;
  • Improving access to clean water for some of the world’s poorest communities by supporting community based organizations with the right technical tools.

We also offer great salary by nonprofit standards and annual bonuses, but do understand that we aren’t able to match what Silicon Valley for-profit technology companies can provide. If you’re looking to get rich, this isn’t the right job for you. You have to be someone who’s motivated above all else by the opportunity to work on high-impact software applications with extraordinary social return on investment.

Other perks we offer include:

  • Excellent employee benefits;
  • Work-life balance;
  • The ability to directly improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world (and, with your help, millions).
If you ever wondered how you could have a job in the technology sector that truly helped the people who most need technology but are the least able to afford it;

If you ever wondered how you could personally work on the biggest social challenges of our time;

And if you ever got frustrated by having to abandon a great idea that could help entire communities just because it didn’t generate enough profit —

Then this is your moment. Check out the job description for more details and throw your hat in the ring. Join our team and help us make more impact than ever!

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Librarian of Marrakesh

One of the joys of my role is meeting other social sector leaders: people with a powerful passion for good.  We learn from each other, and try to help each other when we can. 

Smiling, seated woman.
Jamila Hassoune
Ten years ago, I started corresponding with a fascinating woman from Morocco, Jamila Hassoune.  Over time, I learned more and more about her work and background.  She was the first woman bookseller in Morocco.  Her love for books led her to create the Book Caravans: treks each April out to a village in the desert or the mountains of Morocco.  She would bring books especially for children and women, and conduct a couple of days of workshops on wide-ranging topics about enterprise, culture, history, poetry and books.

Over the time I corresponded with Jamila by email, she started becoming better known in Europe.  One Italian book was written about her entitled the "La libraia di Marrakech," the Librarian of Marrakesh.

Last year, I was able to meet Jamila in person in Marrakesh, while I was there for the negotiations on the Treaty for People who are Blind or Print Disabled.  We had a great conversation, and I learned much more about her dreams for doing more for the people of Morocco.  She's very proud of her country, and thinks that her fellow Moroccans need to know more about their culture and history.  And, she wants to improve access to education, economic opportunity and of course, books, for all Moroccans, but most especially women!

I believe strongly in social entrepreneurs who understand their own society.  Jamila is a well educated and well read leader with a vision.  It's not the vision of an American or European trying to help Morocco, hers is the vision of a Moroccan who sees what needs to be done and how to do it!

After all of these years, I now know that Jamila has been working hard on these issues, with minimal supports, as a very dedicated social entrepreneur.  She has a new vision of doing even more than the book caravans: she wants to build a new kind of school and ecologically sound social enterprise at an oasis in Morocco, which would include a museum about Moroccan culture.  It's a big set of goals, but she's pulled off the improbable before! 

I know that she would benefit from more help: she's asked me if I know how she could get more volunteers to assist her with her work.  She would welcome English-speaking volunteers.  And though she doesn't ask, I'm sure she could use more donors, too.

So, if you're reading this and get excited about Jamila's approach, figure out a way to support her efforts.

Friday, March 28, 2014

New Ideas at TED2014

I just returned from a spectacular week at this year’s TED conference in Vancouver, Canada. TED gives me the chance to brainstorm with loads of people who gather to discuss ways to change the world through technology and design. Beyond debating the stimulating topics of major talks—such as Edward Snowden’s appearance by telepresence robot and the response to it by Rick Ledgett, the Deputy Director of the NSA—I spent much of my time speaking about my favorite topic: technology for social good. Of course, that included getting new ideas for software for social good!

Idea One: Tackle Indoor Pollution 

First, I sat down with the controversial Bjorn Lomberg, also known as the “Skeptical Environmentalist.” Bjorn has gotten a lot of attention for his recommendations to combat climate change by focusing on improved humanitarian efforts. As an economist, he stresses the need to quantify the impact of humanitarian interventions: for instance, whether a certain effort will bring $59 of benefit for every dollar in, or only $4. I asked him what his top priorities were, and he chose two:
  • Improving indoor air pollution. Old-fashioned cooking methods kill millions each year. Cooking a meal shouldn’t be fatal: clean-burning stoves, as well as clean fuels and energy all help combat this problem. 
  • Improving childhood nutrition. The lifelong impact of significant malnutrition on a child can be devastating. 
Since I’m a software guy, I asked about what software could do to help with these two real-world problems. Bjorn was a bit reluctant, but agreed on the proviso that we were just “spitballing,” brainstorming ideas without expectations that they would be thought through. He quickly came up with the idea of a mobile app that could show a woman the years of life expectancy she (or her family) will lose due to breathing the polluted air inside her dwelling. We kicked around ideas for sensing the air pollution: could you take a picture of a white piece of paper indoors and outdoors? Could you add an attachment to the phone that could sense the pollution?

Will such an app work? If it worked, would it lead to behavior change that would save lives? We didn’t know, but it wouldn’t be that difficult to try out. Moreover, if you could accelerate shifts away from unsafe cooking practices, you might have a terrific return on social investment. Worth some thought: I’ll stick that idea into the Benetech Labs hopper!

Idea Two: Disrupting the Prevention of Blindness in Rural Communities 

Andrew Bastawrous is an ophthalmologist and TED Fellow. His innovation is the PEEK software tool: a low-cost smartphone ophthalmic system that delivers comprehensive eye examinations in the developing world, to those who need it most. He now lives in rural Kenya working on eye care. We, of course, ended up talking about helping people who are blind around the world. Andrew’s focus is on curing blindness: 80% of the people he sees in rural Kenya can have their blindness reversed. Getting a cataract operation has a miraculous impact on recovering sight. Andrew, however, is also concerned about the 20% of the blind he can’t help. What can we do for them?

As someone who has been writing software for blind people for 25 years, we were in my element! I explained Benetech’s efforts to grow the impact of our Bookshare library globally, specifically discussing partnerships with groups in India and Kenya. Our near-term approach is to reach the more urban, wealthier portion of the blind in these countries, with the expectation of extending our services to the blind in disadvantaged, rural communities someday in the future.

Andrew challenged me on that idea. The rural blind are truly among the poorest of the poor in the world. If Andrew and his peers can’t cure their blindness, could we help them with access to information? Of course, we’d have to focus on local language content. While English might be very useful in Nairobi, Swahili would be the language needed in rural Kenya. Andrew’s challenge wasn’t an empty one: his team could measure the effectiveness of interventions we might try and see how well they work. If we found something that really worked, it would likely be applicable to millions of blind people in the developing world.

I’m always excited when someone challenges me to be more ambitious about positive social change. It was unusual to get that challenge on territory I find so familiar, like helping blind people. Well worth a try!

Idea Three: Recovering Cognitive Function 

The final session of TED included an interview on stage with former Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly, by Pat Mitchell. Gabby Giffords clearly struggles with communications: Mark Kelly forthrightly described her aphasia as knowing what she wants to say, but being unable to get the words out.

It made a big impression on me and many in the audience. We know in theory what a brain injury means, but seeing Gabby Giffords on stage, struggling to speak as a result of her brain injury, brought its impact home.

On the steps out of TED, I was chatting with one of the attendees about what to do to help Gabby and other people recovering from brain injuries, and of course my mind went to software to help recover cognitive function. Like the previous idea, this one was an expansion of something that is already percolating in Benetech Labs. Last month, a good friend of mine connected me to someone who was recovering from a stroke. This fellow had relearned to walk and talk, but was frustrated by the loss of a specific cognitive skill: the ability to listen to numbers (like a phone number) and transcribe them. We had emailed back and forth about software that would drill him on ever-lengthening strings of numbers. Such an application is completely doable with not that much work. It is, however, a very narrow tool even for a social enterprise, let alone for a profitable business opportunity.

Discussing Gabby Gifford’s challenges, it occurred to me that there might be a real opportunity for building a series of software products for helping people recovering from strokes or traumatic brain injuries. The human brain is an extremely complex organ, but it should be getting easier to tune up different exercises for different recovery needs. Maybe there is a social enterprise in here!

Idea Four: Fighting Corruption 

The TED Prize this year went to Charmian Gooch of Global Witness (she also won a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship at the same time). Charmian wants to fight anonymous shell corporations, which are often used for corrupt and socially damaging purposes.

Normally, I listen with appreciation when TED prizes are announced and people in the community jump up to offer help. This time, I jumped up! We’ve been actively engaging in discussions about how to use our Martus software for whistle-blowing and confidential information gathering. Whether or not Charmian’s group ends up using Martus, this is definitely an area where we could be helpful. Since Charmian will get her Skoll Award at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford the second week of April, I know we’ll have the chance to kick around her needs. Looking forward to exploring this one and helping fight corruption with software.

Conclusion 

At Benetech Labs, we’re sharing our passion for innovation and for discovering new software social enterprises with the potential to deliver large-scale benefits to society. We’re delighted to join forces with entrepreneurs, social and business leaders in pushing the frontier of applying technology to empower people, improve lives, and create lasting social impact.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Snowden and Techies: First Do No Harm!

Snowden taught us that governments are vacuuming up every shred of communications they can. As techies, we need to first do no harm. As we collect sensitive information about health, ethnicity, LGBT identity, refugee status, experience of violence, we need to encrypt that information, to avoid making the people we serve, targets or victims by current or future governments!



TED2014 attendees were asked to reflect on their reactions to the Snowden appearance on stage. I delivered the exhortation above from the TED main stage tonight to my fellow technologists, about our responsibility to secure sensitive information. My comments were based on the recent HuffPo op-ed authored by Enrique Piracés and me, entitled Human Rights and the Duty to Protect Sensitive Data.



Our experience working with human rights defenders, especially LGBT and Tibetan groups, give us direct insights into these challenges.  As software developers entrusted with sensitive information, we have a duty to protect the people we serve.  And, this responsibility extends to far more software developers today than we thought.



Think about it.  Encrypt all personally identifiable information with strong, open source crypto, and take a big step on the road towards doing no harm while bringing the benefits of technology to the world's most vulnerable populations!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Human Rights and the Duty to Protect Sensitive Data

Co-authored with Enrique Piracés, Benetech VP, Human Rights.

Consider this: when you visit your doctor about a medical issue in the United States, you can be reasonably confident that it won't shortly be on the front page of the local newspaper. Privacy protections that ensure your doctor treats your information securely were mandated under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Yet, when humanitarian and social justice workers venture into the developing world to gather sensitive information, elementary privacy protections are often neglected.

Don't victims of human rights abuse, refugees, LGBT individuals, and survivors of gender-based violence deserve the same kind of respect for their sensitive information as you expect when you visit a clinic?

Unfortunately, there is no HIPAA equivalent for international human rights and humanitarian information. And this creates serious personal threats in an era where numerous organizations around the world collect individually identifiable data that regularly leaks into other hands.

Photo of Jim Fruchterman moderating a discussion
I moderated one of the discussion panels at the human rights conference
RightsCon Silicon Valley, March 3, 2014
Such confidential information can easily become compromised with the loss, theft, or confiscation of a smartphone or a computer. We now understand that corporate collection and government interception of sensitive information is the norm, not the exception. In the absence of standards that protect that information, the lives of suffering people—victims, witnesses, and the defenders who collect their stories—are all too often put in harm's way.

The summer of Snowden and revelations about the NSA have brought the public and private debate about digital privacy into the mainstream. But it is clear that privacy protections have not kept pace with technological development. In his January 17, 2014 speech on NSA reforms, President Obama stated: "As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual empowerment, not government control."

At Benetech—a nonprofit technology company that develops innovative and effective applications for unmet social needs—we embrace the notion of individual empowerment every day in our work. We know that surveillance is a common strategy to monitor and repress the efforts of many social justice groups and often leads to harm for those who document and expose human rights abuses.

To make strong security accessible to the community involved in human rights documentation, we developed Martus—a free, open source, secure tool for collecting and managing sensitive information.

There's a lot at stake when it comes to protecting data during collection, especially when the information is about subjects who are or could be at risk. We believe that groups involved in collecting identifiable information that might endanger the lives of people who are or could become victims of human rights abuse have the responsibility to protect that information.

That's why Martus offers end-to-end encryption. This means that the user's data is encrypted locally on his/her computer and only the encrypted data is stored on the computer's hard drive or communicated over networks. The keys to unlock the encrypted data should be kept securely by the user, and not shared with third parties who can be hacked or forced to give up the keys to repressive governments.

Take for example a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights-focused organization with which we work. They are based in a country where the LGBT community faces a hostile social climate and state-sanctioned harassment. Their offices were raided and police confiscated their computers—including part of its membership list that was insecurely stored—and then used that information to harass members in their homes, in some cases outing them to their families and forcing some to go into hiding.

This is but one incident. Unfortunately, there are many other stories of abuse and violation.

For instance, we know that it is not only current defenders and activists who could be at risk. Collection and archival of digital information are expected tasks for most relief and research efforts, but rarely do such efforts consider the security and safety of data over time. This could be particularly harmful for people who have no other option but to provide data. Think of refugee acceptance at the border of any conflict zone: today's refugee could be tomorrow's targeted person based on ethnicity or political affiliation. Or think of sexual violence in an Internally Displaced Population camp. If you are identified as a rape survivor in many parts of the world, you are likely to experience extreme social stigma.

In the light of the state surveillance leaks and the increasing use of technology to extensively document vulnerable people, we strongly urge all organizations working in the fields of social justice, human rights, humanitarian aid, and journalism to commit to protecting this information with the same level of safeguards that citizens of wealthy countries expect for their own sensitive information. We all have a duty to avoid doing harm, and a duty to protect the most vulnerable communities.

This op-ed was originally published by the Huffington Post.   

Monday, March 10, 2014

Data and the Human Touch

Meet Kevin and “Sophia” (who anonymously shared her story with my team).

When Kevin was in kindergarten he had an organic brain injury, which forced him to have to relearn everything from walking to using the bathroom. There were several years where Kevin struggled in school because his vision was blurry and this made reading normal size print grueling. He could no longer keep up with his peers in the classroom.

One day when Sophia was in fifth grade, she suddenly went blind from an inexplicable disease. Sophia and her family were left confused and concerned about her future in the classroom. Braille books saved her from isolation and she became an insatiable reader. However, she soon encountered the frustrating “accessible book famine” because very few books available were available in Braille.

This reality changed when both Kevin and Sophia learned about the accessible online library Bookshare, an initiative of Silicon Valley technology nonprofit Benetech. With its rapidly growing collection of over 225,000 (and counting) accessible ebooks, Bookshare is the world’s largest library of its kind.

Photo of a boy seated outdoors, holding an iPad in his lap, looking at and touching the screen.
Sixth grader Kevin Leong reads a Bookshare book on his iPad
“This access to books,” Sophia wrote, “has given me [the] wonderful opportunity to flourish despite my disability. I can enlighten my mind, enliven my spirit, and experience what I couldn’t before. In this world, in which I am at an inherent disadvantage, I may now participate and, one day, perhaps contribute to its betterment.”

Every month, our staff receives letters from individuals whose lives have been touched by our work. These stories about the needs in our communities are data points of real, positive change. But do they measure the real impact we’re making in the lives of our beneficiaries? Can attribution hold up when it comes to measuring the human experience of hope, self-worth, or reconciliation?

Data is now a core resource. Tremendous shifts in data availability, access, and use are rapidly transforming our lives, and numbers debates are taking center stage in the development, philanthropy, impact investing, and social enterprise sectors. Like it or not, we live in what Kenneth Neil Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger have coined the age of “datafication,” where many aspects of the world that have never been quantified before are being rendered into data. We’re witnessing how data-driven insights are becoming a prerequisite in decision-making and in the practical work of policy and social service organizations.

Stock graphic conveying the idea of a world globally connected through networks of data.
Image courtesy of the Skoll World Forum
This sea change has triggered a host of heated and controversial topics: from intellectual clashes between GiveWell and Charity Navigator over nonprofit efficacy, through theories of the kinds of information that define the nonprofit sector (medium data, opines Guidestar’s Jacob Harold), to explorations of the interplay between mission-driven and finance-driven data in both nonprofit and for-profit enterprises.

Here’s Benetech’s outlook: we advocate for a human-centered approach to data in the social sector. Data without context has little value. We ask the question: data for whom?  We’re a technology company and strongly believe in the power of information as a force for good. But we’re also a nonprofit with a social mission to empower individuals in complex and often difficult circumstances. Which is why we also argue that it’s dangerous to base decision-making and practical work concerning human growth and development purely on data-driven insights (we prefer semi-automation to automation).

Dominated by engineers and high tech executives, our senior leadership fully accepts the premise that in order to create systemic change we must build the capacity to collect, monitor, and interpret data over time. The data and its related systems, however, can take us only so far.

Our beneficiaries—such as front-line human rights defenders in repressive communities, students with disabilities, and environmental activists—live and operate in complex realities where certain data may be of little value and where measuring impact is messy. When it comes to helping our users, therefore, what matters to us first and foremost is empowering these individuals to prosper and advance their own goals, not so much optimizing for one metric or another that might not even truly measure our mission goals.

Being more adaptive and less rigid also creates the opportunity for serendipity. Consider this: what if your metrics turns out to be irrelevant because your beneficiary adapts your solution or service into something quite different from what you had intended it for?

A case in point comes from our human rights team, who works with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) organization based in a country where the LGBT community faces a hostile social climate and state-sanctioned harassment. Trained to use Martus, Benetech’s secure software tool for human rights documentation to gather accounts of violations and abuses in the community, this group decided to encrypt and backup its members’ list instead. In this instance, evaluating Martus’ impact using standard indicators like the number of human rights accounts (“bulletins”) backed up to the Martus servers—one of our primary indicators of achievement towards measured success—is meaningless. It was more valuable for this organization to safeguard the names and addresses of its members.

Ultimately, applying a human-centered approach to data in the social sector means keeping focus on your mission and knowing your beneficiaries. Treat them more as customers, less as recipients of easily quantifiable social good units. Listen to their needs and adjust course accordingly. Years of working closely with our users have taught us that their circumstances and the goals they are trying to accomplish vary widely.

In the words of Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation, “to find the impact jackpot, you need to immerse yourself deeply enough in context and methods to make a reasoned judgment. You also have to be a little flexible: Real-world measurement often requires a certain amount of creativity.” Even in a world of big data, creativity and intuition still require the human touch.

This op-ed originally appeared on Reuters in partnership with the Skoll World Forum.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Accessibility Excitement in Geneva

One of the reasons I started the Beneblog more than ten years ago (!) was to keep the Benetech team in the loop. As someone who travels roughly half the time, it’s important to provide some insight into what’s going on, especially since these meetings often influence where Benetech goes with our efforts. So, this is an in-depth report on the two days I just spent at the end of last week in Geneva. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I didn’t have time to write a short blog post, so I wrote a long one. This is totally the “how sausage and law are made” view, so don’t read this unless you want to know more about global accessibility in detail!

The context

We’ve been supporting the World Blind Union and other groups in the pursuit of a Treaty for the Visually Impaired for the last five or six years. The nexus for this work is the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the United Nations agency that deals with such matters. The Marrakesh Treaty was signed last year, and now the efforts are ramping up to ratify and implement the Treaty, with the goal of helping overcome the book famine faced by people with print disabilities.
A tall modern building flying a UN flag
WIPO Headquarters

The event this last week at WIPO in Geneva, Switzerland, was the ninth meeting of the Stakeholder’s Platform, which was set up about the time the original Treaty draft was introduced. There was also an associated effort called the Trusted Intermediary Global Accessible Resources (TIGAR) project, to ease the exchange of accessible book files between libraries for the blind and print disabled. The view of the World Blind Union was that the rightsholders (i.e., publishers) pushed for these voluntary efforts to weaken support for a Treaty. The WBU ended up boycotting these side efforts for a while before the Treaty was negotiated. Bookshare’s role was mixed: we didn’t end up attending many of these meetings and critiqued early efforts that were crippled by heavy-handed publisher influence, although we did propose at one point to supply technology to TIGAR based on Bookshare.

Now that the Marrakesh Treaty has been signed by sixty-odd countries, the emphasis has switched to implementing it. WIPO has a mandate from its member states, and is working to address the need to change laws and get more accessible books flowing. The Stakeholders Platform and the TIGAR project were time-limited and needed to be replaced by a new structure. This meeting in Geneva was on the form of a successor project, dubbed the Accessible Book Consortium ("ABC," of course). The ABC would wrap together efforts such as TIGAR as a sharing portal, capacity building efforts for countries trying to create accessible book services and looking at issues like licensing.

Even though Benetech doesn’t have donor funding for this, our VP of Global Literacy, Betsy Beaumon, and I thought it would be worthwhile to attend this meeting. As the most internationally engaged library for people with disabilities, we’re trying to find funding and partnerships to help bring both Bookshare’s collection and technology to bear on this problem.

The Missive

Just as I was leaving for Geneva from California, attendees received an email from Alicia Wise of Elsevier, advocating on behalf of the rightsholders for support from attendees for a particular approach to implementing Marrakesh that the publishers especially favor, to provide incentives for publishers to sign off on collective licenses to ease cross-border transfer of copyrighted accessible files. Getting some kind of licensing deal is critically important, because it will take many years for the Marrakesh Treaty to be fully implemented with its copyright exceptions. So, in the meanwhile, we will need to rely on licenses: permissions agreements.

I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. The publishers were asking for support of an approach that the WBU and Bookshare had campaigned hard against in Marrakesh. In particular, they wanted the group to endorse that a copyright exception under Marrakesh exclude works that are commercially available. A handful of countries have exceptions that work this way (Australia for one), but the Treaty did not recommend this approach. It remains an option under the Treaty, though. But, the Treaty does lean much more in the direction of a copyright exception without a commercial exemption. That’s the way the Chafee Amendment (Section 121) in U.S. law works: the one that made Bookshare possible.

I’ve been to national meetings in the U.S. where nothing got accomplished because a publisher representative objected so strenuously. These meetings generally operate on consensus, which provides a lot of power to stop progress to any attendee that won’t compromise. So, I was worried that I and a bunch of other disability advocates would be going on expensive trips to Geneva that might not make any progress.

I got in touch with Dan Pescod and Maryanne Diamond, the two key WBU leaders. They were holding an international meeting of blindness groups around the campaign to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty in London during the days before the Geneva meeting. I supplied them with some input from the Bookshare point of view, and Maryanne released a strong statement objecting to the rightsholders request. At least, both groups would be showing up in Geneva with our different positions clear.

There were quite a number of arguments against the publishers' preferred approach. My biggest argument was the “library with holes” problem. Imagine a library for people with disabilities where you can’t have a book on your shelves if a patron could buy the book in that format. This wouldn’t make a big impact on hardcopy Braille books, because almost no publishers sell them. But ebooks and audio books are by far the most popular accessible formats, and publishers do sell them (although ironically many of these have digital rights management technologies designed to defeat illegal copying but also stop accessibility technology). We believe strongly that people with disabilities should have a library that’s equal to what a non-disabled person has available to them. Especially since people with disabilities tend to be poor to a greater degree than non-disabled people.

I decided to follow through and attend. My experience with the international publishers was such that I expected there would be a way to work through this issue.

Actually in Geneva

We spent a good bit of the first day debating the points about the commercial exemption and copyright exceptions. I have to admit I’m not an expert in international licensing terminology, and I wasn’t the only other one that was confused. Bookshare has had success with getting licenses from over 200 publishers, where the publisher gives us permission to distribute all of that publishers’ books in the parts of the world where they have the legal right to do so. These already make more than 110,000 of our books available outside the U.S.  I thought those were collective licenses, but other people called these repertoire licenses, blanket licenses, comprehensive licenses and, near the end of the discussion, a collective license! Apparently, the particular kind of collective license that the publishers were discussing was different, and involved going through the eighty-plus special Reproduction Rights Organizations (RROs). So, the publishers weren’t against all licensing. They mainly felt that this kind of collective license approach would be a big hassle, and that they felt publishers needed a carrot to take on that hassle.

The disability groups understood the issue, but didn’t want to agree to provide such a carrot. And the WIPO staff had difficulty with the idea as well: their member states had negotiated a Treaty that gave ratifying countries three ways to implement a Treaty-compliant copyright exception (the U.S.-type, the Australian-type and one other I don’t remember). The WIPO staff didn’t think they could recommend one option over the other two. When they provide legal and technical assistance to countries implementing the Treaty, they need to outline all of the options and what they mean and let each country make its own decision. 

We also ended up talking about many other issues around getting more books to disabled people, the common goal of all of the attendees. I had the chance to brief the WIPO team working on these issues about what Bookshare is doing internationally right now, such as our work bringing Bookshare to India as a prototype of what we could be doing in other countries. There’s a huge interest at WIPO in helping developing countries get the assistance they need to help bring books to their people with disabilities. We had a call with Aubrey Webson of Perkins International about their experiences in different countries (Perkins has done incredible work in Africa and other regions). One particularly tall order from WIPO was the desire to have a successful pilot effort in several of the world’s Least Developed Countries, which are the toughest places to work. Developing countries like Kenya and Ghana, which are starting to make good progress on these efforts, aren’t in the LDC category.

The publishers organized a dinner for all of the stakeholders in a lively bar/restaurant, and we continued the discussions long into the night. There’s no substitute for showing up and speaking directly with people. Even though we don’t agree on many of the decisions, both sides end up understanding the other’s positions better and come up with ways to move towards each other. I was in the final group of a three disability advocates and two publisher representatives who wrapped up at 1 am!

The Formal Meeting

The second day was a more formal meeting and a bunch more people showed up (we went from about 20 to 40 people). I was surprised that the Director General of WIPO, Francis Gurry, actually presided over the half-day formal meeting: the effort was obviously getting priority from WIPO.

There was one big area of consensus. All of the stakeholders want publishers to sell accessible books though their normal business channels. This was called Inclusive Publishing at the meeting. Benetech team-members will recognize this as the same thing that we call “Born Accessible.”

The stakeholders were able to come to an agreement on establishing the Accessible Book Consortium: its structure and activities. The negotiations were actually quite congenial and got the key things accomplished. The question of licensing pretty much got punted down the road. Many of the past efforts are running out of funding (I think the publishers and DAISY each kicked in some in-kind resources over the past couple of years, and they aren’t committed to doing that indefinitely). WIPO has allocated some money to this effort, and is expecting to start approaching donors to raise money for the ABC, now that it’s clear what the structure and activities will be.

The Working Session

After the formal session concluded and we had lunch (WIPO has a new and lovely building with a nice cafeteria), a hardcore group stuck around to talk about capacity building for developing countries. Jens Bammel, the head of the International Publishers Association, also proposed a charter for publishers to sign signaling their commitment to Inclusive Publishing and helping people with disabilities with accessibility. Definitely a good thing.

The Bookshare Angle

We didn’t come to a conclusion about Bookshare’s increased involvement with WIPO, TIGAR and the new ABC. The sense in the room was that Bookshare had the largest collection of books to bring to the table, and that these books were in languages that were priorities (other than English, our nearly 5,000 Spanish titles was a boost). I had a technical conversation, which quickly exhausted my technical depth, with WIPO’s tech guru, Michael Jung, about how to feed information about Bookshare titles into the TIGAR system to make it easier to find a title from Bookshare. The tradeoff is familiar: we have two or three ways for third parties to find out what books we have, and the TIGAR project uses other ways to do that which we don’t support (but other libraries do). So, I have to connect Michael with our technical people to figure out how to get that connected and how to pay for the work involved.

Beyond that, it would be great to work with WIPO to bring Bookshare books and our assistance technology into broader service. I hope we figure out some way to offer Bookshare to the poorest countries of the world through TIGAR and the ABC!