Tuesday, March 29, 2016

From Money to Meaning

Big complex social problems.

Your skills and experiences.


Combining those three potent ingredients is how we change the world. If you’ve been burning to use your considerable talents to make a difference, rather than make a lot of money, it’s time you considered joining our growing team.

We are looking for more than a dozen motivated individuals to make the leap to positive social impact. From executives to summer interns, from engineers and product managers, to communications and outreach professionals, we have a wide range of opportunities.

From children with disabilities to African human rights activists, you will have direct exposure to how Benetech’s products and services change lives for the better. Our benefits are great, and our pay is excellent by nonprofit standards! Flexibility is one of our core values. It’s just one of the reasons that Benetech is the rare software company that is majority women (also true of our managers). We believe in wildcards: if you have a creative way to address one of our needs, let us know!

Silicon Valley is an incredible force for change. Unfortunately, the economic model that works so well for creating wealth, falls short when it comes to helping the poor. Communities that most need our help are often the least able to afford it. That’s why Benetech is organized as a nonprofit: we can afford to work on exciting problems. We just have to find a way to break- even!

If you have read this far because this is what you are truly wishing for in your career directions, or because you know of someone great who has been dreaming our shared dream of tech for good, check out our list of openings. We would love to hear from you!

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Ratify Marrakesh!

The United States Senate has a terrific opportunity to expand opportunity

The United States Senate has just been presented with the ratification package for the Marrakesh Treaty. We are joining with our peers in the disability and library community in a joint statement to strongly encourage the Senate to ratify the treaty and for Congress to implement the minor legislative changes recommended as part of the package.

We know a great deal about this Treaty, which is designed to help people who are blind or have other disabilities that interfere with reading, such as dyslexia. Our nonprofit organization operates Bookshare, the largest online library in the world that focuses on the needs of people with these disabilities. The creation of Bookshare was made possible because of an enlightened copyright law exception. And, that American copyright exception was the inspiration for the Marrakesh Treaty!

Because the Marrakesh Treaty was modeled after the Chafee Amendment, as the Section 121 copyright exception is widely known in honor of the senator who proposed it in 1996, only minor changes have been recommended to align U.S. law with the Treaty language. As the operators of the largest library using this exception in the United States, we see these changes as minor and helpful clarifications. We do not see these changes as having a major impact on who we serve in the U.S., or the work we do. Here are the three changes of note:
  1. Clarifying the definition of a disability that qualifies. We see the new recommended language as replacing antique and obsolete language (“reading disability from organic dysfunction” is one example) with language that describes functionally someone with a disability that gets in the way of reading print. While we already serve many people with dyslexia, or returning veterans with traumatic brain injuries, these changes will be remove much of the confusion that exists in the field because of ambiguous, older language. 
  2. Including illustrations as part of books to be made accessible. We include illustrations in our accessible books because many of our users can see them. People who are low vision can usually magnify pictures to see them better, and our dyslexic users often get much more out of illustrations than they get out of text. We often add image descriptions to illustrations, as well as supporting partners developing tactile versions of illustrations today, to further improve accessibility. 
  3. Serving U.S. citizens abroad under Section 121 as if they lived in the U.S. This question has also been unclear, and different libraries have treated this inconsistently. Our default setting in Bookshare has been to treat an American with a disability living in another country as being only allowed the books we have permission to provide there, which leaves out over 100,000 titles that are only available inside the United States to Americans. This change would allow us to better serve American overseas.
These three changes clarify Section 121 in minor ways that are quite helpful to Americans with disabilities.

Of course, the biggest change that the Marrakesh Treaty makes is easing the import and export of accessible books. This cross-border exchange will make the lives of people with these disabilities better worldwide, as we reduce needless duplication of effort. Americans with disabilities will have access to far more accessible books, especially in languages other than English. And, it will become possible for nonprofit organizations such as ours to help bring accessible books to people with disabilities in developing countries, often the poorest of the world’s poor, who have mostly lacked access to books entirely.

We’re excited about the prospect of Marrakesh ratification and implementation by the United States to make our work more straightforward in serving Americans with bona fide disabilities the books they need for education, employment, and social inclusion, as well as lowering the barriers to serve people around the world with similar needs!

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Silicon Valley’s Developing Conscience: It’s Called Apple

Silicon Valley has a problem. In our quest to build better products and better meet the needs of the world for information, we built the most amazing system for effortless government surveillance as a byproduct. It is now incumbent on Silicon Valley to remedy this situation.

Forcing tech companies to weaken their products through compelling the creation of backdoors would be a massive step backwards.

Whatever the power of search engines or social networks, it’s really the smartphone that is the most incredible tool for tracking our every move and activity. With access to the information collected by a person’s smartphone, it’s probably straightforward to figure out everything important about that person. Who they love. What religion they profess. Their ethnicity. What drugs (legal or illegal) they consume. What content they read or watch. What laws they violate. Every secret.

And, without encryption of this information, the makers of smartphones had effectively handed those secrets to governments. Not just the U.S. government. Just about every government. For very little expense compared to other ways of gathering secrets.

Over the last couple of years, Apple figured out the implications of this expanded surveillance. They decided that their value proposition to smartphone users did not include making it easy for governments (or others) to collect everybody’s secrets.

As a society, Americans have frequently decided to put limits on our government’s powers, because we were founded in a period where government abused its powers extensively. We don’t allow our police to torture suspects for confessions. We throw out evidence gathered through illegal searches. The government does not, and should not, have automatic access to every secret.

The battle between Apple and the FBI is one of those crucial limit-setting moments. And Silicon Valley understands it as such a moment for the tech industry generally. If the FBI can force Apple to construct a back door for one iPhone for the U.S. government, we techies understand why this sets a strong negative precedent for extensive surveillance in the U.S. and globally.

This is not a theoretical problem. We have seen this problem here in the United States and around the world. My nonprofit creates the Martus software for human rights activists to securely store their sensitive information (via encryption). It may be documentation of atrocities they plan to use in later advocacy, or simply items like current membership lists. When we called an LGBT organization in Africa last year for a regular check-in, we found that they took the call from the back yard of their offices. They were burning all of their records because they had a tip that their government was going to raid them. Luckily, their records were already safely stored in Martus. Without a backdoor for that government, or any government for that matter.

As a society, we should not make it easy for governments or other interests to get lists of all of the gay people, or Christians, or Muslims, or rape survivors, or HIV positive people, or supporters of the opposition. We need to make it harder to find out our sensitive personal information, whether it’s our medical information, or when our 11-year-old child is home alone. And encryption without backdoors is how we secure that information against attackers of all stripes. A backdoor is an open door for any one that’s willing to try hard enough to gain entry.

That is why we, and so much of the technology sector, stand with Apple today. This is not a tradeoff between security and privacy, as this issue is so often portrayed. This is a tradeoff between security of our sensitive information and surveillance. And, making it easier to surveille us by weakening the technical protections on our private information makes it possible for governments, especially repressive ones, and others to exploit a user’s or organization’s vulnerabilities.

We should not be able to compel software developers to sabotage security protections that they carefully built for excellent reasons. We should not compel them to work against the interests of us, their users.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Understanding Income Inequality

Data is a bigger and bigger topic in social change. We need to do a better job of understanding social needs, both to improve our programs and measure their ultimate impact. I spend more and more of my time talking to leaders in the sector, helping advance the use of data for action and impact.

I encourage groups to begin collecting data as part of their basic program activities, and I make the claim that it will eventually allow them to connect their data to other, larger databases and maybe begin to take advantage of big data.

Imagine how my mind has been blown by learning about a huge international income database that has microdata on millions of households from more than 50 countries, all harmonized to make the same kinds of analyses possible across any of these countries! This database should be critically important for understanding poverty at a detailed level.

I just had the thrill of spending an hour with Janet Gornick, the Director of LIS, an international data archive that is located in Luxembourg. LIS is the institute that created and manages this giant database, which is called the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) Database. I met her last year at KentPresents, a brand-new conference organized by the incredible duo of Ben and Donna Rosen.

Janet is also a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), and she runs a satellite office of LIS there. Her group in New York includes Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and renowned inequality scholar Branko Milanovic. I asked her what kind of insights could be gleaned by an anti-poverty group, say in Uruguay (to pick one country out of 50), accessing the LIS. She suggested:

In Uruguay:
  • What is the poverty rate among individuals and households (using any of a number of poverty lines – absolute or relative, national or regional)?
  • What does the distribution of poverty look like, that is, what share of the population is extremely poor, poor, and/or near-poor?
  • Which individuals and households are most at risk – the youngest children, all children, women, the elderly? single-adult households, multi-generational households?
  • What “micro” factors raise the poverty risk for persons and households – age? family structure? employment attachment and educational level of adult household members? other?
  • Have the answers to these questions changed during recent years (2007, 2010, 2013)?
In cross-national perspective:
  • How do these outcomes in Uruguay compare with those in 50 other middle- and high-income countries (including several in Latin America)? Which outcomes/patterns are unusual? Which are widespread?
  • How do national-level demographic and labor market features shape the Uruguayan outcomes, in comparative perspective?
  • Which national-level public institutions (e.g., government anti-poverty programs, income transfers more generally, taxation) help to explain the Uruguayan results?
In short, working with the LIS data would enable this Uruguayan anti-poverty group to better understand the causes and components of poverty in Uruguay, which – in turn – would enable them to think more specifically about a range of intervention strategies.

Wow! Now, it turns out that this database has been made available under careful limitations to a select group of researchers. There are special constraints to ensure that database queries don’t accidentally reveal personal information about individuals, since that is part of convincing all of these different countries to supply this detailed microdata about household in their country.

Janet and her team get asked all the time to answer questions that the database could help answer, especially around income inequality. And, they often have to decline to help because of limited staff resources. Janet named some very well-known international publications that they had to disappoint in the last year.

Luckily, Janet and her team have an idea for how far more people could benefit from this database. For less than a million dollars on top of their existing funding, they could build an online portal so that researchers, journalists, policymakers, students and the general public could run their own queries on the LIS data.

Something tells me that this is definitely fundable. I am happy to help advocate that donors take a serious look at funding Janet and LIS make this happen. And if it does, we’ll have a major new tool for combating income inequality and poverty in much of the world!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mary Robinson

Thanks to being a Skoll Award winner, I am frequently blessed with the opportunity to hear from the world’s most inspiring leaders. Whether it’s local in California, or at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, there is a regular chance I will have my mind expanded.

The latest Skoll opportunity came along with the recent visit of Mary Robinson to Palo Alto. She hit the world stage most notably as Ireland’s first female president, and has continued to campaign for the world’s most vulnerable people, especially women.

Mary spoke privately to a small group of social sector leaders at the Skoll Foundation offices. I want to share just two insights from Mary that made a big impression on me.

First, she saw 2015 as having two watershed events. The first was the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. These goals commit all countries of the world to make progress on critical social objectives, such as ending poverty and hunger, improving access to clean water, education, and gender equality, as well as a dozen others. The second was the Paris Agreement on climate. She saw this incredible combination as a watershed moment in global history. She sees the two events as inextricably linked: we need to strongly move forward on our social developmental objectives while protecting the planet. She was disappointed that a bigger deal wasn’t made at the beginning of 2016 recognizing the dawning of this new global era!

Second, she talked about key dates in our climate goals. The headline goal of the Paris Agreement is to ensure that global temperature rise by 2100 is no more than two degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That date always seemed like a long way off. Mary made the climate change goals of 2100 tangible in a deeply personal way. She explained that that the grandchildren of the people sitting around the table were highly likely to be alive in 2100. As someone who doesn’t currently have grandchildren, but hopes to in the next ten years, this really hit home. Children being born today should have every expectation of living on average at least 84 years!

This is where the voices of Elders like Mary Robinson are especially powerful: awakening insights and inspiring action from all of us. I look forward to the next time I have a Skoll moment (maybe with the Dalai Lama in Oxford this spring?)!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Commercial Availability: The Poison Pill for Marrakesh Treaty Implementation

If you can buy a book, you can’t borrow it. 

That’s the lobbying position of some companies in the intellectual property field when implementing the new Marrakesh Copyright Treaty. Marrakesh is intended to end the book famine for people who can’t read regular books because of their disability. Libraries for people who are blind or dyslexic are the primary source of accessible books in audio, large print or braille. But, some companies want to empty the library shelves and insist that only books that can’t be purchased are allowed to be stocked in such libraries. Imagine what a regular library would look like if it couldn’t stock books that could be purchased by the general public! That would pretty much defeat the purpose of having a library.

As the founder of the largest library for people who are blind or who have other significant disabilities that prevent them from reading printed texts (such as dyslexia or brain injuries), I think this is a terrible idea. Since people with disabilities tend to be the poorest of the poor, it seems odd to campaign to hobble libraries that serve only this community. Wouldn’t it make more sense to make it easier for people with disabilities to get access to the books they need for education and employment?

In this post, I hope to convincingly make the case why countries ratifying the Marrakesh Treaty should implement copyright exceptions for people with disabilities which do not have these self-clearing provisions, technically called “commercial availability limitations.” Our experience successfully building Bookshare under the United States copyright exception, which has no such commercial availability limitation, informs this strong opinion. My position rests on three pillars: the moral case, the economic case, and the practical case.

Countries implementing the Marrakesh Treaty, might benefit from hearing the experience of other countries which have already put such copyright exceptions into place. I hope they follow the lead of the great majority of these countries and allow libraries serving that community to be fully stocked with the needed accessible books!

The Bookshare Library Experience

I am the CEO of Benetech, the nonprofit organization that provides the world’s largest online collection of accessible books, for people with disabilities that interfere with reading, through our Bookshare library. Bookshare was created under the Section 121 U.S. copyright exception, which was one of the inspirations for the Marrakesh Treaty.

The Bookshare promise to American students with disabilities is that if they need a book for education, Bookshare will ensure that they have it. Under our copyright exception, we simply buy a copy of the needed print book, scan it using optical character recognition, and create an accessible ebook. These ebooks can be instantly turned into the accessible format needed by the student with a disability, such as braille, enlarged print, or our most common format, audio through a computerized synthetic voice. We don’t have to ask for permission from the publisher or author. We don’t have to research questions of commercial availability, affordability, or format availability. We simply act to ensure the person who needs an accessible book can get it.

As an organization that puts this disability-specific copyright exception into practice, I can say with confidence that the U.S. exception model works well here. We go to great lengths to ensure the digital works we provide are restricted to bona fide patrons with disabilities. Over 350,000 American patrons now download more than a million accessible books and periodicals each year!

And while the publishing industry was skittish about Bookshare’s library at first, now more than 500 publishers are our partners, directly providing over 80% of the 5,000 books we add to our collection each month. Publishers, representing the majority of top trade and educational books, have already voluntarily provided, for free, more than half of the 385,000 books in the Bookshare collection.

Together with these enlightened publisher partners, our nonprofit has been able to effectively end the book famine in the United States for people with disabilities that affect the reading of print.

The Moral Case

The Marrakesh Treaty is a human rights treaty in an intellectual property framework. Its primary goal is to end the book famine for people with disabilities, ensuring that they have access to the materials they need for education, employment, and social inclusion. Assisting the blind has been a moral imperative for societies and religions since ancient times. With the advances in publishing and technology, it is now within reach to ensure equal access to books for all.

The Marrakesh Treaty was designed to address the biggest remaining obstacle: the existing system of providing books to society did not meet the needs of people with disabilities. The commercial publishing industry isn’t selling accessible books, and the cost to obtain permissions to produce accessible editions of print books effectively discouraged the social sector from doing more than a token amount of accessible book production in the great majority of countries in the world. And thus we have a book famine, where the typical blind person in the world has no accessible books, and depends on the charity of others to read books aloud.

In the face of such denial of access to information, a copyright exception that makes it possible for the charitable sector to serve these needs makes great sense. However, saying that libraries that serve people who are blind or otherwise disabled when it comes to reading print are barred from lending books when it is possible for someone to purchase that book does not make moral sense. Why destroy the ability of libraries to serve some of the most economically disadvantaged in our communities first? This is capitalism at its least admirable. That is the essence of the moral case for a copyright exception. It enables the realization of the right to read. It has a minimal impact on the financial interests of the publishing industry. And it is within our reach.

The Economic Case

We shouldn’t put the economic interests of publishers ahead of the human rights of people with disabilities. This is especially true when the long-term economic interests of publishers are better served when potential purchasers of books have the best chance at an education and employment through access to knowledge.

Our experience in the United States has shown that economically empowered people with disabilities tend to be voracious readers and active purchasers of accessible audio books and ebooks. But that is because we have a robust copyright exception in the United States that ensures that people who are disabled have equal access to all of the books they need from accessible libraries. They are just like people without disabilities who depend on libraries if they are poor, and generally prefer to purchase books when they have the capacity.

One of the top three advocacy positions in the United States of both the National Federation of the Blind and of my organization is campaigning for greater accessibility of commercial electronic books. Our motto is “If it’s born digital, it should be born accessible!” This may seem counterintuitive: why would organizations that so strongly support a copyright exception without commercial availability limitations fight for commercial availability? Fundamentally, it’s about equality. People with disabilities should both be able to use libraries on terms similar to those of people without disabilities, and be able to purchase books that work for them. But, we strongly object to removing the safety net of an effective copyright exception in the United States while we are still early in the born accessibility campaign.

The Practical Case

Charity provision is done on a shoestring. Government funding is slim, and not available in most of the world. Rights clearance and research is expensive: it’s a big reason we don’t have the books people with disabilities need in most of the world. As Bookshare, we believe we can find money to extend the availability of our collection globally to the poor. Richer countries like the U.S., Canada, and the UK all fund our work, with a focus on serving their citizens. But these countries have no objection to helping others with the results of that work.

A key provision of the Marrakesh Treaty is easing the import and export of accessible books among countries implementing the treaty. The leverage here is ensuring that our patrons benefit from the sum of global efforts to make accessible books, rather than recreating the same titles over and over again.

This, of course, was the founding idea of our Bookshare library: scanning a book once and then making it available to all the people who need it. And we’re now making this happen in countries beyond the United States who, like India, have implemented Marrakesh without commercial limitation provisions. We now have volunteers throughout India adding local language titles such as Tamil into Bookshare.

But, in countries with a “commercial availability” limitation, it doesn’t work very well there. Charities fret about whether they might get in trouble. They don’t touch important titles, denying access to people with disabilities to the books in great demand from people without disabilities.

As Bookshare, we won’t touch the books needed in those countries. We have no effective ability to research availability and don’t want to risk our services in our home country, which is paying for over 95% of our work. We are delighted to serve books to Canadians with disabilities today, but we only serve up books where we have publisher permissions. This works well for English language titles in demand in both countries, but not for Canadian specific titles, especially in French.

Marrakesh allowed for the possibility of commercial limitation (though it does not mandate it) because a handful of countries, generally wealthy ones such as Canada, had these provisions in their domestic copyright exception, and they needed to be accommodated. But, this is a poor model for fully addressing the book famine and one that shouldn’t be emulated, especially in the international context of the Marrakesh Treaty. This is especially true of developing countries without the means to fully fund these efforts and financially accommodate publishers for the ability to serve people with these disabilities.


The language a few publishers and other intellectual property lobbyists are pushing for in the laws being devised to implement the Treaty—including the “if you can buy a book, you can’t borrow it” concept—could mean the end to libraries as we know them. It would severely undercut the traditional role libraries play in serving those who simply cannot afford to purchase books. Imagine a person using the library to do research or a school project—someone who needs to look at ten or twenty books, but doesn’t want to buy them—they’d be out of luck. And, if we start requiring people with disabilities to buy books rather than borrowing them from libraries, who’s next on the list? Ripping books out of the hands of those who need them most—whether it’s from our Bookshare library or from your local library—is simply unconscionable.

Furthermore, it doesn’t make economic or practical sense. Publishers will be better off in the long term if people with disabilities have better access to educational and economic opportunities. People with disabilities are the most logical customers for digital ebooks. We need to drive to a future where those people who can afford books easily can, and those that cannot are not denied access to this critically important content.

As your country moves to implement the Marrakesh Treaty for all the good and wonderful reasons of helping people who are blind or have other disabilities that interfere with reading print, please advocate for a copyright exception without the poison pill of limiting this law to books that cannot be purchased. If we can do that together, we will advance the cause of ending the book famine, and providing far better opportunities for people who need accessible books the most, and are least able to afford them.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Benetech: the Equilibrium Change Machine

I just read the new book from Sally Osberg, President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, and strategy guru Roger Martin, Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works. Even though I’m a Skoll Award winner, it really made me think about my organization, Benetech, and what we are trying to accomplish. The book is an expanded version of their seminal article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review from 2007, “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition.” I always refer aspiring social entrepreneurs to the article when they ask me how they can win a Skoll Award. But, it’s always useful to explore the framework of one’s work.  Sally and Roger's book challenged me to do just that.

Framework for Producing Transformative Change

Two key concepts from the book really stuck with me. The first is their core concept of equilibrium change. Did the world move from one stable but unjust equilibrium to a new and better one? Of course, this is a familiar concept to me as someone who started his career building for-profit tech companies in Silicon Valley. The primary goal in the Valley is massive change, because when you’re a for-profit that magnitude usually yields massive profits. Whether it’s Microsoft transforming the PC software industry, or Google or Facebook, it’s clear that the world is different because these companies exist. The difference is that the social entrepreneur pursues change at scale primarily as a tool for social justice, not private enrichment.

That’s the group the Skoll Foundation wants to invest in: social entrepreneurs driving large-scale change.

The second key concept explores what a social entrepreneur is and isn’t. The authors present a two-by-two matrix. One axis represents nature of action: direct or indirect. The other axis represents systems change: does the world work better and differently now as a result of these efforts?
2 by 2 matrix. Y axis is Nature of Action (Direct and Indirect); X axis is Outcome (Extant systems maintened and approved and New equilibrium created and maintained). Direct/Extant System box is "social service provision"; Direct/New Equilibrium box is Social Entrepreneurship. Indirect/Extant System box is empty; Indirect/New Equilibrium box is Social Activism.
Credit: Martin, Roger L. and Osberg, Sally R., Osberg & Martin, Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works, 2015.

They put Martin Luther King in one box: the world-changing activist who accomplished large-scale change through indirect means. They put most nonprofits in the direct action without systems change box: groups that do a good (or even excellent) job of delivering services under the existing system. They then place social entrepreneurs in the direct action and systems change box. Basically, social entrepreneurs get stuff done at scale and they change the world to boot!

This is not to say that social entrepreneurs don’t work in the policy and advocacy space. But, we generally play in that space based on our credibility as operators of social change at scale first. Rather than just telling people how the world needs to improve, the successful social entrepreneur demonstrates how to do it.

I read the Osberg/Martin book just prior to a major Benetech planning meeting. We were trying to analyze the Benetech secret sauce: how do we go about changing the world for the better as Silicon Valley’s deliberately nonprofit tech company? The team laid out the figure below:
Three boxes in a circle where one box leads to the next. Starts with Thought Leadership; leads next to Incubation & Innovation; leads then to Operation at Scale; and finally returns to Thought Leadership--where it begins anew.
Benetech's Equilibrium Change Model

Looking at this summary of how Benetech operates, it was clear to me that our theory of change matched the framework from Osberg and Martin. We pick projects that have the potential for large-scale change: can we deliver something for a tenth of the cost of the existing solution? If cost benchmarking doesn’t make sense (as in the field of human rights), can we dramatically change the way people operate in a given area?

Equilibrium Change According to Benetech

Benetech is an engine for equilibrium change, and we’ve done it over and over again. Replicating this change at scale in multiple fields is what makes Benetech so unique in the social innovation field. We don’t pick a single area of focus. The common link among our projects is information technology, which can be applied to just about every aspect of the social sector. One of our insights is that so much of social change is about pushing around information. Yet, nonprofits frequently lag behind the for-profit world in applying technology to their work. Benetech has a unique opportunity to repeatedly use technology as a social change agent. Let me share some of the ways we have done it and are working today to do it again.
From Arkenstone to Bookshare
The field of access to books by blind people is where Benetech has twice been the key engine of positive equilibrium change at scale, and we are already working on the third change. Before Benetech was founded, blind people were read to either in person by a family member, volunteer, or paid reader, or via audio cassette tape. Blind people were dependent on sighted people for access to books. And, because of the high cost of human narration, very few books were available this way.

Benetech’s original project was the Arkenstone Reader, the first affordable reading machine for the blind. We provided a tool that blind individuals could use to scan and read their own books independently. The Arkenstone reading tools became a key mode of independent access to books. As long as you were willing to invest the two to four hours to scan that book page by page, you could read just about any book, article, or piece of mail that you wanted to read.

This was the first equilibrium change: before, blind people were read to; after, blind people scanned and read what they wanted independently. This kind of technology is now a standard part of the toolkit of blind people in the wealthier countries of the world.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen set forth the “Innovator’s Dilemma” which states that companies that have accomplished great change are reluctant to adopt the next disruptive innovation because of its impact on the existing successful business. However, as nonprofit social entrepreneurs, we don’t worry about unhappy shareholders. We are more interested in improving the world than maintaining the status quo. We can just blow up the old model while striving for the next phase of equilibrium change.

In our case, we sold the Arkenstone reading machine enterprise to a for-profit and used money from the sale (and funding from the Skoll Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and the Jenesis Foundation) to create and launch Bookshare. Being based in Silicon Valley, we have the benefit of seeing the future being invented constantly. As the author William Gibson famously noted, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.” In the case of the social sector, the odds that the use of technology is ten or twenty years behind Silicon Valley are high. As a result, we have lots of opportunities to borrow technology and business model breakthroughs and apply them to social change. And that’s what we did with Bookshare!

The Bookshare breakthrough depended on three innovations. The first was the ebook. Fundamentally, the Arkenstone Reader allowed blind people to create their own personal ebook as a text file that could be read in something like Microsoft Word. By the time of Bookshare’s creation in 2001, new and better XML digital book formats had been developed. These formats now underpin the ebook industry of today. The second innovation was crowdsourcing. It wasn’t a term in use in 2001, but the Napster peer-to-peer model of information distribution was the inspiration for Bookshare. Instead of providing a scanning tool for independent reading, Bookshare would aggregate the scanning activity of the entire community. Instead of thousands of people each scanning the new Harry Potter title, one person would scan it, one person would proofread it, and tens of thousands of people would get it through an online software service. Third, we pioneered a novel interpretation of the copyright exception for serving people with disabilities that is built into the basic law of the United States. Although it had never been created with crowd sourcing in mind, the Bookshare concept fit the existing exception like a glove.

Fast forward to today. In the United States, if a person who is blind or dyslexic receives a book suggestion from a friend, the odds that the book is available in Bookshare are probably over ninety percent. And, Bookshare’s promise to K-12 students with these kinds of disabilities is that if they need specific titles for school, we’ll get them. Once we do that, those titles will now be instantly available to the over 350,000 Americans with print disabilities who are already Bookshare members.
So, in the United States, Benetech created a second equilibrium change. Instead of being read to, or using a tool to independently create their own accessible book in a few hours, a person with a visual impairment or dyslexia can access a book in seconds, which happens to be very close to the experience of a sighted ebook reader.
Born Accessible: The Final Frontier
Which brings us to our third phase: the one we have started but not yet completed. Bookshare is terrific, but it’s fundamentally a separate system where a specialized library becomes the primary source of books for its patrons. So, how might we accomplish even greater equality and put Bookshare mostly out of business?

Enter the Born Accessible movement. Benetech’s President, Betsy Beaumon, coined the motto: “If it’s born digital, it should be Born Accessible!” Our vision is that the same ebooks available through mass channels like the Amazon Kindle or the Apple iPad should be fully accessible. Through adding accessibility features to ebooks that are critically needed by people with disabilities, and helpful to many other people, we envision a world where all commercial ebooks work effectively for the community we serve. Right now we are successfully convincing major educational publishers to build accessibility features into their standard ebooks.
Bookshare Across Borders
Interestingly enough, while we’re busy trying to make Bookshare obsolete in the United States, we’re reaching out to the developed world to help engineer an accelerated equilibrium change for people with disabilities. We want to leapfrog the current unjust equilibrium (blind people are read to, but mostly not) to a new place where the widespread availability of cheap mobile phones and MP3 players can be harnessed. But, to make that happen, we need to recreate the favorable copyright policy environment we enjoy in the United States. And so we campaigned for the Marrakesh Treaty. This breakthrough instrument was negotiated in 2013 and has now been signed by over eighty countries. It makes a copyright exception like the U.S. one a global norm and allows for easy import and export of accessible materials.

Benetech didn’t accomplish all of this equilibrium change on our own. Others played key roles in conceiving important elements, frequently before we recognized them. The difference was our ability to leverage these powerful ideas into social change at scale by becoming the most dominant reading machine maker and then the largest online library for people with print disabilities. Putting these ideas for social change into action is a key part of the Osberg/Martin definition of social entrepreneurship. Our Silicon Valley tech community roots give us an inside track on technology and business model change. We believe that our track record demonstrates how to drive this kind of equilibrium change repeatedly.

Advancing Human Rights and Conservation

Although Benetech was founded in the accessibility field, our success in equilibrium change is not limited to helping people with disabilities. In the human rights field, we have been part of major shifts in practice. The first is in using data at scale to influence the human rights debate. Benetech’s Human Rights Program played a key role in making data a critically important part of the human rights debate. Our team believed that better data would lead to better policy and maybe even justice for the victims of large-scale atrocities. Benetech successfully spun off our data team as the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, an independent NGO. Whether it’s accurately reporting the number of people killed in Syria or explaining why the FBI’s count of American police killings is significantly underestimated, data is finally influencing the policy debate.

Benetech was also the first group to bring usable cryptography to the human rights field. Now, almost fifteen years later (and post-Snowden!), everybody in the field of social justice understands that governments are probably spying on them. It’s now the norm when developing software for collecting sensitive human rights data that it be encrypted to secure this information from other parties. We’re about to announce another advance which is designed to make it incredibly easy for human rights and social justice groups to have their own secure apps for collecting data about human rights issues. This means that LGBTI groups in Africa, Tibetan groups in exile, indigenous groups in Latin America, and activists fighting gender-based violence globally will all have better and more secure tools in 2016.

Benetech also supported data-based equilibrium change in yet another field: environmental project management. We were the toolmakers to the “results-based management” movement in conservation by developing Miradi, adaptive management software for conservation projects. Using the best practices in science and activism, Miradi brought business-like project management tools to conservation. In this case, the equilibrium change was primarily conceived of by our partners in the conservation movement, and our job was to build the technology that advanced this change. We are eagerly seeking our next opportunity to make this kind of impact around climate change and sustainability.


I thank Sally and Roger for a book that did more than just make me muse on the coolness of social entrepreneurship, but gave me a better framework for both where Benetech has been, and more importantly, where we’re going. I sincerely hope it inspires other social entrepreneurs to think even more ambitiously about social change at scale.