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.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why Your Country Should Ratify the Marrakesh Treaty

Access to information and knowledge is a basic human right and a necessary first step towards personal, economic, and social development. Yet around the world, over 100 million individuals are denied this basic right. They include people who are blind, visually impaired, have dyslexia, or have a physical disability that prevents them from reading regular printed books. The good news is that there are now unprecedented opportunities to transform the lives of these millions by removing barriers of access to information and this is where you can help.
Chief negotiator Justin Hughes and the
U.S. delegation signing the treaty. 
The international legal landscape for people with these disabilities dramatically changed on June 28, 2013, when the World Intellectual Property Organization adopted the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled. This historic international copyright exception treaty paves the way for a future in which people who cannot read regular printed materials can have equal access to books, regardless of where they live. There is still much to do, however, before the treaty takes full effect.
As the nonprofit operator of Bookshare,the world’s largest online library for people who are blind, visually impaired, dyslexic, or have a physical disability that prevents them from reading books, Benetech strongly recommends the ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty.
Here’s why the Marrakesh Treaty is so important and why your country can help ensure it benefits the millions who need it.
What Does the Marrakesh Treaty Do?
The World Blind Union's Right to Read Campaign estimates that less than ten percent of all books published are available in accessible formats such as braille, large print, and audio talking books. The Marrakesh Treaty makes it easier for nonprofits, schools, government agencies, and individuals with disabilities to convert inaccessible print books into accessible equivalents. It does so by making it legal under copyright to create accessible books without needing to seek permission or (in most countries) paying a royalty. It also allows for the import and export of such accessible books across international borders.
How Does the Treaty Help My Country?
·         It remedies the book famine faced by people who are blind or have another disability that prevents them from reading books, improving their access to education, employment, and social inclusion.
·         It supports international human rights treaty commitments, especially the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
·         It supports the Sustainable Development Goals, which mention inclusiveness repeatedly, especially in the context of education.
·         It is the primary successful example of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization Development Agenda, and will lay the groundwork for more advances in the Development Agenda.
·         It supports domestic human and civil rights laws around access to information and education.
·         It greatly lowers the cost of providing accessible books by both easing domestic efforts as well as by opening up existing accessible book collections in other countries (either regionally or large worldwide English libraries, such as Bookshare’s collection of 375,000+ titles).
·         It helps hasten the development of a domestic electronic book industry in your country, since ebooks are one core format for providing accessible books.
·         It is politically popular. Helping people with disabilities gain access to education and books is a cause everyone can identify with. Most people know someone who might benefit from books that talk.
·         The publishing industry has come out in favor of the treaty.
How You Can Help

Benetech is happy to support the World Blind Union in its campaign for the Marrakesh Treaty ratification and implementation. Check out the World Blind Union’s resources for getting involved with efforts to advance the Treaty’s ratification in your country. We also recommend that you coordinate with your national association of the blind as you consider ratification. Please join us in ending the accessible book famine facing the world’s blind population. Advocate for your country to ratify Marrakesh!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Worthy Read: National Education Technology Plan

I just finished reading the National Education Technology Plan, and I can recommend it to anyone interested in the future of technology in American education. 

These kinds of plans can be impenetrable, but I found this one quite readable and understandable.  It is full of examples of interesting ed tech from for-profits and nonprofits, as well as local, state and federal government agencies.  I found the explanations good, and the first part of the plan is well worth reading to understand some of the trends in educational applications of technology.

Of course, one thing might be that accessibility is put right up top, front and center!  I liked this quote:
In addition to enabling students with disabilities to use content and participate in activities, the concepts also apply to accommodating the individual learning needs of students, such as English language learners, students in rural communities, or students from economically disadvantaged homes. 
Universal design gets a lot of well-deserved attention, and I was positively delighted by the plug for born accessible:
Education stakeholders should develop a born accessible standard of learning resource design to help educators select and evaluate learning resources for accessibility and equity of learning experience. Born accessible is a play on the term born digital and is used to convey the idea that materials that are born digital also can and should be born accessible. If producers adopt current industry standards for producing educational materials, materials will be accessible out of the box. 
So, there's a lot to like in there for me and our campaign for greater accessibility built into future educational technology and content!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Mr. Jim Goes to Washington (and New York, and Nairobi, and Seoul, and Kampala, and Boston…)

Like many other leaders of nonprofit organizations, I travel an unreasonable fraction of the time. I recently hit three million lifetime miles on American Airlines. Not sure whether to celebrate or mourn this milestone.
Why do I do it? Why do my peers do it? We know that the carbon impact of all that travel is bad for the planet, and the personal impact of all that travel is bad on our bodies.
We travel because we think it’s the most effective way to spread social change. We travel because there is no substitute for human interaction. We travel because we need to raise money, and we won’t get it unless we get in front of the donors.
For the more senior social entrepreneurs, we can travel because we have leaders and teams that are usually better than we are at running the organizations we head and/or have founded. We travel because it‘s the best use of our time in finding the partnerships, insights, and the money our teams need to create more social change. Lastly, we travel to advocate for the world to change, from a position of authority based on the change our organizations are already delivering.
That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. However, I thought I’d back up the theory with a brief picture of what this kind of travel looks like in practice. When I travel, I write up detailed notes on who I meet with and what we discussed. After all, if we’re going to invest all of that time and money sending me places, Benetech better get its social good bang for the buck. So, let me tell you about a seven week travel jag I recently completed, where I spent almost 70% of the nights not at home (including weekends). Hopefully, it will give you a flavor of why this travel is worth it to me and Benetech!

New York 

Every year, social entrepreneurs and donors (along with a whole lot of other folks) converge on New York City. It’s the week of the United Nations General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative. Even if all you do is spent two minutes in the lobby of the hotel where CGI is held, you have plenty of meetings and events to attend. My trip report mentions 19 different events or meetings, where I talked to at least 40 named individuals, in five days in New York City, and here are some of the highlights:
Skyscraper at night, with partial moon rising right next to it visually.
Empire State Building and Moon in Eclipse
  • Attended events thrown by current funders (Skoll Foundation, the Internet Freedom Program at the State Department), past funders (Omidyar Network), and other funders who I hope will fund us someday (who shall remain nameless for now). 
  • Took pictures of the lunar eclipse next to the Empire State Building(!)
  • Attended a networking events for social entrepreneurs, such as the one organized by the Schwab Foundation (the organizers of the World Economic Forum in Davos), where we brainstormed about different issues. I led a conversation on what big data is going to mean for social entrepreneurs. 
  • Met with current and prospective individual donors as part of my donor cultivation and stewardship efforts, by thanking current donors and explaining what we’ve accomplished with their support, and sharing our activities with prospective donors in the hopes of getting them to support Benetech. 
  • Consulted with some peer social entrepreneurs about whether we could help them with specific technology for their nonprofits. 
  • Met with a big NYC disability services provider about a possible Bookshare partnership. 
  • Met with a major international human rights defender group about our Martus technology and digital security more generally. 
  • Interviewed several candidates for executive positions at Benetech. 
  • Met with the UN Foundation about a major grant they are giving us to bring Bookshare to India. 
  • And much more… 

Washington, D.C. 

I then zipped down to DC for three days. I spent one day with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as they hosted an event for the Technology Partner Network (I’m one of a couple of hundred of tech advisors in the network). It was interesting to hear the latest about the Gates Foundation and their tech directions. We’re a former grantee and we hope that our work and Gates funding priorities coincide again in the future. Mainly, it was interesting to hear the perspective of a bunch of fellow tech advisors and be part of a process of collectively getting smarter.
Next was two days of Capitol Hill lobbying. I spend between four and ten days a year talking to Congressional staff (this year will be at the lower end of the range). I started doing this back in 2007, when we won our first big federal contract for Bookshare, to take it from 3,000 students back then to more than 350,000 students now. This time I had three agenda items for my conversations with congressional staff:
  • Advocating for funding for special education. We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years advocating against cuts to the funding that supports our work, by pointing out how amazingly effective this funding is. Even in the tough fiscal environment in Washington, we get good hearings from both Republicans and Democrats. Ensuring kids with disabilities get equal opportunity is, fortunately, a bipartisan issue. 
  • The Marrakesh Treaty. Word is that the Marrakesh Treaty for the Blind has a ratification package completed. That’s all of the legal work-up on a treaty and how U.S. law needs to change to comply with the treaty (the hope is that these changes are minimal). It’s now up to the Obama Administration to decide if and when they ask the Senate to ratify it. This is not as improbable as it might seem: there’s a pretty good chance the Republican-led Senate might approve the Treaty. I had hoped that the package would have already been in the hands of the Senate, but it hasn’t happened yet. I had a joint meeting (both Republicans and Democrats) with the key Senate Judiciary Committee staff who are the copyright experts, and learned a lot about the process. 
  • Student privacy. We recently wrote a piece in Medium on our concerns about new privacy legislation affecting nonprofits that work in schools. I had a chance to meet with staffers involved in the drafting of two key federal bills that are most likely to be adopted, and shared my issues. This is what my team calls a karma gig. Benetech is going to be able to comply with any reasonable legislation around student privacy, and we’re supportive of improved privacy standards. But, we’re concerned about small nonprofits who are not Google, Facebook, Pearson or Benetech, and they aren’t able to show up in a place like DC. So, we fill in for them. 

Nairobi, Kenya 

Next I headed to Nairobi, Kenya. My main commitment was to attend a conference in Uganda (described below in this blog post), but I figured if I was in east Africa, I should take the opportunity to first visit two key partners in Kenya (after having a coffee on Sunday with my cousin's daughter, an MIT grad working on analyzing traffic safety data gleaned from social media in Kenya).
My first visit was with Carol Wanjiku, the CEO of our outsourcing partner Daproim. Carol’s social enterprise in Nairobi employs over 100 students working to proofread books for our Bookshare digital library. Her story is so compelling, I’ve already written a blog post about this incredible woman, entitled Rockstar Nairobi Social Entrepreneur. Enough said!
Alberta Wambua, John Kipchumbah, Jim Fruchterman and Dr. Sam Thenya in front of hospital signs
Gender Violence Recover Unit

The next day I spent with our long-term tech partner, John “Kipp” Kipchumbah of Infonet. Our first in-person meeting was four years ago, but Kipp has been working with Benetech for more than a decade. Kipp has been a leading software developer in the region, creating software around election monitoring and government transparency just to name a few.
We were supposed to start our visit with a very high government official, but instead Kipp took me over to Nairobi Women’s Hospital. This hospital has a specialty unit that focuses on the survivors of sexual violence such as rape, and Kipp introduced me to Alberta Wambua, who runs the Gender Violence Recovery Centre at the hospital. I quickly found myself talking to one of the front-line doctors, Dr. Edwin, who explained the process of completing the standard rape reporting form paperwork while treating a rape victim. In quick succession I met the medical director who oversees the doctors in the hospital, and then the hospital CEO, Dr. Sam Thenya.
Kipp’s idea was that we could take this paper-based rape reporting system and build it on top of our Martus secure human rights software platform. It would have the following benefits:
  • Keeping this highly confidential information safe; 
  • Backing up the information securely into the cloud; 
  • Tracking all changes to the records from the very first time the data is captured; 
  • Allowing the medical experts in the Gender Based Violence (GBV) area to have better aggregate data about the prevalence and characteristics of GBV in Kenya. 
The Benetech team is very excited about helping with this important application: we’ve already built an initial prototype of the app for Kipp and his partners to evaluate.

Kampala, Uganda 

The Sixth Africa Forum was the main reason for my Africa trip. The Africa Forum is the premier meeting of blindness groups across sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s held roughly every three years. It was the third Africa Forum I’ve attended: I went to Accra, Ghana, in 2011 and South Africa in 2004. This time, I had the benefit of help. Our new international Bookshare manager, Terry Jenna, arrived several days before I did and I found myself in a whirl of meetings with international groups, funders, the key disability minister in the Ugandan government, and many others.
Beatrice Kaggya (Ugandan disability commissioner), Terry Jenna, Minister Sulaiman Madada, Jim Fruchterman in office
Visiting the Hon. Sulaiman Madada, Uganda's Minister of State for Gender, Labour and Social Development
The conference was ably keynoted by Professor Ruth Okediji, who played a key role in negotiating the Marrakesh Treaty on behalf of the African delegations. She is a University of Minnesota law school professor who was born in Africa and is a terrific advocate for the Treaty and its empowerment of the blind community. Bookshare was there with two offers. First, Bookshare has more than 200,000 accessible titles in English available to blind people in Africa. So, we’re happy to share the American (and Canadian and British and Indian) content we already have. Second, we’d be happy to provide the digital infrastructure so that African countries can create their own Bookshare collections once they ratify the Marrakesh Treaty.
One moment made a big impression on me. We were demonstrating Bookshare to a person at one of Uganda’s top universities. They have over 100 visually impaired students enrolled, and want to do more for these students. We were sitting in the shade outside the conference facility, but there was good wifi. I brought up our Read Now capability in Google’s Chrome browser and started reading a textbook aloud directly from the browser. The light bulb went off and our guest exclaimed, “That’s exactly what our students need!” A nice reminder of why we do this work!

Half Moon Bay, California

After 2.5 weeks on the road, I got back and slept in my bed for a couple of nights. Then, it was off to Miramar Farms in Half Moon Bay, a community on the Pacific Ocean less than an hour from our offices in Silicon Valley. Benetech has held its annual management team offsite at Miramar Farms several times. We find their restored barn to be a terrific place to step away and brainstorm about Benetech’s plans for the coming years.
The offsite went really well, best we have had. I had a particular brainstorm as a result of some ideas presented by the team, because on the flight back from Africa I had just read Sally Osberg’s new book on social entrepreneurship (coauthored with Prof. Roger Martin). It made a big impression on me, and I am also working on a blog post inspired by her book, Getting Beyond Better.

Seoul, South Korea

After an almost restful whirlwind of meetings in California, it was off to Seoul for the Eighth Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy. This is my first time at this conference, which had been strongly recommended to me by Stanford Professor Larry Diamond and the head of the National Endowment for Democracy, Carl Gershman.
What attracted me to the meeting was Benetech’s expanded focus on social justice and the humanitarian fields in our human rights work. It was a chance to get exposed to a new set of people. It was also important to finally meet some leaders in the field who I had never met in person. For example, Professor Ron Deibert from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School. The Citizen Lab is probably the world’s foremost group analyzing the attacks on human rights groups by repressive governments. Although Benetech has cooperated with the Citizen Lab for years, I know that meeting Ron in person will take that relationship up a notch.
At the meeting I met with groups from all over the world, including people who have visited Benetech’s offices but who hadn’t met me (probably because I was traveling). One of the most exciting meetings was with Scott Carpenter of Google Ideas, where I got the inside scoop on their ambitious plans to end online repressive censorship. Google Ideas was there in force, and even as a longtime security geek I learned some things by attending one of their training sessions.
Of course, being in proximity to North Korea, one of the most dire countries in terms of respect for human rights, meant that this topic came up frequently. I had a couple of meetings on the topic, including an illuminating discussion with the Transitional Justice Working Group.


Flying directly from Seoul to Boston (via Dallas), I jumped into an experts’ meeting on the Marrakesh Treaty. Professor Ruth Okediji, who keynoted the Uganda conference a couple of weeks earlier, is visiting Harvard Law School this year. She convened a group of noteworthy law professors who are experts on international law, including human rights and copyright law. The chief negotiators of the Treaty for India (GR Raghavender), Brazil (Kenneth Nobrega), and of course Nigeria (Ruth) all participated. The objective of this group is to draft a guide to the Marrakesh Treaty for countries around the world to use as they implement the Marrakesh provisions in their national law. Even as someone who has worked in the human rights field for many years, I learned a great deal from these eminent experts, and hopefully shed some light on the details on how libraries like Bookshare serve people with disabilities like vision impairment or dyslexia.


And now I’m briefly back with my team in Palo Alto, and the season has changed from warm and mild to cool and occasionally even rainy. But, it’s sure a nice place to visit!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Rockstar Nairobi Social Entrepreneur

Carol Wanjiku is the CEO of Daproim. She’s an incredible social entrepreneur I just visited with in Nairobi, Kenya. She runs a for-profit social enterprise named Daproim that provides data entry services using disadvantaged students as their primary workforce.

We go way back with her firm. In 2008, we were the first customer of Samasource as they were getting started. Samasource connected us with Daproim in Nairobi to proofread books for our Bookshare project. Bookshare is our large digital library for students with disabilities such as blindness or dyslexia. We use digital ebooks at Bookshare’s core, which can easily be turned into braille, large print or digital audio (using synthetic speech technology). We had just won a large contract to deliver high-quality accessible textbooks to students with disabilities in the U.S., and we needed more help. Samasource connected us with a winning team, and we’ve been using Daproim ever since.

I visited Daproim four years ago, and wrote about my experiences in a blog post about its founder, Steve Muthee. While I was there, I also met Carol. She was Steve’s operational head, and they had just become engaged. They made a great team: Steve was an enthusiastic salesman/CEO, passionate about building up Kenya through good IT jobs, and Carol ran the team. They recruited their staff from Nairobi slums as well as students from poor rural backgrounds who had made it to Nairobi universities.
Portrait photo of Carol Wanjiku, seated and smiling, wearing a red jacket
Carol Wanjiku

Daproim went on to great success. Carol shared that they had received an Impact Sourcing grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and scaled up their capacity. They focused even more on students, and built online resources that allowed them to recruit from across Kenya, including economic and social screening for the neediest students. Daproim worked with TechnoServe and developed soft skills training modules for students who stuck with the work after an initial period. Carol explained that these smart students lacked the connections and people skills to get jobs after graduation, and that Daproim wanted to give them a leg up in going on to tech careers once they graduated from school and from working for Daproim.

Unfortunately, early last year, Steve got sick. The doctors in Kenya struggled with a diagnosis. Meanwhile, Carol became pregnant with their first child. Steve went to India for more tests. They diagnosed him with a rare, serious disease called dermatomyositis. Only a month after the birth of their daughter, Amara, last October, Steve passed away.

My team and I were quite worried about Carol, as a new mom suddenly in charge of a social enterprise. We sent our condolences and best wishes for Carol and her new baby. Incredibly, the high-quality work continued to flow from Daproim uninterrupted.

Last week I was able to visit Nairobi, and I sat down with Carol to find out how we could help her. Her answer was simple: she simply needs more business. As she put it, “Steve’s dream was to see Daproim grow!” They have 250 part-time staff right now, and they want to grow to 800 staff by the end of 2016. I was surprised to find out that we’re her largest customer right now, with more than 100 students working on proofreading educational books for Bookshare. I also learned that our collection development team keeps track of exam schedules in Kenya, and arranges our book flows to Daproim accordingly, so that students can focus on their school work during that period.

Her limitation is not lack of human capital. Daproim has more than 7600 applications from Kenyan students who want to work there. With the investment in systems thanks to Rockefeller’s support, expansion is relatively easy.

Carol also asked me if we would serve as a reference for Daproim. No problem! Carol, consider this blog post a down payment on that reference.

I asked Bookshare’s head of Collection Development, our very own Carol James, about Daproim’s work, and she had this to say:
She has done an amazing job of keeping Daproim going after Steve’s death – they continue to be one of our best vendor partners, in terms of value, quality, and timeliness, and Carol is so positive and proactive about keeping the relationship with us healthy. 

So, if you’re searching for great data entry services for outsourcing, make your money work twice as hard like we do. We get great services from Daproim, and we know that our money is also supporting the development of the new Africa through its smart yet disadvantaged students!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Help Wanted: Wildcards!

Are you someone who is burning to make a difference? Someone who values doing good over a whopping salary? Do you want flexibility in your job? Benetech wants to hear from you! It’s hard for most organizations to accommodate nonstandard approaches to work. There are jobs that need doing, and most places have a standard model for doing them. However, Benetech is not a standard place! Consider what makes Benetech unique:

  • Women Majority: The majority of Benetech’s executives, managers, professional staff and overall team are women. How many tech companies can say that!
  • Rights-focused: Advancing the human rights of disadvantaged people is central to our work. We help the people who most need it, not those who can most afford it.
  • Flexibility: We expect the work to get done, and provide our professional staff a high degree of flexibility on how to get it done.
Help wanted sign

What’s the catch? Well, we’re a nonprofit: organized as a charity. And while we pay quite well by nonprofit standards, there is no stock plan. If making top dollar is a personal requirement or the chance to make social good doesn’t make your heart sing, stop reading, we’re not your next gig.
  • If you are someone with amazing skills who is looking for a way to give back using those talents, read on.
  • If you are looking for a path to reenter the workplace, but need the flexibility or hours to spend parts of the day at home, read on.
  • If you have made an exit, but playing golf all day is not your idea of nirvana, read on.
  • If you have a great idea for a job share, read on.
  • If you would like to try the nonprofit sector on for size, read on.
Our regular job postings are on our website here, but not all of our needs fit a standard job posting. We need help in the following areas:
  • Marketing and communications
  • Fundraising
  • Software development
  • Recruiting
  • Accounting and finance
  • Community management
To us, a wildcard position is a new, unexpected better option for accomplishing our social mission. It could be a full-time gig, part-time, low bono or pro bono. We are excited to be exposed to new ideas, and we hope your involvement is one of those great new ideas! If you have outstanding skills you want to employ for the greater good, and even if your skills don’t precisely match the jobs listed on our website, send your resume and a cover letter that explains why you are amazing and what you’d need to make a wildcard position work for you to If you’ve read this far, we really want to hear from you!