Monday, November 29, 2004

Laptops roasting by a wood fire

Imagine if you will, a group of free/open-source software internationalization/translation/localization evangelists gathered in an artist's studio in snow-covered Warsaw, heated by a wood-stove, but with high-speed wireless internet access! That's the report I had today from Anna Berns, who is a product manager for our Martus Project.

She attended the LocalisationDev event last week in Poland and got a great deal out of it. We're actively translating Martus into roughly ten languages. This event was organized by Tactical Tech and Aspiration, two of the sparkplugs in the social movement around free and open source software. Check the Wiki at the above link for more information.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004 News has the ability to move quickly! On Monday morning, the 2004 National Book Award winners in fiction and nonfiction were made live on our site, providing rapid access to these books to readers with disabilities. Announced in the middle of last week, these two new books are two outstanding accounts of remarkably different histories. In the fictional "The News from Paraguay," author Lily Tuck weaves romance and imperial ambitions into an intricate and imaginative portrait of life in 19th century Paraguay. Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, won the nonfiction prize for "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age," is a 1920s courtroom drama about the murder trial of Dr. Ossian Sweet, who purchased a house in an all white neighborhood in Detroit with some serious consequences. Both of these books are timely additions to the Bookshare collection.

Monday, November 22, 2004

I am delighted that our Martus Senior Product Manager, Marc Levine, has been chosen as a ZeroDivide Fellow by the Community Technology Foundation of California (CTFC). When I spoke to the first group of ZeroDivide Fellows last year, I realized what a great opportunity this would be for an activist like Marc.

It's been hard sitting on this news for a while, but the formal announcement went out while I was traveling. It is definitely exciting, and brings a closer connection between the technology leaders in the social sector here in California and Benetech.

Friday, November 19, 2004

I hit a major personal milestone last week: I stepped down from my last executive job in the for-profit high technology sector. I was the founding CEO of RAF Technology, Inc. from 1989 to 1995, and have been the Chief Financial Officer since then. For the last few years, it has been a part-time job as I have had a very strong Controller in Alwynn Lewis. But, there were stretches in the last year where RAF needed me 15-20 hours a week, which was hard to do on top of my more-than-full-time job at Benetech.

Last Friday was my last day as RAF's CFO. Dave Reeves is joining RAF as a full time CFO, which is what RAF really needs as it continues to grow. I'll stay on as a board member. RAF does some very exciting work, such as routing the mail for the US Postal Service or playing a significant role in the US Treasury's website. I hope RAF continues to grow successfully! However, I'm happy to shed the responsibility and dedicate even more of my attention to Benetech and the social sector.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The summit last week on digital libraries for the disabled was quite exciting. It was fascinating to meet with major players from the different libraries around the world and talk about how to build the global digital library. We are working together to refine our outcomes, but it was gratifying to see how in tune we all were with the general objectives. To a great extent, the motivations are similar to what created our project: a desire to share limited resources and reduce the massive duplication of effort that goes on in making the same books accessible in different places to different people.

Microsoft made considerable efforts to support the summit and these objectives. Their press release shows their appreciation of some of the issues we're facing: Gates Stresses Value of Digital Technology in Making Information More Accessible to People with Vision or Print Disabilities.

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship tried something new this year for their annual summit. Rather than being held in Geneva at the headquarters of the World Economic Forum, Pamela and her team moved the summit closer to some of the social entrepreneurs by holding the event in Brazil.

The best part of that move was including something called "Live the Experience," where attendees were able to visit social entrepreneurs before the summit. I went to Rio de Janeiro and visited Vera Cordeiro and Rodrigo Baggio. Not only did I get to experience the work of these two exciting entrepreneurs, but I also was able to meet their management team and talk about the challenges and opportunities of growth.

The first program I visited was Saude Crianca Renascer, run by Dr. Vera Cordeiro. She was a physician in one of Rio's large public hospitals, and saw a problem pattern of hospitalization, discharge, re-hospitalization and death. Poor kids came in with health problems, get treated and then go back to an environment that undermines their health (the medicine doesn't get bought, malnutrition, poor housing, etc.). So she started an NGO to work on the issues outside the doctor's role of treatment, that are needed to break the cycle of hospitalization that leads to death.

Her group uses volunteers as the main engine of activities. They provide food, buy medicine, fix up houses, train the (typically single) mothers with job skills, encourage school attendance, etc. They are roughly ten years old, and have begun a process of professionalization, expansion, measurement of results and building a network of replication NGOs in other public hospitals.

The visit was both personally affecting and professionally interesting. Meeting very sick children and their mothers can't be experienced neutrally. At the same time, it was very interesting to see the expansion and strengthening process in a small effective organization. Vera has been adding senior management and doing a terrific job of building a brand around Renascer and Chiquinio, a stick figure child image that represents the poor children that Renascer serves. They've built a strong PR campaign using soap opera actors, as well as a product line made by their clients.

Their major problem is (surprise) fund raising. Brazil doesn't have a tradition of personal philanthropy, and there are no tax advantages to making donations. Corporations become the major backers of NGOs (perhaps they can deduct these expenses?). And, the earned income piece of their stream is relatively small.

More on the Summit later!

Monday, November 08, 2004

I just returned from Brazil yesterday: an exciting and meaningful trip that I'll talk about more later, I hope. Today I was at the beginning of the Microsoft Global Library Forum, and Bill Gates spoke to our (reasonably small) group.

Gates was well informed about most of the technical issues around this meeting, which is the heads of libraries for the print disabled from around the world. Some of his key points were:
- Longhorn (the next version of Windows due out in two years) is going to have more disability features built in, especially along the lines of speech recognition. Still, speech reco is not going to be at a level where people use it commonly instead of typing (he projected that more like 6 years out)
- Thinks that small devices are going to be very exciting for book content. Alluded to their investment in as an example of a product that justifies low prices/high volumes.
- The low price/high volume theme was sounded frequently: used to position Microsoft's move into PC operating systems as well as the issues around disability issues

Our meeting goal is discussing how to implement the global library for the disabled and share the efforts for accessibility across the sector. I asked Gates a question around international intellectual property questions, which is one of the key issues of the meeting. His main answer was trying to align the interests of disabled users with the mainstream so that they could afford the standard products (high volume implies low prices implies reasonable accessibility). Sound generally, but not the whole issue. We have a need to cover these issues in more detail with him. For example, he asked us why the DAISY format needed to be different than the regular XML used for other electronic books.

The audience asked Gates a good number of questions, and he was able to answer them specifically and with detail, discussing both Microsoft corporate positions with Gates Foundation programs. I have been frequently critical over the years about Microsoft's disability policies, but this meeting is quite encouraging so far, especially with the active attention of the founder on disability issues and the hosting of this meeting to address a key global issue in our field.