Friday, October 28, 2005

Recently we asked for some of the thousands of people with disabilities using to share how it has helped them. These thoughts from Chancey Fleet were particularly eloquent and I wanted to share it with you all.

For most students, the freshman year of college is a time for discovering intellectual strength, getting behind a cause or two, and exchanging rapid-fire theories on life, the universe and everything at 3 AM when you should be writing the paper that's due at 9.

As a blind freshman, I managed to do all those things, but I always came up against one immense barrier: I couldn't just pick up a book and read it. I got my textbooks on tape, and read them too, when the narrator didn't put me to sleep. I took pathetic notes; you can't write in a tape's margins. I developed a trademark nod-and-smile for anyone who tried to recommend a book to me, because with my friends reading such a variety of interesting things, and the Library of Congress only producing a couple hundred Braille books a year, chances were I couldn't get my hands on a recommendation. Once in a while, if I'd rather die than miss out on reading something, I'd scan it into electronic form myself: what a rush, what a feeling of freedom, but only when I found the time.

Those days are gone. For $50 a year I can access over 20.000 books, instantly. I can find out what Foucault thought about American prisons; how the Simpsons illustrate concepts in philosophy; or, if I download one of the fifty or so papers on Bookshare, exactly what's going on in the world today. Gone is the de facto censorship that resulted from publishers of texts in alternative formats trying to cater to their largest demographic. Since any user can contribute a scanned book to the site, it takes just one person to add a book to the collection. This means a dizzying array of material for people in highly specialized academic and technical fields, books for leisure readers with every fictional or nonfictional taste, and support and information for people as diverse as the average campus: a user can easily find literature relevant to his or her religious, political, ethnic and sexual identity, as well as definitive collections on disability, career-building, and life skills.

A Bookshare text is a book without barriers in more than one way. It can be read in large print, with synthesized speech, or in refreshable or embossed Braille. (Bookshare partners with Braille Institute to provide, at cost, Braille hard copies of books for subscribers who need them). It can be browsed, bookmarked, and searched with ease; and, if paired with a program like JAWS or Kurzweil, easily lends itself to annotation and outlining.

Bookshare builds citizenship in two fundamental ways. It transforms subscribers from passive beneficiaries into instant volunteers: anyone can help by submitting or proofreading books. And Bookshare puts at the disposal of its subscribers the information they need to understand and succeed in their classes, their community, and their world. Bookshare has made reading more possible and pleasurable for me, and has allowed me to use more of my time at college for learning, and less for the busy-work of tracking down and finding ways to access printed resources.

Chancey Fleet
William & Mary student Volunteer since 2001

Saturday, October 22, 2005

I came to Amsterdam yesterday to attend a summit meeting of open source foundations. It was fascinating for me, as I realize this is yet another vibrant and growing community of social enterprises.

There seem to be dozens of these groups, each built around one or more open source software project. Common threads included:
- Volunteers contributing to the creation of the software, generally organized around a meritocracy
- Corporate support in the form of explicit sponsorships and/or paying corporate employees to work on the projects
- Nonprofit status, reflecting the social nature of the community
- Financial tensions, as the foundations themselves grapple with earned income and sustainability while interacting with corporate sponsors
- And, of course, free or open source licenses to the software being created

The majority of groups at the summit were from Europe or were international groups with significant European leadership. Yet, the social enterprise issues were similar to the ones I know from the U.S. And, the desire for peer learning was strong. Everyone was eager to swap notes and experiences, since the challenges we all face are quite similar.

After the summit, I attended the BarCampAmsterdam Bar Camp being held here. Bar camps seem to be a new phenomenon, modeled after the FOO camps organized by Tim O'Reilly. It's mainly techies showing off different cool things they are working on. One cool thing I saw was called plazes, which is a location-aware system.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Benetech helps drive indictment of a former dictator.

Benetech helps drive indictment of a former dictator.

Our team has contributed critical information that has helped Human Rights Watch with its campaign to bring the former dictator of Chad to justice. This is a great example of the power of information technology to advance the cause of victims of gross human rights abuses.

On September 27, 2005 a Belgian judge issued an international arrest warrant charging Hissène Habré with atrocities during his 1982-90 rule. Hissène Habré's rule over the former French colony of Chad from 1982 to 1990 was marked by numerous and credible allegations of systematic torture and crimes against humanity.

We have just put up a new page about how Benetech's Human Rights team has analyzed secret police documents discovered by a Human Rights Watch field effort, with much more on this important effort. Be sure to check it out if you're interested in seeing how IT can help with the pursuit of justice for human rights victims.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005 is Rookie of the Year Finalist from EdNET. We were delighted to get this recognition, which is a measure of our move into the education field with It wasn't until last year that we really moved into providing books for students with disabilities, and we're still in the beginning phases of providing every student with a print disability with an accessible version of every textbook and trade book they need for educational outcomes!

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Google Library question is a hot one, and we believe that this project will lead to better access for disadvantaged people. But, the disputes between Google and the publishing industry and authors needs to be concluded before things will move forward. The core question is whether Google's Library program is a fair use of copyrighted material. Good summary in the attached review post: Does Google Library violate copyright?