Benetech's momentum continues with some fantastic news. I was awarded one of the 2006 MacArthur Fellowships. Our biggest challenge now is finding the right people to join our team. If you know some great folks (especially techies) who want a job that embodies their values as well as paying a competitive wage, please send them my way!
Highlights of this Letter:
* The MacA (!)
* Recruiting technical talent
* Selected Project Updates
o Route 66 Literacy demosite launches
o Bookshare.org is going international
o Guatemalan secret police archives
Getting an award like the MacArthur Fellowship is pretty humbling, especially one that embodies the built-in challenge that justifies the confidence shown by the awards panel. These awards are based not so much on past achievements, as an expectation that you will do something exciting in the future. Of course, the MacArthur people make a big deal out of the lack of obligation or reporting ("you'll never have to talk to us again," said Daniel Socolow, the head of the program). But, I don't feel that way!
The big question everybody asks me is what I'm going to do differently. And my answer is not much: I'm just going to do more of what I've been doing. However, the fellowship does give me much more flexibility: I don't have to justify spending Benetech's funds for something that isn't directly connected to our current projects. For example, I'm planning on going to India and Bangladesh next month for the first time, and to Uganda and Sudan next year.
One thing I am definitely going to do is write the book I've been kicking around for the last five years. By announcing this in many press interviews, I've managed to create lots of external pressure on myself to get this done! Speaking of the press, it is clear that they really get my overarching goal: to engage more of the tech community in serving the 90% of humanity we haven't been focusing on (yet). We featured many of these on Benetech's website. Our local paper, the San Jose Mercury News, did two great pieces on Benetech, a business section feature story and an exceptional column by Mike Cassidy entitled An Executive Does Well By Helping Others.
The great news is how much attention social entrepreneurship is getting. My two closest peers in California have both gotten MacArthurs (Victoria Hale this year and David Green two years ago). And, the godfather of the social entrepreneurship movement, Muhammad Yunus, received the Nobel Peace Price this year!
To accomplish the great things we've promised our communities (and our funders!), we need help. This kind of help comes in all forms, but we're particularly looking for technologists willing to join our team in Palo Alto. Under our new CTO, Patrick Ball (see my last President's letter), we are building a tech team to work on our incredibly varied list of projects in literacy, human rights and the environment. If you know some brilliant developers who want to actually get paid to change the world, put them in touch with us.
In addition to recruiting additional talent to our team in, we're also recruiting advisors and donors from the top echelons of the tech community. And, the most committed and dynamic folks from that crowd may have the chance to serve on our board of directors. If you know someone like that, send her (or him) my way, too!
Route 66 Literacy
Our newest project is Route 66 Literacy, and it includes a demonstration site that anyone can try out. Our initial focus is on serving people with cognitive disabilities who want to learn to read. A key feature of Route 66 is the Teacher Tutor, which helps the inexpert but motivated teacher (parent, volunteer, teacher's aide, rehab professional) teach reading.
Bookshare.org Goes International
This year marked my first attendance at the Clinton Global Initiative. CGI puts great emphasis on getting each attendee to make a new commitment to global society. My commitment was to take Bookshare.org international, including raising the money for making that possible.
We have already received a commitment from Microsoft and an unofficial commitment from a major Silicon Valley leader which will enable us to get this effort launched next year (but we still have more to do!). We've also received in-kind support from the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation, which is organizing attorneys from around the world to help get us the permissions we need to bring books to disabled people around the planet.
The Guatemalan Secret Police Archive
I love to tell the stories of users of our technology: it makes the impact of our creations real for our team. My new favorite is how the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office of Guatemala (PDH is the Spanish acronym) uses our Martus human rights software. Guatemala has a sad history of large scale human rights abuse. Few of these violations have ever been prosecuted. One of the primary institutions responsible for this history was the National Police: the secret police force that was "so inextricably linked to violent repression, abduction, disappearances, torture and assassination that the country's 1996 peace accord mandated it be completely disbanded” (Kate Doyle, National Security Archive). Last year, the National Police archive was discovered, with an estimated 80 million pages of documents. Buried in these documents could be the answers to the questions of thousands of families about loved ones who disappeared during the last thirty years.
The first step in the process of assessing these documents was a pilot project to sample them. If all of the documents sampled were office supply requisitions and pay stubs, it would not be worth the considerable effort to wade through these literal mountains of paper.
In 2006, Benetech staff assisted in the scientific sampling of 1500 documents, the summaries of which were entered into the Martus software by our partner, PDH. Evidence of human rights abuses figured in 15 percent of the documents examined, with detentions, bodies and disappearances being most frequently found. PDH and Benetech are getting ready for the next phase of this ground-breaking work.
The world needs a lot more help than Benetech or I can provide. Please keep encouraging everyone you know to get more engaged in the important work of bringing the many opportunities we possess to every person on the globe!