Friday, February 24, 2006

Davos retrospective

I'm looking back at my visit to Davos a few weeks ago, and pulling together some of the highlights. I've also had the benefit of getting some great photos sent by other people that I can use (thanks, Marketa!). The big one was taking my son, Jimmy, with me. We had a great time, and seeing things through Jimmy's eyes was quite helpful.

People have asked if I've made any big scores as a result of attending the WEF this year. The answer is, I don't know yet! I made a bunch of new connections and strengthened many old relationships. I learned new things, especially from my social entrepreneur peers and other nontraditional attendees like the Young Global Leaders and the Tech Pioneers (the Forum invites a handful of new tech company founders to attend). Social change depends on people, and the best thing about the WEF is getting to connect with people who have greatly above average ability to influence social change, through their corporations, governments, NGOs (non-governmental organizations, the global term for nonprofits), churches/mosques/synagogues/religious institution and unions. I am certain that some of these people will directly benefit one of Benetech's projects, and probably by extension, other social sector projects (because we often make links among people with common interests or issues). One measure is that there are at least fifteen people with whom I have a specific follow-up task to pursue (I'll start on those right after this blog!).

So, the highlights were all people. One terrific guy is Isaac Durojaiye from Nigeria. His social entrepreneurial effort is making plastic toilets (Porta-potties in California parlance) and providing them to unemployed widows and youth to create jobs. As he puts it: "shit business is serious business." One of the best memories of Isaac was standing in the Schatzalp hotel holding a laptop to his ear like it was a cell phone, because someone had made a Skype connection to Nigeria. Isaac is so big, it actually fit. Richard Branson loved Isaac's project when he met a dozen social entrepreneurs: I hope something comes of that!

Jimmy was very excited about the fair trade people. When I mentioned that Paul Rice, "Mr. Fair Trade Coffee" in the U.S., was one of the social entrepreneurs, Jimmy immediately wanted to meet him. Safia Minney, of Peopletree, makes fair trade fashion.

China and India were big topics of this Forum. China's social entrepreneurs are under-represented in Davos, probably because of the relatively tight control on such things in China. India and its neighbors are very well represented, partly because of the entrepreneurial culture of the region and because of the huge issues in the area. Plus, India threw one heck of a party on Saturday night, with Hindi pop singers.

Of course, part of the attraction of Davos is spending time with fun people in a mountain setting. The most fun thing I did was sledding down the mountain in the dark. We ate fondue. We danced at the India party. They don't call us "social entrepreneurs" by mistake! It might seem a little fluffy when we have such serious issues to work on. However, the chance to socialize with other people who understand your challenges is very welcome. Plus, getting a chance to eat and talk together is the best thing for serious collaboration. The real meat of any conference is not the program: it's the networking. And, that's the speciality of the World Economic Forum!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Foundation names Larry Brilliant chief

Big news from

The most anticipated hire in social entrepreneurship for years has been made.
Larry Brilliant is joining Google to run their foundation, according to this article from the SF Chronicle.

And Larry's background with founding the Well and Seva Foundation is especially notable. Seva sent my buddy, David Green, to work with the Aravind Eye Hospital to some great results! The next year or two should be very interesting as sets forth on its path.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006 Turns 4 One Book at a Time

On February 21, 2002, we publicly launched our first Benetech initiative,,, an accessible online digital library with just over 6,000 titles for print-disabled individuals, persons who are either blind or otherwise visually-impaired, have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, or have other physical impairments that preclude their access to the printed word. While the cornerstone of the initiative (a website composed of member-contributed content) was not new, the intent and audience were revolutionary: provide a centralized clearing house for legally sharing the thousands of books that print-disabled individuals across the country were scanning, OCRing and converting into accessible formats at home for themselves. With currently over 25,750 books, has become the national repository of member-contributed scanned accessible books.

Scanned books? Accessible books? What's the difference here? If you're not print-disabled, you can stroll into your favorite bookstore or library, browse the shelves, pick a title you like, open it up, and jump right in. It's just not as easy for somebody who's print-disabled. There are a few extra steps involved: scan the book (take a digital picture of every page), OCR it (use software to convert the picture of letters back into letters stored in a digital file), clean up the text to get rid of scannos (that's when the OCR software guesses incorrectly and mistakes things like "S" for "5"), and then finally take that digital file and run it through assistive technology hardware or software to access the digitized text.

Aren't there options out there already that aren't as difficult? There are some options, but the selection is limited: fewer than 5% of books are available in accessible media. To get that book in large-print or as an audio book somebody else (the publisher, in most instances) had to decide to make the book available in alternative formats. Since publishing is a market-driven enterprise, that's great for high-interest titles/best sellers, but it makes the chances of finding less-popular books nearly impossible. And Braille is not a format publishers can make money on. If nobody bothers to make a book accessible, then it's of no value to the print-disabled. If the book is available in "regular" print, a print-disabled person's best recourse is to make it accessible himself or herself. That's a good solution for one person to gain access to a book. then allows the efforts of one person, when legally shared through our online collection, to benefit countless other print-disabled individuals.

Why is this important? Roughly speaking, every year for the past 4 years, some 5,000 newly-published or existing books that were previously inaccessible to members of our print-disabled community have become accessible through If you consider just how many books get published any given year, and how many books have ever been published, 5,000 books a year over 4 years doesn't seem like a lot. But when you realize that those 5,000 accessible books per year are the critical titles that the print-disabled community relies upon for education, information, and entertainment. The great majority of books on are there because somebody took the personal initiative to make that book accessible and share it. And now publishers and authors are starting to pitch in by sending us content directly, such as the nearly 600 titles donated to us directly by O'Reilly Media, Inc.,

Every time we meet with out subscribers we hear about the positive impact has had in their lives. They have a reliable and accessible source of information and entertainment that they did not have before, and they understand the benefits of working collaboratively to build an internet-based accessible library. We did a little research into what our subscribers download most, and the results were thought-provoking. What our subscribers read reflects the diverse interests of our online community. In fact, if you're print-disabled and are a sci-fi or romance novel fan, you really need to join now, (when prompted, use registration code "BDAY" to receive a $25 discount), but aside from that, the list of the top ten most downloaded books should be familiar to just about anyone. That book you or someone you know purchased from a bookstore or borrowed from a library, read from cover to cover, talked about with friends, that book, may be the same book that a print-disabled person also read. From Top Ten Downloads for our First 4 years:

Rank, Title, Author
1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J. K. Rowling
2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling
3. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (British Edition), J. K. Rowling
5. My Life, Bill Clinton
6. The Broker, John Grisham
7. Holy Bible, New International Version, International Bible Society Editors
8. The Last Juror, John Grisham
9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (British Edition), J. K. Rowling
10. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J. K. Rowling

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Counting the Human Cost in East Timor

Our Human Rights Group just released the statistical report detailing widespread and systematic violations in Timor-Leste during the period 1974-1999. This report provides additional detail to the Timorese truth commission's recently released report "Chega!" ("Enough!"). Benetech's statistical analysis establishes that at least 102,800 (+/- 11,000) Timorese died as a result of the conflict. Approximately 18,600 (+/- 1000) Timorese were killed or disappeared, while the remainder died due to hunger and illness in excess of what would be expected due to peacetime mortality.

This is core Benetech work: using science and technology to measure human rights abuse and provide careful analysis of the scale of such violations.

For more information, check these links:

Benetech's press release.

Benetech Report.

The data.

Friday, February 03, 2006


New Benetech Website, thanks to Skoll Foundation

Thanks to the miracle of data, you're now able to see the new Benetech website, live at! This new site is the culmination of several months work from our staff and our web development partner, Mile7. It's our first complete overhaul of the site in more than four years, and we needed to reflect the maturity and breadth of Benetech's initiatives. We're also working to articulate the passion behind Benetech, so that people who invest the time to check us out on the web get an inkling of why we're so excited about what we do. We look forward to hearing your feedback, so we can build and improve on this new foundation for Benetech's web face!

I want to specifically thank the Skoll Foundation for providing the capacity building grant that made it possible for us to get the help we needed to make this happen!