Friday, March 31, 2006

Posts from the Skoll World Forum

I have been blogging for Social Edge this week, and have grouped together several of my blogs from there for the Beneblog!

Here are 50 from the Skoll World Forum, Oxford 2006 - a photoset on Flickr.

One of the major themes of working with the Skoll Foundation is the focus on stories. That's what Jeff does with Participant Productions, and a big piece of the Foundation's efforts are around helping us tell stories. Many social entrepreneurs actively avoid telling stories about themselves: they tell stories about other people more easily.

At last night's awards ceremonies, the highlight was seeing four short films on four of the Skoll Social entrepreneurs. Martin Burt, Social entrepreneurI learned that my buddy Martin Burt was on the front line of a revolution in Paraguay when mayor of the capital city, by calling in garbage trucks and bulldozers to surround the congress building while the army was busy shooting people. Only the tenacity of the filmmakers got this story out of Martin, who otherwise would be talking about his dream of helping turn poor farmers into rural entrepreneurs. Another film was a compelling version of the turning point for Victoria Hale when a taxidriver challenged her thinking about why the pharma industry can't make drugs that could save hundreds of thousands of lives (because the customers would only be poor people). Ann Cotton talked about why it is so crucial for girls to have access to education, and I learned even more about her drive for girls education in Africa. Finally, Amitabha Sadangi told in Hindi about his background as a very poor person who had the opportunity to get top academic degrees and then decided to help people like him rather than go for the bucks. His affordable drip irrigation systems make it possible for farmers to make more money and keep their kids in school rather than migrating during the year looking for work.

The films were an outcome of a Sundance story-telling workshop where filmmakers and social entrepreneurs got together to create better ways of telling their story.
Robert Redford, speaking at Skoll Forum at Oxford's Said Business SchoolRobert Redford is a huge fan of social entrepreneurship, and he really engaged in what we were doing. He tracked me down to explain what we were doing in our new environmental project!

I am having a blast at the Skoll Forum: spending tons of time talking to people about social change and technology. The best part has been talking to the other Skoll entrepreneurs. By putting us all in the same hotel, and giving us plenty of time to talk, we're coming up with tons of ways that we can work together to advance our common missions. Just some quick examples:

- Heidi Kuhn of Roots of Peace: Heidi has actually driven a great deal of real landmine removal, and she is very strong on the human and public side of the issue (somewhere where we are not strong). I know that as soon as we have a working prototype of our landmine detector (which is some time off in the future), we'll get help getting it tested in some of the most mine affected countries

- Bunker Roy of the Barefoot College: Bunker is pushing me to do something for blind people in India, and I am getting excited about the challenge

- talking to John Wood of Room to Read about his computer labs and their (successful) efforts to publish children's books in Nepali and Khmer. They are definitely tackling market failure in the publishing industry: in Nepal they are now the second largest publisher of children's books in Nepali.

- Rodrigo Baggio (of CDI in Brazil) and I are trying to find more time together since we're both in the IT space: we know there's a joint project here somewhere.

and more. There is such a natural desire to find ways to work together, and each of us has major strengths to bring to any such partnership. I don't expect each of these conversations to result in something in the coming year, but I'm sure we will find at least one "live one" in the next year, and more after that.

The different social entrepreneurs have started showing up: we have a day of meetings before the main Skoll Forum starts. There are sixteen social entrepreneur award winners this year: three are past Skoll grantees, but this is our first chance to be on stage for the big award ceremony. And six of the new SASEs are people I have never met before, and it's cool learning about what they do.

Sandy on stage talkingSandy Herz got the new SASEs together this afternoon to do a practice run for the big event on Thursday night. I just found out it's going to be live on Social Edge. Phil Collis, Ruth Norris, Albina Ruiz, Heather Mason and Christy ChinWe had fun running through the rehearsal, with different Skoll staff standing in for Jeff Skoll, Robert Redford, Sir Ben Kingsley and Sally Osberg (CEO of the Skoll Foundation). Ruth Norris, Phil Collis, Blaise Judja-Sato, Heather Mason and Christy ChinWe definitely camped it up: we'll probably be more serious on Thursday night.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Biggest Disability Tech Conference of the Year

Last week's CSUN conference was great. It's the biggest disability tech conference of the year in the U.S., and there was lots of exciting things happening.

The biggest highlight was talking to Jim Barbour of Google. I've been working on Google's accessibility opportunities (and problems) for some time, and their CAPTCHA (the distorted letters you need to type in to get access) has been a huge problem for access for blind people. I had heard from other Google people (like Larry Page) that this problem was being actively discussed, but Jim confirmed that efforts were really proceeding to fix this.

Susie Mckinnon of and I gave a talk called NIMAS 101, designed to demystify the upcoming new NIMAS standard (hey, it's just HTML plus some extra tags that help navigation, and works great in your browser). NIMAS is the new format that all K-12 textbooks in the U.S. will be delivered in starting at the end of 2006. After the talk, I found that Prof. Norm Coombs had recorded the session and provided me with a copy. You can listen to the talk by downloading it here.

George Kerscher of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic and I had a rare chance to do a joint presentation, called "Scan (or Create) the D*** Thing Once!" George is the driving force behind the DAISY format and the father of the field of electronic books for people with disabilities. Our point was that (A) let's scan the book at most once and (B) wouldn't it be better if we didn't have to scan it at all!

Jim Fruchterman at CSUNI enjoyed the community meeting, where we had users, assistive tech vendors, staff and volunteers. gave an update on in the coming year: better funding, hiring, more book permissions (equals pub quality and usually global rights), quality upgrades with the new NIMAS standard and going international. gustavo galindo smiling at CSUN with wine bottle in foregroundIOne of the great aspects of the social sector is that these events are informal and fun.
We are all on such common ground, it is easy to get together and talk shop while drinking a glass of wine. Jim Fruchterman and David Andrews seated at a table at CSUNIt is actually crucial for a community-led, volunteer-driven project like to engage hearts and minds to make the impact we intend.

In Oxford for the Skoll Forum

I'm already here in Oxford and getting ready for the Skoll World Forum. This week I'm hanging out with the Skoll crowd and they've picked out a really cool hotel that used to be the Oxford prison (the hotel's name is Malmaison, or "bad house"). My room is made from three former jailcells. The windows still have bars on them. Reminds me of my old office five years ago at Moffett Field (which used to be the drug dispensary and had bars to keep people out, not in!).
The door is still the same metal encased door with a porthole for grub (haven't figured out if room service has a key). However, the hotel added a standard door handle to make it into a hotel room.

When you go out the door, you're looking at a typical prison cell block with catwalks and all.

My excitement about being here is based on the people I'm going to get to meet. First, there's time with my peers, other social entrepreneurs. This was a big highlight last year, and one of the main reasons I come to events like this. Second, I get to spend time with the Skoll Foundation team. Although we're located a mile apart in California, I'll probably get more face-time here in Oxford because we're all sheltered from the pressures of normal office obligations. This includes hearing from Jeff Skoll. Last year, I heard about Participant Productions and got an idea of how big Jeff's plans were. Now, seeing how much success he's had with films like North Country, Syriana, Murderball, Gandhi (dubbed into Arabic) and the New Heroes series, I'm really looking forward to hearing more from Jeff. Third, there are all the cool people who are excited about social entrepreneurship and want to get involved (or are already involved). Last year, I was very impressed with the business school students and professors I met, especially those in the Skoll Program at Said (the Oxford business school).

Well, more as it unfolds!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Newsline and Grow Accessible Newspapers!

We have just announced the formal launch of our Newsline/ partnership with the National Federation of the Blind. We have 125 daily papers available for download on, thanks to NFB's work on securing agreements with newspaper publishers. This means that people with disabilities can get the daily newspaper at the same time as everybody else, and in the form they prefer: Braille, large print or synthetic speech. The release has already been published online: Blind advocacy group's 'Newsline' to grow.

This is the big disability technology week: I'm at the CSUN conference in Los Angeles right now to give a couple of talks and have a bunch of meetings. This is the biggest conference of the year, and everybody who's developing adaptive technology will be here. Our big task at is making sure that we work with everyvbody who provides access technology for text. Good news is that people are motivated, since we're the largest repository of this kind of accessible material!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Skoll Provides Major Support to Benetech!

I am so happy to report that we are receiving over $1.2 million in support from the Skoll Foundation. Jeff Skoll's foundation has been one of our significant supporters over the past few years, but this reflects a quadrupling of their annual general support levels for us, compared to the last two years. The Benetech team is very excited about what this means for us and the communities we serve.

And, I'll be going to Oxford at the end of this month to the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship to accept the award on behalf of the Benetech team. Here's the press release from Skoll announcing all of this year's Skoll Award winners: Skoll Foundation Awards $16 Million to Nonprofits Around the World in Support of Social Entrepreneurship.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Wired News: Coders Bare Invasion Death Count

Wired News: Coders Bare Invasion Death Count

We have gotten excellent press for our human rights program lately. The Wired News story did a great job of covering our work in East Timor/Timor Leste.

And, our Martus human rights software was covered in a South African publication, with an article entitled: Free software working for human rights. That same article was picked up elsewhere in Africa, such as the
Mail and Guardian Online.

Our work in human rights depends on the press to get the word out to many people, since there isn't a strong business case for doing advertising of our work! We really appreciate journalists who are interested in covering the efforts of our human rights group and the people we support.