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Showing posts from December, 2006

Helping everyone read

Bookshare.org is built on the efforts of great volunteers. One of our terrific volunteers is Matthew Devcich, who chose to do his Eagle Scout project on scanning for Bookshare.org.

One of the key ways we can help reward volunteers is to help acknowledge their efforts. Thanks to efforts by our Bookshare.org team and our communications director, Ann Harrison, we were delighted to see Matthew's efforts highlighted in an article in his hometown paper, entitled Helping everyone read.

Of course, we hope additional people who love books are inspired to volunteer for Bookshare.org thanks to Matthew's example!


Protecting Guatemala's National Police Historical Archive

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Protecting Guatemala's National Police Historical Archive
A Guest Blog By Ann Harrison
Benetech Communications Director

Since 2003, Benetech's Martus information management software has helped human rights activists create encrypted databases and back up their data remotely to their choice of publicly available servers. Martus has been used in fifteen countries to secure sensitive information and protect witnesses.

Last month, I had a chance to visit the largest Martus project which is unfolding inside a mammoth warehouse in Guatemala City. Discovered last summer, the warehouse contains approximately 80 million records from the archive of the Guatemalan National Police. These papers, books, photos and floppy disks contain critical information about police procedures during Guatemala's 30-year internal armed conflict that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. This data is now under the protection of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, Sergio Morales, who is researching human r…

Benetech Analyzes Key Bangladeshi Human Rights Data

In my recent blog postings, I documented personal impressions during my recent trip to Bangladesh. This post takes a look at how Benetech is helping to document human rights abuses in that country. Objective and scientific evidence of human rights violations gives voice to victims and witnesses who have the courage to come forward and tell their stories. Romesh Silva, a statistician with Benetech's Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), has provided key statistical analysis for a Human Rights Watch report issued this week documenting torture and unlawful killings by Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism force.

Silva's analysis presented in the report, "Judge, Jury, and Death: Torture and Executions by Bangladesh's Elite Security Force." HRW concludes that between June 2004 and October 2006, the RAB killed at least 367 people in Bangladesh and tortured hundreds more.

While researching these incidents, HRW compil…

Waste Concern

People often ask me what is the benefit of being identified as a social entrepreneur? My answer is two things: it helps me raise money for Benetech and the people I meet who are also social entrepreneurs are my closest peers in the world.

When I travel to new places, I always try to connect with other social entrepreneurs. With this in mind, I got in touch with Iftekhar Enayetullah and Maqsood Sinha of the social enterprise Waste Concern. When I first met them several years ago, Waste Concern was processing organic waste from Dhaka into fertilizer, and generating jobs for the poor.

The amazing thing I learned on this visit was how much more was going on with these guys. It turns out that their work generates carbon credits, and so they've been able to attract millions of dollars of investment. They are not just in Dhaka, but a dozen other cities now. The topic of hybrid for-profit/nonprofit enterprises is a big one for me, and these guys are busy setting one up to greatly ex…

Vinod Sena in memoriam

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Vinod Sena in memoriam

I had a very unfortunate reminder of the fragile state of each human being this week. Just after returning from India and Bangladesh, I received word that one of my key contacts and hosts had suddenly passed away.

Professor Vinod Sena was a retired professor of English literature at the University of Delhi. Visually impaired his entire life, he was a tireless advocate for the blind and visually impaired as well as a shining role model. He has been described as the pioneer of Talking Books in India, and had been campaigning for a copyright law change to make it easier to provide access to accessible books. While I was in India, I picked up the newspaper and saw that he had just received a Helen Keller award for his work.



I know that the advocates for the blind and visually impaired will continue his work, initially with a heavy heart, but with the confidence that they are following in the footsteps of a great man.

bracNet

A very exciting part of my visit to Bangladesh was meeting with the team at bracNet, a for-profit internet company that is partially owned by BRAC. I had met Khalid Quadir, the CEO, when he was doing a Reuters Fellowship several years ago at Stanford. In Dhaka, I got together with Khalid several times, as well as meeting most of the bracNet management team.

bracNet has the exciting air of a tech startup around it. So often, I get to see tech companies here in Silicon Valley in their early stages, and you wonder what they will grow up to be. bracNet has so many possibilities in Bangladesh: will they be the Craigslist there? the Yahoo? the eBay? a nicer version of AT&T? They are already off and working on a plan to bring WiMax (the wireless broadband standard) to all of Bangladesh, at the same time they are building commercial website capabilities. They've partnered with Google already, and I'm sure more Valley companies are on the way. 140+ million consumers are i…

BRAC

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My primary destination in Bangladesh was to meet with BRAC, which is the world's largest NGO (nonprofit organization) with nearly 100,000 employees. BRAC is run as a social enterprise, and generates over 75% of its own budget through earned income. BRAC is one of the social entrepreneurship field's best example of what a results-oriented team can accomplish even in the most difficult and poverty-stricken environment.

I was able to meet with quite a number of that dynamic team, starting with BRAC's founder, Fazel Abed. Abed has accomplished an incredible amount since founding BRAC more than 30 years ago, but he is charging forward with expansion both inside and outside of Bangladesh. In an action-packed hour meeting, I heard about BRAC's efforts to create jobs, change the educational system, expand access to microcredit and other exciting ventures. All of this with a culture of accountability and results at a massive scale. The distinct impression you get is that…

Bangladesh

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My next stop after Mumbai was Dhaka, Bangladesh. I flew to Kolkata (Calcutta) which is very close to Bangladesh and then took an older jet to Dhaka. In today's era of armored cockpit doors in the U.S., it was surprising to see the flimsy door fly open on landing!



Bangladesh is distinctly poorer than the potions of India I visited, but it was also had simultaneous pockets of wealth and poverty side by side. Grameen Phone had quite a presence: apparently they had just introduced a new logo and 40% of all billboards I saw were for Grameen Phone. Grameen Phone is of course a dramatically successful social enterprise started by Muhammad Yunus, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner.



I walked around when I arrived and got a feeling for Gulshan, the wealthier part of Dhaka city. There were nice shops along with gigantic shanty towns. I particularly loved seeing half a dozen kids sitting on the street outside the window of a TV shop, all riveted by a Tom and Jerry cartoon on a ha…

Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai

The reason I came to Mumbai was to visit Tata Consultancy Services, the giant outsourcing firm. I had an introduction to the one of key leaders in India's outsourcing revolution, Mr. F.C. Kohli, who was the driving force behind TCS.

We had a great conversation high above south Mumbai in the Air India building, which overlooks Mumbai's peninsula. We discussed literacy and access for the blind, and I learned about one of Mr. Kohli's passions, which is adult literacy. Citing a lack of trained teachers, TCS had built a
PC-based curriculum for teaching reading in 40 hours. The program focuses on mainly teaching a core vocabulary of sight words in the the desired language, so that adults are able read the local newspaper. TCS has built this curriculum in a handful of Indian languages, and I'm looking forward to receiving a CD with several of these so that I can try my hand at this!

This is the sort of unexpected learning that I've come to expect. You aren't …

Never on Sunday

Never on Sunday

I arrived in Mumbai (Bombay) on a Sunday, and decided to do a bit of tourism. I walked around the old town, seeing the sights (the Gateway of India) and doing some shopping. I had read about a restaurant, called Khyber, that I wanted to try, so I headed over there for a late lunch/early dinner. When I arrived there, it was only 630 pm and the door was locked. A waiter mimed to me that the restaurant opened in an hour. And, so my adventure in understanding cultural context began.

Killing time, I wandered up and down one of the main drags. Shopped out already, I started looking for a beer, but the pickings were slim. Finally, I saw a place with the words "beerbar" on a sign out front, and a couple of bouncers standing out front. Going in, one of the bouncers held me up with a gesture and these words "Ladies Service Bar." Now, in the airports in India, they frequently had ladies-only security lines. So, I asked if men weren't allowed and if …

American India Foundation

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My last stop in New Delhi was to visit the American India Foundation, which is the largest Silicon Valley/India foundation. Founded in 2001 in response to the Gujarat earthquake, AIF now runs multiple programs. The one I was most interested in is the Digital Equalizer Program.

Digital divide programs are notoriously difficult to run successfully. They typically run out of steam when the funding runs out, assuming they worked at all. Of course, people are reluctant to talk about the failures, but a few people have studied this issue. I had just read a paper about the LINCOS project in Central America, so this was fresh in my mind.

AIF is definitely part of the social entrepreneurship movement with a results oriented culture that appeals to the tech entrepreneurs who are some of the main funders. Lata Krishnan, the CEO, co-founded a billion dollar a year revenue company in tech before turning her hand to the social sector. She's very sharp!



The AIF team in New Delhi took me to …

Delhi University

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My next stop in New Delhi was Delhi University. I asked the folks there if they knew of less expensive accommodations, since the Taj Palace Hotel where the India Economic Summit was held was fabulous but also more than I'd ever paid per night in the U.S.! So, I was able to stay for several nights at less than one tenth the price in the University's International Guest House, which was a great change of pace.


I came to Delhi U. for meetings thanks to Professor Vinod Sena. Prof. Sena is a retired English Literature professor who has been visually impaired all of his life and continues to work avidly for people with visual impairments. The meeting was held at what used to be the Viceroy of India's lodge in New Delhi, and steeped with history. Lord Mountbatten proposed to his wife in that building and was later the Chancellor of the University as the UK's last Viceroy to India.

We had a wide array of key people at the meeting, including the head of IT at the university…

Bookshare.org.in (India)

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Bookshare.org.in (India)

My South Asian trip is mainly exploratory, with one notable exception. Bookshare.org is going international, and India is one of our focus countries for this expansion. My first visit after the India Economic Summit was to National Association for the Blind (India) to see Dipendra Manocha. Dipendra has been a subscriber to Bookshare.org for our O'Reilly technical titles, but we're trying to move beyond these into serving a full range of books with publisher and author permissions.

I've met with Dipendra in other places like Tunisia and Redmond, Washington, and he's well known on the international blindness technology stage because of his tech leader role at NAB and in the DAISY consortium (the international digital talking book standard that we and most other libraries for people with print disabilities either use or are going to use). I was able to tour the facilities, which included at least three digital recording studios using the DAISY s…

New Delhi

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My visit to India has been incredible, and more than I can cover in one post. As an India newbie, I had all sorts of mental pictures of what India would be like. Of course, since I am only visiting New Delhi and Mumbai, I haven't seen the rural side of India which is the largest aspect.

New Delhi is full of tree-lined boulevards. From something I had read, I had an image of people sleeping on every available square inch of space. There are people who appear to be homeless, but that occurs in Palo Alto, too. Like Palo Alto, they tend to be in downtown areas and not so much around much of the city that I toured. Talking to people, it seems that most of the slums are in outlying areas. And, there are cows hanging out on the median strips of boulevards and wandering around, seeming perfectly at home in the urban setting.

Of course, the traffic makes a big impression. Delhi's roads are full of cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, people and these three w…