Friday, November 30, 2007

Two plus hours with the Friends of Benetech

Earlier this week I was invited to speak on an on-line conference by the Friends of Benetech, an independent support group for our Bookshare.org digital library for people with print disabilities. They have a neat technology for an on-line audio and text chat room. There were more than fifty people on-line with us, and the entire talk was recorded and placed on the web.

I love this kind of opportunity that technology makes possible. Any Bookshare.org user or volunteer now gets the chance to question the CEO of a service they care passionately about (and believe me, they do!). Would other nonprofit agencies operate differently if the people they served had a regular chance to question the leadership directly and frequently? Greater accountability is essential to progress in the social sector: this is just one start. Earned income is another way, of course. I'm looking forward to doing this regularly in the future: it keeps me on my toes!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Social Simulators

I've seen two social simulator projects in the last couple of months, and they are both worth exploring.

The first was at the NCTI: National Center for Technology Innovation » 2007 NCTI Technology Innovators Conference, where I had a blast keynoting.
Tracy Gray, seated, Jim Fruchterman with both hands over his head at a podium

The first project was Social Simentor, which is aimed at helping people adapt their behavior to the workplace. It has broader applications, but we were definitely talking about using this for people with disabilities that affect their interpersonal behavior. It's an early prototype, but I could see the potential of this approach to teaching social skills for job readiness.

The second project is from Australia. Reach Out! is an online role playing game, called Reachout Central. Reach Out! is an organization that serves at-risk youth, and ROC is a way of allowing youth to play an on-line game that helps illustrate social interactions. I've played it for a while, and thought it was well done. It's Australia-centric, of course, but one could imagine the concept being adapted for other communities.

At the NCTI conference, we also heard from someone from Second Life. It also seems to be a place where similar social interaction scenarios can happen (in addition to the frequently sexually oriented interactions that are already a major part of any new tech innovation!). Of course, I brought up the lack of accessibility to some people with disabilities, based on the conversation I had in Brighton with Hiroshi Kawamura and Kevin Carey. Larry Goldberg of NCAM/WGBH brought up that they were starting to work on access with Linden Labs, the maker of Second Life. That was great news!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Kindle: Pretty Cool!

Amazon.com: Kindle

This is the first ebook product that gives me a vision of where the book is going to go. I am imagining students with complete libraries without having to carry twenty pounds in their backpacks!

And, while not perfect, it gives a vision of where this technology will go. Sort of like the iPod: not the first of its type, but the one that pointed the way forward and ignited the field.

I bought my Kindle on the first day of availability, and received it the day before Thanksgiving (2007). By the end of Thanksgiving, I finished reading my first book, Stardust. It's comfortable to hold and to read. The flash at each page turn was initially bothersome, but quickly faded from notice. The textsize is handy for someone with aging eyeballs like mine. I haven't read the manual: it's pretty easy to figure out.

What makes this an extraordinary device is the combination of wireless ease with the e-ink display.

Here are my three downsides:

1. The display is really black on gray. It's darker than light gray or the off-white in paperbacks. But, it's still comfortable.
2. It's inaccessible for many disabled people. The keys are really small, the contrast is on the low side, and you need to see to read the books (not so good for blind folks).
3. You have to pull down periodicals, I couldn't figure out how to automatically have them downloaded. It goes pretty fast on the New York Times, but I wonder about being on a plane wishing it had downloaded something already when the wireless needs to be off.

On the obvious complaints: $399 is expensive. Of course, this is a tech product, and I expect the price of the device to steadily fall over time.

In conclusion, I think that it's pretty good for a version 1 breakthrough product!

Disclosure: My brother Tom worked on this product at Amazon.com. He knows about my accessibility concerns.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Bookshare.org milestones

Bookshare.org hits 35,000 Books!


It's always exciting when we hit another milestone like this. The milestones are going to be coming ever faster, now that we have the Bookshare.org for Education project (funded by the Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education). We're committed to increasing our rate of title growth by a factor of four or five while improving quality.

Mr. Jim and Ms. Lisa go to Washington


Lisa Friendly and I just spent a fascinating week in Washington. Apparently, winning a competition for the largest award made by OSEP in memory (ever?) caused quite a stir. Although we are well known in the national and international disability field, it's been about ten years since I spent much time in DC (last time was the original Section 508 federal advisory committee in the 90s). We need to now spend a lot more time acquainting Washington decision makers about why OSEP made an inspired choice in selecting Bookshare.org as the provider of books for print disabled students nationally.

We spent time talking with OSEP and our new partners from the University of Guam. We'll be working for Guam to help set up a system for assistive technology and media for disabled students with nine Pacific island entities. I'll be traveling to the region in February and am really looking forward to finding out where things actually are on Chuuk or Pohnpei (or Guam), and how we can be most helpful.

We also met with many other groups, such as publishers, lobbyists, educational researchers and state education agency leaders. The week kicked off with a major meeting hosted by the National Federation of the Blind around increased access to ebooks by blind people. That's an issue I'm quite passionate about.

Big challenges. Big goals. Big opportunity to change the world with technology!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Brighton Beach Brainstorm

The best part of my job is brainstorming with brilliant, passionate people around social issues. On my visit to the UK last month to launch International Bookshare.org (check out www.bookshare.org.uk as an inital example), Kevin Carey of HumanITy invited Hiroshi Kawamura, the new President of the DAISY Consortium and me to lunch on Brighton beach. Although it was October, the weather was even nicer than California. I don't think the beachfront used to be this pleasant in the past, but I recommend it highly to anyone in the future!

Kevin Carey, Jim Fruchterman, Hiroshi Kawamura seated at a wooden table with papersNotes from a Brainstorm

The overarching concern of Hiroshi is a potential split in the disability community over new technology, particularly in the broadband age. He would like to see the disability community speak with one voice on these issues. The particular issue that concerns Hiroshi right now is the Second Life problem, 3D avatar immersive environments. To some disability groups, Second Life is wonderful. They can participate in a world accessible to them without having a disability. Of course, Second Life is completely inaccessible to blind people right now. Whether or not it is just Second Life, it is emblematic of a handful of issues that surround the Web 2.0 phenomena. They are:

  • Highly visual content, multimedia, maps
  • User-created content (an increasing phenomena, with a wide variety of accessibility)
  • Disproportionate cost compared to the benefit (we can’t ask Flickr photo sharing users to describe a billion photos)
We discussed the difference in priorities and costs. For example, disabled people are very concerned about access to education and employment. When the entities involved are public entities like governments or groups with a mandate to serve the entire population (BBC in UK, schools), the standard is higher than for an individual or a tiny business. Hiroshi is interested in establishing what would constitute “reasonable accommodation” under the new UN compact. Kevin pointed out that he had recently done an extensive report on information access needs of people with disabilities. He noted that PWD will say very different things when their “handlers” are present in the form of teachers, librarians, rehab people, nonprofit people. When teacher is present, it’s about textbook access. When teacher is gone, it’s Harry Potter. That being said, in much of Africa and Asia, Kevin didn't see a culture of novel reading among the educated. So, the focus is on pragmatic materials around education and employment, with extensions into biography and other nonfiction. So, we shouldn't assume that the access needs in different societies are going to be exact replicas of British or American or Japanese society.

Kevin’s response was that it fell into two domains: political and technical. On the political front, the question to a disability advocacy group is what the benefits are for spending limited political capital. If not much benefit is possible, it seems unlikely to worth the expenditure of effort.

Hiroshi pointed out that in the developed world, an increasing proportion of the visually impaired also have other disabilities, so that joining forces with other groups is also serving the VI community.

The privacy point came up in an interesting way for people with physical disabilities. When you have a constant attendant, you have no privacy at all. If you can get on-line, it may be the first chance to do things for yourself without being supervised or assisted. This can be incredibly liberating.

We also discussed the challenges around serving people with intellectual disabilities. Hiroshi noted that there were IFLA efforts around creating easy-to-read publications.

Jim mentioned the incipient “Raising the Floor” effort he is co-developing with Gregg Vanderheiden, where we want to see every person with a disability having a basic of level of access to technology and information.

The brainstorm concluded with some action items to be driven by Hiroshi.