Saturday, May 31, 2008

Literacy for a billion: PlanetRead

One of the most exciting literacy social enterprises that I've run into is PlanetRead. Founded by Indian Institute of Management professor Brij Kothari, the first concept was same language subtitling. When Brij heard I was going to South India, he insisted I visit his team in Pondicherry.

Door signs for Planet Read and BoobboxPlanet Read added subtitles to Bollywood music videos. Hundreds of millions of people now see these videos, eager to learn the words of their favorite videos and becoming literate along the way. They have also done extensive measurements of their impact and see real progress on advancing literacy. Another example of scale, South Asian style!

The team I met were working on multimedia literacy content as part of Bookbox, and were busy using Adobe products to deliver cool ways to learn to read.
They first created original visual story content, and then added different languages. In addition to a print book, they have multimedia content that animates the characters and adds audio narration.

They are already well past doing just Indian languages.

I also watched them use licensed characters from top Asian media properties to create a fresh set of content. I could really see how they are continuing to leverage popular media properties (like the Bollywood videos) to enhance literacy.

I came away from my day-trip to Pondicherry impressed yet again with Indian social enterprise. These groups are even more ambitious and disciplined than the American social enterprises I run into. And, I felt privileged to be able to meet these teams on their home turf. Actually visiting social enteprises and seeing them in action is incredibly exciting.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Worth Trust, Part II

After visiting the Chennai operation of Worth Trust, Viji and I journeyed to Katpadi, the town where Worth Trust is headquartered. Around the town are quite a number of Worth Trust enterprises.
Factory sign: Worth Mobility Aids
One of the enterprises we stopped by made the hand-tricycles I saw all over the region.
Man using handcrank to power a tricycle
For a person without high functioning legs, a wheelchair is not that practical in the community. Instead, there were a lot of tricycles with the crank mounted where it can be turned by hand.
New tricycle in plant
Worth Trust makes and sells these accessible tricycles.
Blind woman chatting with Viji Dilip
Another part of the operations turns out to be the assembly arm of the famous Perkins Brailler: a manual Braille typewriter still in wide use. Viji stopped to chat with one of the women on the assembly line.
machinist at his machine

Most of the employees of Worth Trust are people with disabilities. We met many of the employees, including deaf workers, blind workers and workers with physical disabilities. The guy pictured above is a blind machinist.
Jim Fruchterman in a powered wheelchair
I also got to try out a powered wheelchair prototype. It was fun!

The most impressive aspect of my visit was the professionalism and pride that came through. We got an extensive tour of their plastics fab plant, which has achieved ISO 9003 certification, which qualifies them for many big subcontracts. I was another example of how highly successful social enterprises typically succeed by doing a great job on price and quality: many (most?) customers don't care about the social mission. But, if you can employ disabled people and do a terrific job, what a powerful message that sends to society, which believe disabled people aren't capable.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Worth Trust: Scanning in Tamil Nadu

My first social enterprise visit in Chennai was to one of the offices of Worth Trust, our social enterprise partner in Tamil Nadu. Scanning office with several people working on a PC with people watching and taking photos.
Thanks to funding from the Lavelle Fund, we've been able to set up a scanning facility to produce books there. Worth Trust is a social enterprise with the goal of employing people with disabilities. It has a great symmetry: people with non-print disabilities are scanning in books for people with visual disabilities. The Times of India covered the story during my visit, Disabled in city help blind in US.

Scanner scanning a book
The scanning setup is quite similar to ours in Palo Alto, of course. I'm always amazed at how small high-speed scanners are these days. You chop the book binding off and an entire book scan be scanned in five or ten minutes. We've been shipping books to Chennai, but that turns out to be hard. We'll expect to be sending some digital images of books from the U.S. for proofreading in the future. Plus, as we get more permissions from India publishers, we'll be able to source English language books locally. And, hopefully in the future we'll be able to do books in Indian languages like Hindi and Tamil (and many others, of course).

Overhead camera scanning station The Worth Trust also has a cool scanner that we don't have, a nondestructive book scanner. I assume that this is like what Google Books uses to scan library books. You place the book in a cradle and cameras overhead take pictures of the pages, and then someone turns the page. Definitely a must for those books you can't afford to slice and dice!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Seminar in Chennai

The main reason for my visit to South India was the National Seminar on Print Access For All, which was organized by the dynamic Mr. Krishnaswamy.

N Krishnaswamy with a microphoneHe has taken on delivering print access as his personal project after his retirement from a senior police force role. He also has learned how to build electronics and program in assembly language, as well as being the sort of person who manages to convince anybody who's anybody to join his effort to bring equity to access to print. He's really helped us move forward with our India projects, thanks to our India project manager, Viji Dilip, who joined me there and who has made all of these great Chennai connections for us.

There was a great article on the seminar in the major paper based in Chennai,The Hindu, entitled: Publishers urged to reach out to print-disabled population.

Jim Fruchterman, giving a speech as a podium, grabbing his cheeks in surprise I enjoyed giving my 20 minute talk on and building a global library. The turnout for the seminar was great: I was able to meet key people from C-DAC, the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, including the Director General, Ramakrishnan. C-DAC does a great deal of Indian language technology among all of its wide-spread projects, and I was delighted to know of their strong interest in helping people with disabilities.

IIT-Madras, our host institution, also had cool technology to show off, which is already being used in big media applications: a TV network came to discuss how it's worked for them in their language work.

Dipendra Manocha came from New Delhi: I visited Dipendra there a couple of years ago and he's one of our top partners in bringing to India. I was able to meet publishers, and the leadership of the Worth Trust (more on them in another post), who are doing book entry for

blind student speaking at seminar with microphone There were also numerous people with disabilities at the Seminar, including the blind student who has been working with in his spare time! More on him later as well.

I left the seminar with a lot of confidence that the critical mass of leaders pulled together by Mr. Krishnaswamy were going to do great things for blind and disabled people in India!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tamil Nadu Temples

Virginia and Kate, my wife and daughter, volunteered to come along with me on my one-week trip to South India. So, I extended it to two weeks and added a trip to Madurai as part of that. After visiting Aravind Eye Hospital and Aurolab, we started on our vacation time.

South India is famous for its temples. People are quite religious, and have a great deal of pride in their religious heritage and temples. We especially appreciated getting the run-down on major deities and the great stories: it helped us understand what we were seeing as we toured the area.
One of the largest and most famous temples is in Madurai: the Meenakshi Amman Temple. It has numerous spectacular towers. When we arrived, all but one of the largest towers were covered: they need regular painting. We watched as men passed wooden poles up the last tower, as they built scaffolding lashed together (picture above). After the frame is up, they cover the frame with what looks like thatching: so you have this giant thatched tower (where the painters can work out of the elements).

Elephants play a significant role in Hindu mythology and religion. The most popular god seems to be Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who by legend is the son of Shiva and Parvati. He seems to have universal appeal, and most temples I saw had a shrine to him near the entrance. We visited the Meenakshi temple during its main festival, which celebrates the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. Virginia and Kate both received a live blessing from a real elephant in the temple. I was glad they had a friendly elephant: the next week another elephant went crazy and killed three people in another temple.

I love visiting cathedrals in Europe, and I had the same kind of feeling: great edifices raised as an expression of both power and reverence.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Part of the systematic Aravind Hospital approach is manufacturing its own supplied through its Aurolab social enterprise affiliate.
Aurolab building sign
I was able to visit the new manufacturing facility just outside Madurai. David Green calls the approach forensic accounting: if you truly want to serve as many people as possible, analyze the most expensive item involved and then figure out how much it really costs to make. Start making it more affordably. Repeat.

I've heard that Aurolab is the second largest maker of intraocular lenses (IOLs)in the world by unit volume (not by revenues). They also make the microsutures that have been traditionally used in cataract operations (although my understanding is that the new foldable IOLs make microsutures obsolete for most operations today). They also make dozens of pharmaceuticals: if it goes into your eye as eyedrops, they probably make it.

Three Fruchtermans (people) in clean-room suits

My wife and daughter, Virginia and Kate, were along for the tour. We had to dress up in clean room garb. Aurolab has several levels of cleanliness, and we weren't able to go into the cleanest clean-rooms, but we were able to look at them through glass windows. There were significant numbers of young women working away at all of these tasks.
apartment building

Another part of Aravind's systematic approach is recruiting rural girls to work at Aurolab (just like they recruit them to work as assistants in the eye hospital). They provide a major financial opportunity to the girl's family, training and housing. Right next to Aurolab's building are the apartment buildings where the employees live.

There's also Aurofarm: a large recreational facility being built, where we enjoyed a spectacular sunset. It reminded me of a company town, but with twists. The company is all about restoring sight and eye care. And, the women who go to work for Aravind and Aurolab don't stay there typically for their lifetimes: they go back to their communities and get married. But, the life experience and prospects of their families and children are likely to be far better because of the empowerment these women have experienced working for a social enterprise.

I left my Aravind visit with a great deal of hope about their plans to expand by a factor of four. And, also hope for the future of social enterprise!