Monday, June 30, 2008

IDEO: Design for Social Impact

I just gave a talk at IDEO, the famous Silicon Valley design firm. IDEO is very interested in making a bigger positive impact on society, and I was heartened by the great turnout and conversation. Doug Solomon, their Chief Technology Officer, was my connection to come in, and I appreciated Doug's invitation!

IDEO has been working with the Rockefeller Foundation to bring more of the design community into the social sector. They just released a manual on how to do this, called Design for Social Impact, which is freely available on the web.

When cutting edge, well-respected and innovative firms like IDEO take the plunge, it makes talking about (and doing something about) global social issues more acceptable to the wider design and tech business communities. Hope to see more groups following suit!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Mr. Jim Goes to Washington (Again)

As part of the large national award we received from the Department of Education, we are spending a lot more time in Washington. I talk to lots of folks: congressional staff, members of Congress, folks at the Department of Education, the publishers, disability activists and so on. I hope to provide a little flavor of what this is like, since as an engineer and not-very-political-guy, this is new to me. But, like many social entrepreneurs, I'm beginning to figure out that being absent from the halls of policy is not serving our mission.

I had the chance to meet with Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa last month, and tell him about for ten minutes. I was surprised to find he was aware of the controversy around the big award and asked sharp questions about how we were dealing with challenges around delivering on this. He is a huge figure in disability policy, and it was an honor to get to talk to him about what we're doing.

The biggest issue I'm still working on is one I mentioned two years ago: getting access to the textbooks in the National Instructional Materials Access Center (NIMAC). There are more than 8,000 textbooks and other instructional materials in the repository, but very few of these have reached students. We're working to make it easier to get these books to students, especially since our goal is to see every student with a print disability in the United States have the same textbooks and other books their non-disabled peers have, at the same time and in high quality.

Picture of eleven people sitting and standing at a table

The first step was to get the major players in the accessible media field together and agree. The Officer of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the Dept. of Ed. did this a couple of months ago. This worked well, because we were able to hammer out a pretty reasonable consensus among the different programs, including RFB&D, and the American Printing House for the Blind, the operators of the NIMAC repository. We had support for this consensus as well from CAST, the AIM Consortium and the Pacific CIMAP, three other key players that mainly represented the interests of state agencies who want help from RFB&D and in delivering on their commitment to accessible textbooks.

Next, we were advocating to the Department of Education that they formally ok this. This is our current objective. It takes time to get a formal policy declaration from any government agency, and we want an expedited decision so that we can be delivering these textbooks to students in September at the start of the new school year.

Jim Fruchterman and Congressman Petri
Last week I spent a couple of days on Capitol Hill, meeting with staffers and two Members of Congress. Representative Petri from Wisconsin played a key role in getting the NIMAC established, and I was glad to get the opportunity to share what we were doing to have it make a bigger impact.

We were also able to update key staff about our progress over with Bookshare for Education (we've now increased the numbers of students signed up by more than ten-fold since nine months ago, to over 20,000) as well as our challenge around NIMAC access. Congressional staff really want to dig into the policy issues, and the common thread from all of them is the key outcomes: are kids getting books? I felt like we had a very receptive audience, and feel like our commitment to the mission of serving students leads to the hearing we receive. Also, it helps to have the help of a lobbying firm like ours, which focuses solely on representing the social sector.
Jackie Speier and Jim Fruchterman
I had met Jackie Speier, the new Congresswoman from the San Francisco peninsula, at a library event shortly before she was elected to fill the vacancy created by the passing of Tom Lantos. She had heard me speak and told me to come by if she got elected. It was great to see her: she's a dynamo and well known and respected in our community.

My impression is that nobody has a significant objection to making it easier for students with bona fide disabilities to get access to the books they need through Bookshare and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. Our access to the NIMAC is still quite limited, but we're optimistic that this will be improved in the future. But, watch this space for updates: our current limited access is the number one obstacle to delivering fully on our dream of equal access to textbooks for print disabled students.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Up there with Gordon Moore!

Well, that's a very optimistic title: I never expected to be up there with Gordon Moore. But, I was totally amazed to have my comments on the future of technology in the latest issue of IEEE Spectrum right next to Gordon's comments! Tech Luminaries Address Singularity

Gordon Moore is one of the fathers of Silicon Valley, and has had wide-reaching impacts. He's from my alma mater, Caltech, where he has been chair of the board and the biggest or one of the biggest donors. He was a co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor as well as Intel, two of the Valley's most seminal companies. And my personal favorite is that his foundation gave the initial funding that led to our extremely cool Miradi software for environmental project management.

He's best known with Moore's Law, the exponential growth projection that implies that computers get faster and cheaper at ever-amazing rates. I know he's tired of all of the Moore's law hoopla, though.

The IEEE special issue on the Singularity is well worth reading: these are fundamental debates over the course of the future, with technology being the primary driver. Ray Kurzweil is famous for having a relatively extreme view of what this will mean to humanity: humans downloading their consciousnesses into machines and machine-based intelligence becoming transcendently powerful in the relatively near future (our lifetimes). Although most of the luminaries aren't as optimistic or extreme, it's clear that he has powerful arguments for his vision of the future.

Bottom line is that I'm incredibly honored to be next to Gordon Moore in any context!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Remembering Peter Scialli

I know that the community will be sad to hear of the passing of one of our original staff members, Peter Scialli.
Peter Scialli at a computer, half turned to the camera, on the screen
Peter started working with me over twenty years ago, with his access tech company ShrinkWrap Computing. The name was a play on Peter's Ph.D. in psychology, which was his other career path beyond technology, which he loved so well. Peter became one of the top dealers of the Arkenstone reading machines, Benetech's founding social enterprise. When we sold Arkenstone to another company, Peter offered to fill our technical support needs on an interim basis. This coverage really helped with a difficult transition.

Peter then stepped into the role of alpha user and support guy. His photo was our user photo (see the picture above). He was our main and only tech support staffer for the early years of He left us a few years ago to go back to his original profession of psychology, and became a project director of a counseling agency.

Peter's impact on the field of access technology for the blind was major. He moderated email lists, organized conference sessions (I particularly remember Dueling Scanners) and wrote articles for the journals in the field. Peter believed strongly in the power of technology to help people with disabilities, became an expert in the field and then committed himself to sharing that expertise widely.

His knowledge, sense of humor and dedication will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Guatemala: the Secret Files

Frontline World is airing a terrific piece on our Guatemala work tonight on KQED in the Bay Area (9 pm PT). You can view it online right now. It already aired on the east coast.

I don't think we've ever had such extensive and thoughtful coverage of a topic: there are the video segments, slideshows, extended interviews and more.

Everybody at Benetech is so proud of our human rights team getting this kind of exposure and promoting the importance of human rights.