Friday, October 31, 2008

Colombia’s “False Positives”

Guest blog from Beatriz, one of Benetech's human rights team members in Colombia.

We Colombians are a resilient breed, accustomed to waking up to all kinds of distressing news and still somehow managing to go about our daily business. But today’s mood in Colombia is more somber than usual. El Espectador, one of the two most important national daily newspapers, screams out in today’s editorial: "Shame!"

After years of denying it and of accusing the human rights organizations that have been saying it for years of being guerrilla sympathizers, President Uribe finally admitted it: some members of the State security forces, primarily from the Army but some from the Police, may have been involved in "assassinations" of civilians, he said. The ugly truth is out, and it is being picked up by international media that can hardly be accused of cozying up to the guerrilla, such as the New York Times.

And the truth is hard to take in: Under pressure from their commander in chief to show results, high military officers have been involved in the gruesome business of finding young men, mainly from marginal rural and urban areas, enticing them away from their families and communities, and then having them killed and displayed as fallen guerrilla combatants. The actual "recruiting" – often under the guise of job offers – is done by assistants to the military, individuals tied to paramilitary groups or drug-traffickers. It is they who do the actual killing of the "hired hands" and then dress them up and arm them as guerrilla members fallen in combat. The military units then earn the recognition of their superiors and pick up various kinds of rewards.

According to human rights NGOs, between January 2007 and July 30 2008, there have been 535 persons reported to have been summarily executed and then exhibited as fallen guerrilleros – what has come to be known as "false positives."

This happens under the watch of an administration that has claimed a drastic reduction in killings, kidnappings and other human rights violations. However, a study conducted by our team last year, Assessing Claims of Declining Lethal Violence, shows evidence that reporting of killings has dropped. It has yet to be demonstrated that actual killings have dropped. The civilian deaths of these children and young men presented as combat deaths highlight the kind of deaths that may have been missing from the counts of the government during the past 6 years. The actual figures could be much higher.

Three Army generals and seventeen other officers have been removed from service thus far. And, some analysts say, we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Benetech covered by ABC-News (San Francisco)

Just spotted a nice video piece on the SoCap conference that features Benetech as one of the new crop of socially responsible businesses. The San Francisco ABC News reporter/anchor Teresa Garcia came out and interviewed Kevin Jones of GoodCap, Tim Freundlich of Calvert and yours truly.

What was incredible about the Social Capital Markets conference was that a month before the conference, Kevin was worried about getting the 350 attendees he had planned for, since he had only 200-250 signed up. And then, Lehman Bros. collapsed and suddenly 650 people came!

It was exciting to see the energy around applying business to society's needs, even in the face of desperate times. I also appreciated Kevin connecting Teresa Garcia with Benetech: it's great to get the word out about both SoCap and Benetech!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Great Coverage of our Bookshare India Announcement

We just announced the launching of in India, and the response from the Indian press was immediate.

The Times of India wrote For print-disabled, reading bestsellers is just a click away.

The Indian Express said inks pact with three organisations in India.

And, the Hindustan Times also talked about our Online Library for the Blind.

It's exciting to see these results from the dedication of Viji Dilip, our Bookshare International Program Manager, and our Indian partners. Bookshare is all about sharing the efforts to make books accessible, and we're delighted to have strong partners for both producing accessible books and providing support to Indian people with disabilities.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

M-Pesa is our hippo!

Technology really is becoming an incredible tool for empowering the poor. Whenever I see a great example of this, I get excited.

Vital Wave Consulting covers the opportunities in serving developing markets and one of their blog posts really grabbed me. In M-Pesa is our hippo! we get to hear the story of a cell phone banking service that gives the poor effective banking services in Kenya when the country's banks have declined to serve them. Other great comments from users of M-Pesa directed at traditional banks:
You closed our accounts and chased us like dogs. Don’t bark at us.
The sly person is in trouble when the fool gets smart.

And, Kenya is not the only country to discover this opportunity. The Philippines has had cell phone banking for years.

The common thread is prepaid cell service. You load up your phone with minutes with money. Why not trade your minutes for money back (for a small fee) or trade minutes with other people as payment for goods and services? These networks establish partnerships with retail outlets, so that many stores become the equivalent of ATMs (automated bank teller machines). It's a great idea, and raises the floor for the poor by giving basic banking services to people the banks have never cared about (until now, when the innovation starts biting at their businesses from the bottom!).

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

President's Update: Summer 2008

As many folks know, I try to send out quarterly updates on what's new at Benetech. Well, I just got my first one out in 2008! Regular Beneblog readers will know most of this, but it's always handy to pull it together all in one place.

Benetech Update: Summer 2008

I'm thrilled to be writing you this update, because this year is unusually exciting even by Benetech standards. I have incredible news: recently won a $32 million competition. You can imagine the impact of going from a $1 million per year enterprise in 2006 to over $7 million in 2008. This means new challenges ahead in scaling to serve every single student with a print disability in the U.S. We are poised to grow not only, but all of our projects. Here are the highlights of this update:
  • for Education awarded $32 million over five years
  • Miradi, our new project management software for the environment
  • Human rights: the International Criminal Court, Colombia, Liberia
    and Darfur
  • Recruiting: Betsy Burgess joins as our first Director of Marketing
  • Landmine Detector Project on ice, Route 66 Literacy revived for Education awarded $32 million

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) of the U.S. Department of Education gave us a major award on September 28, 2007. This event was very exciting, as we have never previously received federal funding for I bet you're wondering what we must accomplish. In essence, we're being paid to deliver – free – accessible books to all students with print disabilities in the United States for the next five years. We will increase the number of students we currently serve by more than a factor of ten – in fact, our membership has already grown by over 20,000 users. We will also expand the number of books in our collection by 100,000 new titles. We’re sure we can do this because our technology allows us to cost-effectively and rapidly scale

One example proves we’ll reach our goals. OSEP told us on a Sunday that we needed to start serving students for free right away. The next day, Monday, was free to all U.S. students. In the first three months we quadrupled the number of students we serve!

Now, all students and schools can achieve the level of success experienced by one of our student users, Tyler Norwood, a seventh grade student at the Corte Madera School in Portola Valley, California. In this photo, Tyler is listening to a book from on his school’s laptop with the assistance of the Kurzweil 3000 audio software. The Corte Madera School now uses books in a range of classes for disabled students. The project has been so successful at raising student reading skills that they hope to provide similar services to their non-disabled students as well.

I’m especially excited about our efforts to reach students who haven’t traditionally had access to assistive technology. Our vision is to put accessible books into the hands of disabled students on borrowed PCs or devices they already have, such as inexpensive MP3 players and cell phones. We want to ensure that every student with a disability no longer has the handicap of lacking textbooks or other important educational material. Our dream is to raise the floor for every person with a disability, to ensure access to the material needed for education, employment and social participation. You’ll be hearing more about this vision in the coming months.

Miradi isn’t our only project undergoing significant growth. Benetech’s newest project is a software tool called Miradi that helps environmental practitioners design, manage, monitor and learn from their projects to more effectively meet the needs of global biodiversity.
The program guides environmental project managers through a series of step-by-step interview wizards similar to the popular TurboTax program. We’ve been developing Miradi for three years together with the Conservation Measures Partnership (which includes groups like The Nature

Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund), and began beta testing the software in 2007. The feedback has been amazing. We planned a typical beta test size of ten to twenty users, but had over 450 beta testers in more than 65 countries! This response is a measure of how eager the environmental field is for a tool that helps better manage projects.

We’ve just launched Miradi. It is open source software, but we’re experimenting with a revenue model to sustain the project over the long term. Downloads, packaged with support, will cost $250 per user per year, discounted to $150 for nonprofits. People in developing countries will get further discounts. A pricing manifesto proposes that members of the community that can afford the software should support the project financially. If you’re interested in learning more or would like to download the software, visit the website at

Human Rights

Patrick Ball recently spent a month at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he held office hours and helped prosecutors use quantitative data and statistical analysis to pursue war crimes cases. Our HumanRights team, including Benetech Research Fellow Amelia Hoover and fieldconsultants Tamy Guberek and Daniel Guzm├ín, presented our initial findings on violations in Colombia to an enthusiastic audience of ICC investigators and analysts. We can’t share the details because of confidentiality provisions, but we look forward to continued close collaboration with the ICC to document the disappearances and homicides and demonstrate the magnitude, trends and patterns of these incidents.

You can visit our Colombia Project Page to read more about this work.

Our work in Liberia, funded by the State Department in support of the Truth Commission (TRC) continues. Benetech's Human Rights Program Manager, Kristen Cibelli, has just relocated to Liberia for at least six months.

Kristen has been helping the TRC staff to develop a process that converts the qualitative information, contained in thousands of victim and witness testimonies, into data that can be used for quantitative analysis. We have just completed a new case study detailing our multi-year project with the TRC.

We work with human rights groups all over the world. We’ve also had major efforts in Burma, Sri Lanka and Guatemala, to name a few; efforts we expect to continue this year.

Our newest human rights project is looking closely at the human rights challenges in Darfur. Humanity United (founded by Pam Omidyar) funded this work. We are nearing completion of our assessment of Darfur-related NGOs and their qualitative documentation on human rights abuses. As part of the assessment, we researched the challenges faced by organizations working on the ground in Darfur and how different groups operate in the face of the risks.

We found that groups working on documentation lack the necessary tools and methods to record and secure information in a systematic and consistent way. The information gathered by these groups was done so at great risk to themselves and to those whose stories they document, but it remains on paper or in insecure electronic formats. The result is that rich, raw data remains vulnerable to theft and destruction and cannot be easily used to support ongoing advocacy efforts. In addition, the collected information often lacks the level of detail required for potential quantitative analysis: the kind of analysis that might someday be needed in a forum like the International Criminal Court. We’ve identified key NGO partners that we believe would benefit from our technical assistance and are developing our plans and identifying support to continue our work on Darfur this year.

Recruiting: Betsy Burgess joins as our new Director of Marketing

Now, I’m delighted to report the recent arrival of our new Director of Marketing, Betsy Burgess. We’ve never had anybody dedicated to marketing at Benetech, and we’re excited about bringing this expertise on board! Betsy comes to us with a strong background in both high technology and the education field and will initially focus on getting the word out about Betsy, a former teacher with a Master’s in Education and Learning Disabilities, has a keen understanding of what educators need to adopt and other technology in the classroom. She came to us with some very well-developed ideas on how to reach out to our educational users.

During our recent campaign to recruit new team members, Benetech has attracted qualified candidates by offering more than just good pay and a pleasant work environment. Benetech is drawing top talent by offering Silicon Valley tech jobs with a social purpose. At a time when a growing number of people are looking for ways to help solve pressing social and environmental problems, Benetech’s technology initiatives for people with disabilities, human rights and environmental communities are striking a chord with job seekers. Benetech’s Human Resources Director, Jane Simchuk, says the humanitarian aspirations of job candidates have become a common theme since the company posted twelve new positions on its web site last year. Be sure to send our way great people you know who would be thrilled to find the social value of working at Benetech: our latest job listings are on our website.

Landmine Detector Project on ice; Route 66 reviving

Making big impact with technology implies taking risks. Sometimes those risks don’t pay off. We had to confront this reality last year with our humanitarian landmine detector project. After a couple of years of trying to gain access to the military technology we had identified, we realized that this access was not imminent and suspended the project.

You can read much more about the lessons learned from this effort in my Beneblog post and the report and essay to which it points.

Route 66 Literacy was put on the back burner last year because it ran out of funding. However, we kept up the fully functional prototype website, which has been used by more than 800 people so far. We’re hoping to revive it with new funding, and have already committed to developing more content with our partner, the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m looking forward to reporting on the latest from Route 66 Literacy on my blog and in future updates. Our team hopes to make a major impact on literacy and to meet the demand we see for this kind of tool.


You may perhaps think that after winning a $32 million competition, we might slow down. Not Benetech! We are dedicated to making a bigger impact with all of our projects, so we’re developing more ambitious plans. Although we have ample funding this year to provide to U.S. students with print disabilities, we want to expand the program to reach disabled readers around the world. I expect to find the funding we need to launch both Miradi and Route 66 as full-fledged projects rather than beta tests. Patrick, his team and I are also brainstorming about how to expand the impact of our Human Right Program on promoting better human rights globally.

We are proud to bring our technology expertise to places where it is needed most and serve people who are working hard to make this a more just, equitable and peaceful world. And we are grateful we can count on our friends and partners like you to help bring about this vision. Thank you for your continued support, and I look forward to keeping you posted on our progress!

Jim Fruchterman

President and CEO, The Benetech Initiative

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Miradi and Conservation

I was just able to attend an exciting conference in Vancouver, ConEx, the Conservation Learning Exchange. It was organized by The Nature Conservancy, but had folks from many of the other leading groups.

For me, it was a chance to meet practitioners using our Miradi conservation project management software. Right before I went to the conference I received a copy of the Proceedings of the Appalachian Salamander Conservation Workshop, held this past May. And sprinkled throughout the report were graphics clearly from our Miradi software!

Diagram of factors affecting salamanders

While at ConEx, I had the chance to talk about our approach to agile, user-centered development. Jim Patell of Stanford's Business School (and the there) gave his pitch for similar principles in his extreme design for affordability class: it was cool to see an academic approach so grounded in reality and making a difference!

At the end of the day, I was part of a meeting of leading conservation techies talking about how to share information among different groups. There is a strong interest in having access to information about how other groups addressed similar problems in conservation (failures being at least as valuable as success stories). TNC has put a stake in the ground with its new ConPro, a web-based conservation portal with almost 1000 projects already in it. The ConPro and Miradi teams have been working to make the connection between the two systems as smooth as possible: we were demonstrating an early version of this at ConEx.

Sharing information among competitors is always difficult, and delicate. Since these groups are all connected with a common mission around the environment (and are nonprofits), we don't have anti-trust issues! Still, the problem looked very similar to the one Benetech often sees in the human rights field. I'm hopeful that we can design tools to make it easy to share information while designating certain data as being confidential to the group creating it. You can just imagine the power of having the sum of the experiences of the environmental movement rather than isolating those experiences and making the same mistakes over and over.

There's no substitute for getting into the middle of a problem with a bunch of smart committed people. Hope we can continue to do more and more for the environmental movement!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tim O'Reilly's challenge

Great article on Tim O'Reilly in the Los Angeles Times. From the story:

He is urging young entrepreneurs and engineers to stop making some of the sillier software that lets Facebook users throw virtual sheep at their friends or download virtual beer on iPhones, and instead start making a real difference in the world. He says it's not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.

I think this is awesome. We need a movement to form that is much bigger than Gates/Omidyar/Skoll (and Benetech!). The creative brains in the Valley have a lot to offer when they are motivated. Tim is the kind of person that holds immense influence because of his track record for spotting new trends.

We're huge O'Reilly fans: Tim has always been socially oriented and more than four years ago gave a license to distribute all of his books to disabled people around the world. By taking that leadership position (and not suffering any arrows in the back for helping us), this has led to quite a number of major publishers agreeing to do the same for in the last year. So, Tim leads by example.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Beijing School for the Blind

The Beijing School for the Blind dates back to the 19th century, back in the days where the colonial presence was strong.
Woman pointing to a large picture of proposed buildingsThe facilities are impressive, more or less brand new. The principal of the school, proudly showed off plans to expand the campus over the next few years, with high quality architectural site drawings that would have looked perfectly in place in Chicago.
people in a room with brightly colored toysOur team toured the school. Like many of the agencies we visited, China is also experiencing a significant increase in kids with multiple disabilities. So, in Hong Kong and in Beijing we saw sensory stimulation rooms for these children. These were quite familiar to folks like Frank Simpson of the Lavelle School in New York and Miki Jordan of the Junior Blind of America in Los Angeles.
Rami Rabby with cane in classroom of blind studentsWe visited the English language classroom. We enjoyed getting a chance to chat with a couple of the students who were impressively fluent.
Boy wearing multiple baseball caps, grinningWe were treated to a funny skit about Chinese tour guides for the Olympics.

Two soccer players
Jimmy Young with blind fold, moving the soccer ball
As we headed out to visit the vocational education building, we found Jimmy Young scrimmaging with some of the blind soccer players. This is a country which two weeks earlier had been hosting the Paralympics, and they were very proud. The other amazing thing was how clear the weather was in Beijing. It was gorgeous until the last day.

Vocational Education Building signThe vocational rehab building focuses on getting blind people job. And, the largest unit was on massage.
Massage trainees and massageeStudents and staff all get the chance to experience massages at the hands of the trainees.

After working our way across China, it finally got to be our final weekend, and we were able to troop off and visit the forbidden city and the Great Wall. What an experience! I'm looking forward to doing a real vacation here someday, and having a chance to see the real countryside rather than just the wealthy coastal cities.

Our visit gave me a lot of hope for people with disabilities in China, while recognizing that there are plenty of challenges ahead. But, the Chinese seem comfortable doing in ten years what took other countries thirty years, so much seems possible. In the middle of a transition from an immensely poor country to a developed country, there is so much going on!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

China Braille Press

The China Braille Press was another impressive visit. Not only do they produce Braille in quantity, but the Press is also developing affordable technology for blind people such as screenreaders and talking ebook players. It's always a thrill to meet a new group that could be solely a traditional nonprofit, but is clearly thinking like a social enterprise!
China Braille Press entranceThe facility was several buildings in a compound on the outskirts of Beijing. The Wanping area it is in is being preserved. Apparently, the Sino-Japanese war in the 1930s started nearby, at the Marco Polo Bridge.
Book on copystand with transcriber at PCWe visited a room full of Braille transcriptionists, mainly working on textbooks.
Braille on PC screenThe software they use was apparently written at the Press. You can see Braille visually on the PC screen appearing as they type.
For high volume production, special metal plates are made. A programmed machine was punching the Braille into the plates. The Press has several Braille presses, including one they built themselves.
China Braille Library entrance with hadley crowd of people in frontWe also got to visit (on the same campus), the Braille library, which was full of thousands of volumes of Braille.

The products the Press designed were pretty impressive. Lian let me play with her Sunshine player (all the products of the Press are marketed under the Sunshine brand): it cost roughly $100 and has a 1 Gig of storage (the latest version has 3 Gig). It has a built-in voice synthesizer in both Chinese and English. They are also planning on building an affordable Braille display. I'm definitely going to be spending time learning more about how these products could work with!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Fuzhou to Beijing

After a wonderful final banquet with our Hadley China hosts, we got up early to head to Beijing.

SPR coffee shop in airportI was impressed in the airport by a Starbuck's knockoff (check out the color scheme and typefont of SPR Coffee). I ordered a latte and was surprised to find I had just bought a US $12 cup of coffee.
Air China jetOur flight from Fuzhou to Beijing was thankfully uneventful! In Beijing, we planned on combining visiting disability organizations along with a little bit of regular sightseeing.

The first disability group we visited was the China Disabled Persons' Federation, which is the main national group. It was founded by Deng Pufang, the son of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. I was a bit surprised that CDPF was pretty dedicated to advancing the rights of people with disabilities, but seemed notably unenthusiastic about the idea of blind people going to university. We had noticed that there were no blind people at one of the big universities we had visited in Fuzhou. There is still a feeling that blind people should become massage therapists.

I actually got my first massage ever in Fuzhou at a blind massage place. Many of Hadley China students are massage therapists trying to upgrade their skills by speaking English. English-speaking masseurs command higher wages because they can work with foreigners. Chuck Young recently sent me an article about blind massage in Korea: the profession is supposed to be reserved only for blind people there.

Rami gently brought up these topics during many of our visits, by asking about how blind people were educated about career options. We were accompanied on most of our Beijing visits by Lian, a Hadley alum who had gone to the U.S. to get her university education. She now owns a furniture factory outside Beijing with 30 employees, as well as a shop in Seattle. But, change will take time here. I am optimistic that going to university will increasingly become the rule instead of the exception for capable blind people in China.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Fuzhou School for the Blind

After celebrating the big Hadley birthday, we got down to visiting several nonprofit organizations that assist the blind. Our first stop was the Fuzhou School for the Blind.
When we arrived the students were gathered to greet us. We started with musical numbers.

We arrived in China just at the end of the Paralympics. So, paralympic athletes were a big deal. Turns out, three students of the school were on the silver-medal winning blind soccer team (the Paralympic site described it as Football 5-a-Side). So, we were able to visit with them and congratulate them on their achievement. Hearing that Jimmy Young is a soccer player and coach, they invited us out to play!
I vounteered to pair up with Jimmy. Soccer has always been my sport, and I even played collegiate soccer (ok, for Caltech, so that's not saying a huge amount)! First, we played sighted, but that's too much of an advantage. Normally, sighted people have blindfolds when they want to play. So, we closed our eyes for a while. We were immediately toasted by the Parathletes. So, we went to holding one hand over one eye. It's just a reminder of how music and sport connects the world. We had a great visit and enjoyed experiencing both!