Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New OSTP Blog Breaks New Ground

The systems for participating in government have been long established and formalized. They often make joint discussion hard. For example, the traditional approach is for an agency to issue a Request for Comment. Then, people have a certain number of weeks to post comments, but can't comment on each others' work real-time. And then, there's a time for reply comments. Sometimes, it's often hard to find the comments to reply to, at least for me, since I'm not a DC insider.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy is trying something cool and new: they've set up new OSTP Blog for commenting on an important issue that President Obama wants feedback on: the question of maintaining scientific integrity. And, you can comment on comments, and rate comments (similar to slashdot). It's taking advantage of technology to make a more powerful discussion that I hope will be more productive and informative compared to the old, asynchronous comment mechanism. I'm sure it will be more engaging than the traditional process, while honoring the government's need for transparency.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Social Enterprise Summit's Policy Track

One of the highlights of last week's Social Enterprise Alliance's Summit was the Launch of the Policy Track. We were delighted to have with us Carlos Monje of the White House Office of Social Innovation (so new, it doesn't have a website).

A lot of cool things happened in the policy track (even I spoke), but I think the interesting thing was Carlos' comments. And so, I'll share those with you.

According to Carlos, the Office is part of the domestic policy team inside the White House. They have four staff right now. They have three areas of focus:
  1. Service. The big deal here is the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act. Michelle Obama was a big part of Public Allies and is a huge fan of national service
  2. Public Private partnerships.
  3. Social innovation.
The service angle is not service for its own sake. They see this as a big deal, and expect to upgrade to really rally more volunteer service. There will be a Social Innovation Fund, small by federal standards ($50 million this year, probably going to $150 million). Carlos was realistic: you probably aren't going to get Social Innovation Fund money was his aside.

The goal of the social innovation effort is not simply to be a source of money. Phrases like "partner in charge" and "gaps in the market" caught my ear. There is interest from other groups in the government and the White House, like OSTP and the Office of Public Engagement. The Corporation for National and Community Service is clearly at the center of this. They are the organization charged with national service and will be hosting the Social Innovation Fund.

The interesting thing here for me is that they aren't using the language of social entrepreneurship or social enterprise. Social innovation is broader and apparently easier to sell.

Carlos was frank about the focus in Washington on creating jobs. If you talk about independent living, then the reaction is thinking about creating home healthcare worker jobs.

Something that piqued my interest was the Summer of Service. They are apparently looking for nontraditional partners here: Bookshare came immediately to mind!! He mentioned as a part of this.

Carlos then listed some of the different money available through the ARRA (stimulus bill). I'm not going to repeat the list: it's being talked about all over the country.

The great thing was to have the White House put the priority on meeting the social enterprise community. There was huge energy at the Summit around the growing influence and impact of social enterprises.

Bookshare -My favorite graph

I'm going to be heading to Washington DC this week to give a talk at the National Press Club on Bookshare and our new partnerships with universities and publishers. We've just been able to confirm Allan Adler of the Association of American Publishers as one of the participants. Should be very interesting.
Graph showing growth of student members of Bookshare, with 100,000 target over 5 years and actual graph showing above that line.
On my last trip to DC, I was very happy to be showing off the above graph. We're signing up students for Bookshare at a rate of more than 3,000 per month, and this means we're well ahead of our goal which was about 1700 students a month to hit our 100,000 students over five year goal. The entire Bookshare team is very proud of this!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

National Library Week and Bookshare

Guest Blog from Amy McNeely, Bookshare Librarian

This past week, April 12th through April 18th, was National Library Week. Every year, the American Library Association picks a different theme for the occasion. This year’s theme was “Worlds connect @ your library.” Bookshare is a unique library. When as the Bookshare librarian I fill out membership forms for different library organizations, I want to check all the boxes, as Bookshare is at once a school library, a public library and an academic library. This is one way Bookshare brings worlds together.

My name is Amy McNeely and I am pleased to be the new librarian at Bookshare. I’ve been working in libraries for nine years. Over that time, I’ve seen a lot of different libraries, from both the back room, where I normally work in technical services, and the front in public services. I have worked in a bustling public library, a small governmental department library, a huge federal medical library, a small specialized library for a film studio, a huge archival special collection for a university, a medical school library, and the library for the school I got my Master’s Degree of Library Science from, UCLA. I have done research on hallucinogenic toads. I have held the Manzanar High School Year Book. I have cataloged pamphlets from the olden days of medical science when ether was high technology. I’ve walked through a few libraries, but I can say that Bookshare is unique within my experience.

All libraries bring people together in ways that no other institution does. The library is a unique, neutral social and cultural space. It’s free, secular, and encourages people to linger. People interact in the library in ways they never would at coffee shops. They get chances to meet that they don’t because they attend different places of worship, or because they go to different schools, or didn’t attend school at all. Bookshare is no different. Our volunteer list is long, but the active volunteers get to know one another virtually very quickly. The vast majority are members as well as volunteers; it’s the “virtual” neighborhood library. We have people proofreading books from their homes who might never get to interact with one another were it not for Bookshare. The Bookshare staff get to know the volunteers, too. It’s like every library I’ve ever worked in, as it should be.
All of this makes me think back to what I’ve learned about the creation of Bookshare. Bookshare started as the sharing of copyrighted and public domain books in a central repository authorized by the Chafee Amendment by people with print disabilities for their own use. It is the first library I have worked at that is a social, virtual library—this is library 2.0 at its core. Web 2.0 is what we call social computing, when the content is contributed by the users, like YouTube or Wikipedia. Library 2.0 is what librarians call it when we apply these ideas to libraries. Bookshare takes the idea of building a collection from the users up instead of from the institution down—talk about worlds connecting. We do collection development in both directions now. Because of the nature of Bookshare, many of our most prolific volunteers are also members, and they shape our collection in a marvelous nexus of needs and services that few libraries can boast of.

We also have outsourcers in different countries on different continents doing proofreading for us now. Digital Divide Data and Worth Trust are two of our outsource partners who make a difference in many people’s lives by providing opportunities for training and employment to disabled and other job seekers in third world countries. That global connection is a huge way that worlds connect at Bookshare.

Bookshare is also picking up steam in India. We have members all over the world, but Bookshare India is the biggest outside of the United States right now. We are very proud of that program.

What’s more, Bookshare allows for individuals to grow and change. Like every library, members can check out all sorts of books, allowing them access to new worlds for themselves in whatever direction they choose to turn. We are a library for people with print disabilities. Our goal is to make the world of books accessible to people who so often find those doors closed. The door is open a crack: five percent of the books needed by people with print disabilities are now available in digital formats, including digital text and digital Braille. Among those books are the ones that Bookshare members have decided they want to read. It is my hope that all readers with print disabilities will join this community. The staff, advisory board, publishing partners, dedicated volunteers, and all of the contributors to Bookshare are working to push the door wide open, so that someday soon everyone can read whatever they want whenever they want. What better way for worlds to connect at the library, than for all of the kids to be able to read the next J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman or Stephenie Meyer book at midnight? No one should have to wait for that!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yes, I wear a suit sometimes

I keynoted the Illinois Computing Educators - ICE conference recently, and someone posted a picture on Flickr. It's fun to go out and tell stories to hundreds of people. Mainly, I talk about where Benetech comes from...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Training Afghani NGOs in Cambodia

Woman plus Vijaya seated under a banner about the documentation affinity group at a table for speaking

Guest Beneblog by Vijaya Tripathi

As a Program Associate for the Benetech Human Rights Program (HRP), I train and support human rights advocates who use Benetech’s free and open source Martus program to securely document human rights violations. Human rights documentation can take many forms including interviews, photographs, and official documentation. It is vital to the work of human rights investigations, and it serves many purposes. Sometimes this material is generated in the context of providing relief services, legal aid, or other support to victims. Other times it is collected to record the human rights environment in a given context, perhaps a conflict or post-conflict situation. In some cases, the information is intended for use in court cases or international prosecution, to support a human rights report, or advocacy campaign.

This type of documentation is often a critical step in the large-scale data analysis projects conducted by Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) in partnership with human rights organizations. Past partners have included NGOs and nine truth commissions. Over 8 weeks this last fall, I had the privilege of working with NGOs from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, in a series of trainings that took place in Phnom Penh, Beirut and Istanbul.

I began my travels in Cambodia, where the HRP was asked to participate in a conference that brought together experts who could advise and train Afghan human rights groups documenting human rights violations – or those who planned to do so in the future. The current conflict in Afghanistan has been ongoing since 2001. Human rights activists there operate in a dangerous climate and it is important that they be trained and supported with the very best tools. Since many Afghan NGOs are still in early stages of their documentation efforts, this was a significant opportunity to help groups as they develop and implement best practices.

The conference,which took place in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, was hosted by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). Panelists at the conference included the Guatemala Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), ICTJ, and DC-Cam. Another HRP partner, the Network for Human Rights Documentation (ND-Burma), which currently uses Martus to document human rights violations in Burma, was represented by the Earth Rights Initiative. Each of us drew on case studies and lessons learned from our own work.

My first presentation discussed principles of documentation, developing databases, and analysis. I emphasized how groups can make claims that are grounded in the data and are therefore stronger against attacks by critics. My second presentation was an introduction to the Martus software. Martus is available in seven languages , including in Dari and Farsi which are commonly spoken in Afghanistan. It’s our hope that when these groups begin actively documenting human rights violations, they will collect, organize, manage and secure their data in Martus, which is highly customizable and can easily be personalized to meet their diverse documentation needs. Martus will protect their sensitive documentation by encrypting it on the local hard drive and automatically backing it up to remote servers if organizations wish to do so. You can read about some of the NGOs that have used Martus to back up their data in Guatemala, Sri Lanka, the Phillippines, and Colombia.

As the week progressed, we considered the difficulties faced by Afghani groups who seek to build an NGO community in a place of conflict with few resources. We encourage all NGOs to clarify their goals and objectives so that any documentation or advocacy they engage in is as focused as possible. I focused on the importance of this approach when developing successful documentation and database strategies. genocide memorial building in CambodiaIt was thought-provoking to work with Afghan NGOs in Cambodia. Cambodia is still coming to terms with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge were officially in power from 1975-1979, but after their overthrow, a civil war continued until 1998. Members of the Khmer Rouge regime are currently being tried for serious crimes in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea.
woman looking at wall of photographs of many individuals
The location was chosen by the conference organizers so that the participants could observe and learn from Cambodia’s own history of recovering from the Khmer Rouge period. As part of the program, we visited memorials to the victims of Cambodia’s conflict, including the memorial stupas at Cheung Eok, the “Killing Fields” outside of Phnom Penh, and Tuol Sleng Museum, a high school that was converted to a torture center and prison by the Khmer Rouge. After these visits, Afghan participants discussed their hopes for memorializing Afghan victims and seeking justice using human rights documentation that they hoped to generate.documentation display with two pictures and two panels of writingThe Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has been documenting human rights violations under the Khmer Rouge for nearly 20 years, demonstrated how important this process is - even in the face of limited resources, dangerous conditions, and no immediate prospect of accountability. Their meticulous work is now a key aid to the courts. Even when no local or international justice seems imminent, documenting the human rights context is vital to build readiness for the moment when there is an opportunity for justice. This information also lends itself to many other programs and is now used in schools around Cambodia to educate youth about the Khmer Rouge.

It was a pleasure and honor to work with the Afghani human rights community who are doing their best to record human rights violations, despite the current period of deep hardship and conflict in their country. In my next guest blog posts, I will share stories about my work in Beirut and Istanbul.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dueling moral high grounds

President Marc Mauer of the National Federation of the Blind just had an excellent op ed published by the Baltimore Sun entitled Bias against blind book lovers. Mauer does a great job in capturing the advocacy position of the Reading Rights Coalition.

This is a case of dueling moral high grounds. The Authors Guild are pressing the cause of authors' rights to make more money (in theory). The Reading Rights Coalition and NFB are advocating for the equal rights of disabled people. How does society choose between competing moral high grounds?

I don't know of an algorithm for this, but I do know how people think. And, the Authors Guild is suffering because the NFB and Reading Rights Coalition has done a great job of articulating the differences. My take:

Authors Guild: we want to insist that publishers turn off text-to-speech so our authors can make more money over how much they make from the standard text ebook. But, we'd be happy if they charged extra for text-to-speech or required all blind people to register.

RRC and NFB: we can't read the book if the TTS is turned off, at all. So, you're denying us our civil rights. It's not fair to make us pay extra to be able to read if we're disabled. And, registration of disability won't solve the problem of many people who aren't blind (perhaps they have disabilities that fall short of the traditional copyright exemption definition of disability).

The Authors Guild has lost the framing debate. The RRC's motto is "No Need for Greed! We Want to Read!"

So, your average person goes: if I support the Authors Guild, it means that they'll be turning off reading for disabled people. If I support the RRC, it means that disabled people will pay the same amount for a book as everybody else, and the authors won't get as much money as they want.

Which would you choose?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

National Press Club on Bookshare Partnerships with Universities and Publishers

I'm really looking forward to my first ever National Press Club talk in Washington D.C., coming up on April 29th. Looking up at the national press club sign on building, with American flag, courtesy of eszter
We have exciting news about Bookshare, and it's especially thrilling to be talking about an educational program that scales well and works. Of course, the secret to Bookshare is that it's not Benetech making it so successful, it's our volunteers, our community, the schools, colleges, universities, authors and publishers that make it work so well for people with print disabilities so severe that they cannot read a standard printed book effectively.

Monday, April 13, 2009


There are more and more exciting technology social enterprises all the time. One I'm fond of is Humdinger. They have lots of innovations, but my favorite (and how I first heard about them) is their micro-windbelt power generator. They have a prototype design for powering climate sensors in building in air conditioning ducts, that would get their power from the air flow.

I hope they find the right licensees and that I get to buy one of these units.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Emmet Labs: saw a demo at TED

I saw a neat demonstration at TED, when I got the chance to meet Janice Fraser of Emmet Labs. The idea is to have stories about people in the past, and the connections between people, with a wiki approach with some extra structure. The focus is on pre-1970, so we have lots of kings and queens featured. But, I think Stevie Wonder is the top person in connections (example, when Stevie dedicated I Just Called to Say I Love You to Nelson Mandela while he was imprisoned, his music was banned in South Africa).

I like their motto about submitting material: "Be nice. Don't steal. Tell the truth."