Sunday, August 30, 2009

Foo Camp 2009

I just got back from Foo Camp 2009, which was a blast as usual. I think this is my third or fourth Foo Camp, and the energy around public uses of technology was palpable.
Schedule grid boardIt's structured as an unconference, where the 300 or so folks showing up design the conference program of roughly 70 sessions in about an hour the first night. The picture above has the schedule for just one half of the rooms/tents on Saturday!
Tent with chairs and people in a meeting sessionIf you don't move fast and claim a conference room, your session will be in a row of tents in the parking lot. This actually works out fine, but don't expect to be doing PowerPoint out there!

Many cool people attend, and the quality of the conversations is terrific. These are all folks who believe in technology and have a certain level of common language and understanding (even though the range of people is pretty amazing). That's why conversations can cut right to the issue that people are debating. As one attendee put it to me, he can always go to everyone's blog and find out what they're working on. But, to engage in a realtime conversation with them is completely different.

I did a session on technology that does social good but doesn't make money, and got a dynamic group to show up. There were people already doing cool stuff, like InSTEDD and some great work around mashups of humanitarian data in Afghanistan, as well as folks discussing lauching cool new social enterprises (but we can't talk about them yet). Brewster Kahle and Tim O'Reilly talkingOne sample session was the one on the Google Book Settlement, led by Pam Samuelson of UC Berkeley. Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive ( a forceful critic of the settlement), Tim O'Reilly, Marissa Mayer of Google were all part of the audience. The conversations were passionate, while Samuelson worked to explain many of the salient points of the settlement. The conversation went 20 minutes overtime, and then spilled out into the corridor outside (see picture of Brewster and Tim talking above).

My small contribution to the discussion was (of course) on accessibility. A significant slice of the settlement agreement is on the topic of access to Google Books by people with print disabilities. My understanding is that this was very important to the University of Michigan, one of the key libraries at the center of the Google Book project. The exciting thing is that Google committed to accessibility of these books for people with print disabilities on a par with what people without disabilities get. And Google made this parity commitment before other key players. For example, the National Federation of the Blind has either sued or threatened to sue the Author's Guild (one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Google) and Amazon over their failure to provide for accessibility (in the famous soundproofing of books controversy, as well as the inaccessibility of Amazon's Kindle to the blind). Because of this commitment, the disability advocacy groups I know about are actively supporting the settlement as a victory for disability rights.

lawn covered in tentsAnd yes, it actually is a camp. The lawn outside the buildings (and the orchard behind the lawn) is covered with tents. I actually slept really well, considering I went to sleep between 230 and 330 am both nights I was there. The first session isn't until 10 am in deference to the geeks staying up all night playing werewolf ( a role playing game which is incredibly addictive)!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Braille Silver Dollars

Sometimes you come across something cool and relevant to your work. I couldn't resist getting a couple of the new Louis Braille silver dollars. They have an image of Louis Braille (this is his bicentennial year) and actual raised dots (for the letters BRL which is the code for Braille) on the back of the coin.

IMage of Louis Braille Silver Dollar, front and back
The National Federation of the Blind convinced the federal government to have the U.S. Mint strike and sell these Louis Braille Silver Dollars, and some of the money goes to supporting Braille literacy.

I've been using a Morgan silver dollar from the 19th century when I referee soccer games each fall: this September I plan to surprise the kids with a Braille silver dollar!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Reckoning

We had an all-company movie, The Reckoning during lunch this last week. One of the top issues that came out during our recent strategy meeting was the team's eagerness to hear about other projects. This was an opportunity to hear about human rights: The Reckoning is about the International Criminal Court.

The movie is excellent: it does a good job of covering the issues around the establishment of the court and its early years including its earliest cases. John Bolton, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN during the Bush Administration, is quite direct about why he opposes the court today as he did then.

The ICC is still in its infancy: one of the challenges the movie brings up is the inability to get most of its indictees into the court. The current president of Sudan is a good example of the challenge.

After the movie, Patrick answered questions of the team about his experiences working at the court and his take on some of the issues raised in the movie. Patrick believes strongly that this is a key new human rights institution that is now reasonably well established. Of course, our role in this field is as scientists helping get at the truth using statistics. I'm betting our team will end up working on a case where the statistics can play an important role in a trial.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A shining example of quality (and fast!) Volunteer work

I get great emails all the time, but this one needed to be posted right away!


From: Rick Costa
Sent: Thursday, August 20, 2009 3:26 PM
To: Bookshare Team
Subject: A shining example of quality (and fast!) Volunteer work

Hello Bookshare Team,

"The Adventures Of Eddy And Teddy Too Teff"
by Lorraine Wooding

was given to Robin Seaman by the author was very eager to have it in our collection.

Well it is -- thanks to Carrie, who approved it this afternoon!

And a very special thanks to one of our new Volunteers:
Laurie Bechtler
Laurie cradling book
For those who missed Pavi's Volunteer Appreciation Event on Tuesday, Laurie attended as one of the volunteers.

When speaking about her, I forgot to give her this book, which earlier that day she'd agreed to proof next. [I gave it to her and then] She took the book home Tuesday afternoon.
(She'd just finished proofing a priority book: a B4E high school textbook requested by a teacher!).

This afternoon Laurie uploaded the book to the Approval Queue, and Carrie and I just looked at her proof -- it's beautiful!

Not only is the quality high, it was done fast (48 hrs!).

Because the font was non-standard, it would be about as much work to chop & scan the book as it would be to type it, so Laurie typed in the 46 pages.

And because the words from each character were color coded, she had to add the speaker's names to each snippet of conversation by the various characters.

Here's a link to this new book in our library:

Bookshare Lab

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Big Benetech Day: All Company and Volunteer Meetings

Yesterday was emotionally exhausting here at Benetech for many of us in the most positive way possible, with a couple of rare events.

We are working on a new strategic plan, our first in years (we've been working off of the original Benetech plan with minor updates for 8 years). We're doing the planning by starting with our team: we did an all-company survey and then yesterday we did a two hour meeting to go over the survey results and discuss them.

Our meeting facilitator, Bob Glavin (longtime advisor to Benetech, teaches at USF and helps many other nonprofits and foundations), told me and the senior managers to not talk and to simply listen. It was hard to keep my mouth buttoned up, but it was essential to hearing from the team instead of from the CEO! And we did.

We attract incredible people to Benetech, and it showed. We heard about how much our commitment to transparency was valued, among other aspects of our culture. There was much food for thought, as our management team develops our plan further for presentation and discussion with our board of directors. And, our team is quite interested in seeing what we do with their input (so am I)! I look forward to sharing the end product with the world.

Five smiling women

Later in the afternoon, we held a volunteer appreciation event for inhouse volunteers. Most Benetech volunteers work remotely, but our volunteer coordinator, Pavi Mehta, has attracted a group of great people who come into Benetech to work on Bookshare Bookshare and other projects as well.

Each of our inhouse volunteers received two rubber duckies, one to sign (and add to our expanding collection in Bookshare) and one to take home. And then our volunteers turned it around and gave us each a scroll with inspirational quotes. Mine was
All who would win joy, must share it; happiness was born a twin -- Lord Byron

The day was a powerful reminder of the force for good that a group of socially motivated people can be: I was really proud to be associated with our paid and unpaid team members!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Benetech and the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Benetech Analyzes Human Rights Data for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission

A Guest Beneblog post by Kristen Cibelli

Our team at the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) has recently concluded a three-year project with Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help clarify Liberia's violent history.

I managed the project in which we analyzed more than 17,000 victim and witness statements collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Liberia and compiled the data into a report entitled "Descriptive Statistics From Statements to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission." The report is included as an annex to the TRC’s Final Report released on July 1 in Monrovia, Liberia. As a non-profit organization, our work with the TRC and our statistical report was made possible through the support of United States Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and several other donors, which are listed in our report.

The TRC’s final report has been covered extensively in the press. The coverage has focused, however, not on the bulk of content in the report but on the Commission’s controversial recommendation to ban Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from holding future political office. Understandably, this issue has become quite controversial in reports throughout the media, including the blogosphere. But since so many years of work have gone into the TRC’s report, it is also useful to reflect on the broader role of the TRC in Liberia as well as truth commissions around the world. HRDAG has now worked with nine truth commissions over the past 15 years and we have given this question careful consideration. Read our FAQ
on the purpose of truth commissions.

In this blog entry, I talk about how we analyzed the data from the Liberian TRC, some reactions to the TRC’s final report, and offer thoughts looking beyond the current public debate to the broader role and historical value of the TRC’s work.

Office building behind concrete wall topped with barbed wire and palms in distance.

Head office of the TRC in Monrovia, Liberia.

How We Analyzed Data For the Liberian TRC
During our three-year partnership with the TRC, the HRDAG team provided the statistical expertise to transform information from the TRC statements into scientifically defensible, quantitative information. This process was vitally important because it created a historical record of victims and violations based on the thousands of statements. This data helped the Commission determine the proportional responsibility of specific factions and individuals for the most serious crimes during the TRC’s mandate period, 1979 to 2003.

As manager of the project, I worked with our team to apply our deep statistical expertise throughout the many stages of the project. I made numerous visits to the TRC beginning in 2006 when the Commission was inaugurated. I also had the opportunity to live in Liberia for six months last year. This enabled me to work closely with my TRC colleagues who analyzed the statements collected in Liberia and more than 1,100 additional statements collected from diaspora Liberians – Liberians who left the country.

This was a monumental task. Each statement had to be analyzed carefully to identify the “countable units” — violations, victims and perpetrators. That information was then transcribed onto forms - a process known as "coding." Information from the coding forms for each statement was then entered into a specialized database. This effort was enormous and the TRC staff rose to challenge; nearly all of the statements collected in Liberia plus over 1,100 statements collected from diaspora Liberians were coded and entered into a secure database.

Seven office workers at computers.

TRC data entry and coding staff.

To put this accomplishment into perspective, it is helpful to compare it with previous truth commissions. For example, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission collected about 21,000 statements, just about 1,000 more than the TRC collected from Liberians living inside and outside the country. That may sound comparable – except when one considers that South Africa’s population is nearly fourteen times larger than Liberia’s.

The Liberian TRC was also the first to collect statements from members of the diaspora community – in this case Liberians living in Ghana, Nigeria, the United States and Europe. Many tens of thousands of Liberians fled Liberia’s borders seeking refuge in neighboring countries and in the US and Europe during the war -- By the end of 2003 an estimated 297,000 Liberians were living outside of the country. Not all of the statements from diaspora Liberians, and those living inside the country, could be coded and entered for inclusion in the statistical analysis due to resource constraints.

Stacks of papers on shelves and in bags on floor.

Victim and witness statements collected by the TRC.

Since the scientific accuracy of the data is vital to the credibility of the TRC report, it is also important to consider the care that went into coding. When more than one person is working on coding, it is important to monitor a measurement known as inter-rater reliability (IRR). IRR measures whether different coders, given the same source material, produce the same quantitative output (e.g. the same number of victims and the same number and type of violations). The coding team in Liberia achieved an overall average of 89% agreement on coding exercises throughout their work on TRC statements. This is considered a very high rate of IRR – and ensures that the information entered into the database is more than the individual interpretations of each of the coders.

The staff in the Coding and Database Unit remained dedicated and hardworking in the face of their daunting task and often less then ideal working conditions. You can read a summary of the report and more about our methodology here. I was inspired by the staff’s ongoing commitment to processing as many stories presented to the TRC as possible -- as accurately as possible. They felt that their work was an important service to the people of Liberia and I feel fortunate to have had the chance to work with them on this historic task.

Reaction to the TRC Report

The TRC’s Final Report has provoked heated debate around the world, most of which has not centered on the statistical data. Much of the press coverage of the TRC Final Report -- both national and international -- has focused on the TRC's recommendation regarding President Sirleaf. President Sirleaf was not accused of having committed any direct human rights abuses, and therefore her name does not appear in the database of violations compiled by the TRC. It is extraordinary, however, for a truth commission to make such a determination about a current sitting head of state and this decision could have far-reaching consequences for Liberia.

The TRC has called clearly for prosecution of those the Commission found to be responsible for the most serious crimes. This decision has inspired much debate about whether or not this is the right approach for Liberia and if this is the direction in which Liberians want to go. Clearly this is a choice for Liberians to make. We are scientists. We do not do not judge the data, we provide the expertise to gather quantitative data from the statements and analyze this information.

However, interpreting statistics can be quite complicated. So it is very important to be clear about what the numbers represent and what they don't -- particularly when they are being used to support an argument in a sensitive debate. In that light, I would like to clarify one misunderstanding that has been repeated in the press. When asked what is needed to bring reconciliation to the country, 60% of statement-givers to the TRC mentioned, "forgive and forget" among possible other responses. Some sources in the press have cited this finding but have incorrectly suggested that it represents the views of all Liberians.

To clarify, the statistic does not come from a random population-based survey. Instead, it is drawn from the responses of statement-givers to an open-ended set of supplemental questions included in the TRC's statement form. As an analyst, I want to point out that the statistic represents the views of 17,416 statement-givers who elected to give a statement. But it does not statistically represent the views of 3.4 million Liberians as a whole.

It is, however, interesting to note that the majority of Liberians who gave statements to the TRC embraced forgiveness despite the fact that they were direct victims or witnesses of atrocities and face the greatest challenge in forgiving those responsible for their suffering.

Looking Beyond Immediate Controversy

My hope is that the current controversy surrounding the TRC report does not obscure the larger historical truths - and the voices of more than 18,000 victims and witnesses who gave the statements that we analyzed. Truth commissions help nations understand the impact of past policies – and coup d’états - such as those that occurred in Liberia. We hope that Liberians and others will study the findings carefully and consider the cost of violent regime change on the civilian population. Truth commissions can help direct not just decision makers – but entire nations – toward greater peace and prosperity. Our hope is that the collective experiences of those who engaged with the TRC are not lost in the debate.

For instance, our analysis uncovered important facts about mass human rights violations in Liberia. Forced displacement was the most commonly reported violation during the conflict — comprising about a third of the 163,615 total reported violations. Statements to the TRC documented more than 28,000 killings, the second most commonly reported violation. According to the data, Charles Taylor’s group of combatants, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), was responsible for more than three times the number of reported violations as the next closest perpetrator group. Surprisingly, older men were at greater risk for being killed or subject to looting violations than younger men. In contrast, the data suggests that young men, particularly teens 15 to 19 were at the greatest risk for forced recruitment as combatants.

Four smiling kids sitting on a bench.

Liberian children.

By supporting the effective capture, preservation and analysis of statements relating to human rights violations, the TRC has been able to tell a broader truth about Liberia's conflict. An anonymized version of the TRC's data from statements collected in Liberia, and among diaspora Liberians, will be published on the TRC and HRDAG websites. We encourage scholars and other analysts to extend the analysis and compare statistical results from other sources of data with the information reported by the statement-givers.

The findings in the TRC report offer a new perspective on the history of Liberia and provide a context for how and why certain types of violence occurred. Ultimately, this analysis provides a deeper understanding of the possible causes behind the patterns of violence. Before people can be forgiven, we must first understand what they have done. The first step towards reconciliation is the truth.

Busy street scene with building and taxis.

Busy street in downtown Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

Helen Keller Archives

Spotted this photo of Benetech's Robin Seaman visiting the Helen Keller archive at the American Foundation for the Blind and holding an Oscar.

Helen Keller received this Oscar for the documentary about her life in 1955, as
mentioned in the online Helen Keller Kids Museum.

Robin Seaman holding an Oscar statuette in front of a picture of Helen Keller

One of the great things about working for Benetech is being able to see all the cool things going on around the world.

Library bookshelves with many volumes of a Braille Bible

Looking at the 17 volumes of Helen's Braille Bible, I remember why Bookshare members love having a thousand times more content on a two pound Braille electronic display!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

University Presses Cooperate with Bookshare

We have been very lucky to continue to partner more closely with the publishing industry, as a major segment of educational publishers come on board with Bookshare: the university presses.

We recently announced partnerships with The University of Chicago Press, the University of California Press and New York University Press, where they will be sending digital files of their books to Bookshare to be made available to people with print disabilities.

As the debate rages about the accessibility of ebooks, it's good to know that most publishers are committed to seeing their works reach people with print disabilities. We're delighted to be working with these top university presses to meet this crucial need through Bookshare.

Monday, August 03, 2009

I just made an educational microloan!

As someone with three kids in college, I'm used to the idea of educational loans. My kids are borrowing money; I'm borrowing money. It's the American way of higher education!

Outside the U.S., educational loans are not so common. And, education is the way out of poverty.

This weekend, I made my first educational microloan, to Claudia Belén García Royz of Nicaragua, who is studying to be an industrial engineer.

This loan was the result of a conversation I had with Kushal Chakrabarti, the founder of the Vittana Foundation. Multiple people had connected me with Kushal, including my brother Tom, who worked at Amazon with Kushal.

Kushal described Vittana as "Kiva for educational loans." It makes a lot of sense to me. I'm not alone. Every student so far that has posted a loan need has had willing lenders snap up the offering quickly (in under 30 hours over the weekend). Kushal's challenge is actually finding more microcredit institutions in the developing world with qualified students who need loans. This is not a typical product for microcredit groups, but it makes a lot of sense.

Oh, and Vittana needs financial support for its operations as it scales up to viability.

This is what I think about when I dream about Raising the Floor with technology: finding ways to meet society's most pressing problems with the brains and resources of the tech community. Kushal is a great example of that, and I look forward to tracking the success of Vittana!