Monday, November 23, 2009

Bookshare to Convert Open Content Textbooks to Accessible Formats

Just spent a week in Washington DC doing all kinds of things, including actual lobbying (it's fun!) as well as meeting with our Bookshare funders at the Department of Education. One of the coolest meetings was with Under Secretary of Education, Martha Kanter, who headed our local community college here in California before getting the appointment. She and her senior policy adviser, Hal Plotkin, are huge fans of Open Educational Resources (OERs), having been involved in starting that movement in community colleges.

Our new announcement about the Department granting Bookshare supplemental funding to convert open content textbooks to accessible formats went over very well. We're promising to do highly accessible versions of 80 open content textbooks. There's even a quote from Governor Schwarzenegger in the press release!

Accessibility is a huge asset of open content materials, which are frequently released under the Creative Commons licenses and are freely distributable. Since they are open, we can get them and do the adaptations for accessibility. We also can (and do) make them freely available on our website. That's a huge difference compared to copyrighted works that we convert under the copyright exemption, which we have to keep under tight controls to restrict copyrighted works to only the use of people with bona fide print disabilities in the U.S. These new textbooks will be available to everybody, with or without a disability, for free, globally. They should be great examples of accessible textbooks, and allow teachers in training to access them, parents, assistive technology developers and so on. It's also a chance for us to start looking to the best ways of making these textbooks more usable for more people.

I recently blogged about seeing David Wiley's talk about Flat World Knowledge, the open content textbook company (for-profit, but giving away the digital versions of their textbooks for free under CC licenses), at the BYU ESR conference. We've been big fans of OERs and CC licensing, and it seems like the field is on the brink of really going to scale. Our mission is to make more of these materials matter to many more people: how can OERs be directly usable by millions of people?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Accessibility and ACTA

Brief Comments on Accessibility Concerns on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA)

The disability community should be concerned about ACTA for two reasons:

1. At its core it’s an anti-piracy agreement. The digital measures designed to defeat piracy usually end up equating accessibility with piracy.

2. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is being negotiated in secret. We don’t know if it’s benign or hostile to accessibility.
Accessibility of digital media has been repeatedly and systematically denied because of digital measures to “protect” content. People with disabilities are repeatedly left out in the cold because accessibility concerns don’t rank high on tech company priority lists. A great (bad) example is Adobe, one of the leading ebook technology vendors, who just introduced their Digital Editions. Unfortunately, although accessibility was in the prior Adobe product, the Digital Rights Management (DRM) of Digital Editions locks out print disabled people.

The interests that sponsor provisions like those mooted about the secret ACTA provisions, tend to be anti-innovation, with strong focus on control. These approaches usually lock out people with disabilities. Provisions designed to handle copyrighted materials could conflict with fundamental exceptions in copyright law like fair use of copyrighted works and the Chafee Amendment. Do we want people with disabilities, volunteers or teachers losing their internet access without due process because they were handling copyrighted materials in ways that are permitted today in the U.S.?

The secret nature of the negotiations is disturbing. Why have a World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)? Why have a legislature? Why have public decision-making? Citizen engagement is a core value of the Obama Administration. What makes the ACTA an exception? The contention that piracy of movies, music and books is a national security issue that necessitates secrecy is implausible to say the least (but it’s the current Administration excuse).

Disability advocates should, at minimum, press for a seat at the ACTA table. Far better would be the open accessible public policy process we’re used to, not secret negotiations that are likely to cause substantial collateral damage to people with disabilities.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Eulogy for my father

Three weeks ago was my Dad's memorial service. A few times a year, I share something outside of the tech enterprise field on the Beneblog.

The Definition of a Gentleman

Eulogy for James R. Fruchterman, Sr.

When my brother Bill was leaving to join the Army, our father took him aside and asked him to write down a quotation. Ever resourceful, Bill grabbed one of dad’s business cards and wrote out the following quotation:
It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. Cardinal Newman.
Bill still has that business card.

Newman’s message, and Dad’s, was that a gentleman was always aware of his impact on others. Our Dad was always aware of his impact on others. That was my dad!

He inspired us, he inspired each one of his children, by his example, by the people and pursuits he loved, to keep our impact on other people in mind. Of all the many ways he inspired us, six really stood out for Dad’s six children when we talked about it.

First, he inspired us with his love of technology. Not that that means Dad was all that mechanically handy. He wasn’t. When the news of dad’s passing made it around, one of our neighbors from where we grew up posted a remembrance of this online. You see, my dad was trying to install a deadbolt in our front door. After a couple of hours of working at it, the job was still not done. Dad let our sister, Anne, then 14, to try her hand at the project. In less than ten minutes, the job was finished!

My brother Bill says that he was therefore inspired by dad to become a mechanical engineer, so that he could fix things around the house. Mom would save up projects for Bill to work on, some which had already been “fixed” by Dad.

But, seriously, he loved technology and was always talking about the coolest new thing. I especially remember the time he came home after seeing the Xerox Star at one of Harvester’s engineering labs. The Star was one of the very first personal computer workstations, with display and mouse and all that. It was especially memorable to me, since brother Tom and I both ended up in the computer industry.

Of course, all four of Dad’s sons became engineers.

Second, he inspired us with his love of music. He was always singing. Sister Liz remembered sitting on Dad’s knee on the tête-à-tête in our backyard, listening to him sing Blue and Gold and other songs. Dad and his friend Lee Canfield were infamous in Chicago’s Burnham Harbor for blasting out German military marches as they sailed Lee’s boat, Go Bananas, out of the harbor into Lake Michigan.

Third, he inspired us to work hard and to do the right thing. Dad had a ferocious work ethic and was dedicated to doing the right thing for people. Liz pointed out that none of us could remember Dad taking a sick day from work. She recalled the weekend that Dad spent calling International Harvester (IH) dealers when it became clear that one of their machines had a defect that could cause it to tip over. My dad didn’t want to imagine a farmer or a farm kid losing their life because of his inaction.

The story that gave me the truest insight into Dad and his approach to practicing the law was about a ten-year-old farm boy who had lost his arm in a combine accident and the family had sued IH. It wasn’t a problem with the combine; the boy’s 16 year old brother had left the combine running unattended. The company was in the right: it was the brother’s fault. But, Dad thought that the right thing was to settle the suit. He was very proud of how he had structured the settlement as a education and college trust fund for the injured boy. That was our dad!

Fourth, he inspired us with his love of humor and pranks. Brother Tom especially remembered his dad as a storyteller, someone with the gift of gab and a touch of the blarney. We could never entirely tell which ones of his fantastic stories were true, and still can’t be sure.

I once asked him about the scar on his hand and got the answer: “hand-to-hand combat in Korea.” My dad the hero! I mentioned this years later to Dad’s brother, my Uncle Dick, who explained that the scar came from a broken soda bottle in Brooklyn.

Dad and his brother regularly pulled off pranks. The most famous was when they crawled under a row of bungalows at the shore and turned off the water to each one in the middle of the afternoon when everyone was at the beach. Then they sat down to watch the ensuing chaos.

Dad’s pranks extended into the courtroom. They were defending a personal injury case, and the defense (dad) was pretty sure that the plaintiff was faking a severe neck injury. Dad chose a crucial moment to nudge a heavy book off a table to the side of the plaintiff. Bang! The book hit the floor and the plaintiff’s head whipped around towards the noise. The judge saw it: case dismissed!

Fifth, he inspired us with his love of words. Both Mom and Dad had enormous vocabularies and were voracious readers, traits we were glad they passed along to us.

Sixth, and last, it goes without saying that he inspired us with his love of family. He was so in love with mom. He would do anything for his kids, and made many sacrifices for us. He was a great example of a dad.

Dad always kept Cardinal Newman’s enjoinder in mind – he was always thinking about other people. The last year wasn’t easy on Dad, in and out of different hospitals and rehab facilities. But, we always heard from the staff how much they enjoyed having Dad with them, how nice and courteous he was to everybody, and his sense of humor.

You know, we will all really miss Dad, but I know that we will always continue to be inspired by his example of loving technology, music, hard work and doing the right thing, humor and words and family. Most of all, we’ll be inspired by his life as a gentle man who aspired to always be considerate, always aware of his impact on others.

Given by his son, James R. Fruchterman, Jr., at Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church, Pawleys Island, South Carolina, October 24, 2009.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Disabled Students Need Accessible Books: On Huffpo!

The Huffington Post recently invited me to become a guest blogger, based on a connection to Arianna Huffington from the Craigslist Nonprofit Boot Camp. HuffPo recently published my first post, Disabled Students Need Accessible Books. It's great to be able to bring this kind of attention to our work at Bookshare helping students with print disabilities.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Training Human Rights Defenders in the DRC

A Guest Beneblog by Vijaya Tripathi, Vijaya.T at

In my job as outreach coordinator for Martus, Benetech’s free and open source information management technology, I teach human rights workers in many countries how to secure their data.

I have just completed two 2-day trainings of human rights NGOs in the Democratic Republic of Congo. During my visit, I also had an opportunity to meet staff members at the United Nations Mission of the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC).

The Benetech Human Rights Program was invited to conduct these trainings by the International Center for Transitional Justice which assists countries pursuing accountability for mass atrocities or human rights abuses.

Martus is a secure software application designed to gather, organize and back up human rights information. It allows human rights defenders to create a searchable and encrypted database of sensitive information from witnesses and victims - and back this data up remotely to their choice of publicly available servers.
Three people looking over the shoulder of someone seated at a PC Caption: Human rights workers receive Martus training in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The first Congolese Martus training took place in Kinshasa, the state capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is located on the bank of the Congo River in central Africa. The second Congolese Martus training took place in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province located on the shore of Lake Kivu.

The trainings offered an important opportunity to bring Martus to the exact groups we built the tool for - human rights defenders who are collecting sensitive documentation and need help securing and backing up that information quickly and effectively.

I was honored to work with these Congolese activists, several of whom have been on the frontline of human rights monitoring and advocacy in the DRC for many years. They drew on examples from their own experiences to inform the training process, sharing anecdotes about information organization, management, security, and in some cases, information loss due to theft and destruction.

Despite the difficulties of resource constraints and shifting security conditions, I am optimistic about the long-term possibility of Martus users in the DRC due to the enthusiasm and experience of the human rights defenders that I worked with. I hope to have an opportunity to return to Kinshasa and Goma and continue to support the dedicated men and women that I had the opportunity to train.

Monday, November 09, 2009

BYU ESR conference on Social Entrepreneurship

I just got back from the Economic Self-Reliance Conference at Brigham Young University in Utah. When I attend conferences to give a keynote, I usually try to stick around for more of the conference and listen in to the other presenters. This practice was especially awarded at the ESR conference.

David Wiley's keynote was on the social returns from a new venture he helped create, Flat World Knowledge. His projection was that students were going to save more money on textbooks after three semesters of Flat World operations than investors had put into it. Not the typical SROI calculation, but the dramatic point was that Flat World is making impact the center piece of their foray into Open Educational Resources (OERs). OERs are the open source equivalent of open source software. My biggest concern about OERs has been that few people developing them have been measuring the impact: they celebrate the creation of the open content textbook or coursework, but don't collect the information on whether anybody is using them.

Flat World is a for-profit social enterprise that gives away its core textbooks under a creative commons license, and makes its money on ancillary products like a black and white print version for $30 (vs. $120, $150 or $180 from a regular, evil textbook company like Pearson, where Flat World's two main founders come out of). Wiley put up the projected economic numbers and showed how authors made as much money selling their book through Flat World as through a traditional publisher, how students saved a boatload, and how Flat World and their investors would make good money. I think they are onto something. The Bookshare team is excited because we can take these books and do all the accessibility work because they are under an open license!

I've already blogged about Kushal Chakrabati of Vittana, who gave a funny keynote as a startup social entrepreneur in the trenches. The slide that resonated most with me was his contention that 99% of his job is doing email, and he put up a graph showing his email traffic by hour averaged over a one week period. Moderate dips at 4 am and 4 pm... Anyway, Vittana continues to grow as Kushal pursues his goal of making educational loans in the developing world as mainstream as microcredit is today.

Geoff Wooley spoke about a range of things, including his Ten Commandments for Social Entrepreneurs Working on Poverty. But, the most noteworthy item was the successful Unitus equity fund for microcredit. We hear a lot of talk about making equity social investments, but very few people are doing it (like my buddies at GoodCap). Geoff is on the board at Unitus, and was talking about how their equity fund for investing in microcredit institutions like SKS had done really well and achieved VC-like equity returns.

I was the other keynoter, and as usual enjoyed the opportunity to try to get people excited about social entrepreneurship. This was my first long version of my "Not Business as Usual" speech, which I debuted at the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in New Orleans. My other challenge was speaking two other times at BYU, and coming up with three different talks was fun. The biggest turnout was one thousand students for my lecture to engineering and business students. And, I tried out a new talk on the theme of "Return on Humanity" as my thank-you speech for getting the Social Innovator of the Year Award. It was an honor to receive the award, especially following in the footsteps of Martin Burt, last year's recipient!

Monday, November 02, 2009

My Latest President's Update

Two or three times a year, I publish a president's update for Benetech. This latest one spotlights the many great interns, associates and fellows that are or were working for Benetech over this summer and into this year.

Summer 2009

Our growth over the last year has been so phenomenal that I wanted to use this summer update to highlight some of the great people working for Benetech: our interns, summer associates and fellows. Each one of these terrific people has committed to spending anywhere from a month to a year helping Benetech with his or her skills and passion. Here are some of their stories:

Aleda Schaffer

A student at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, Aleda Schaffer has worked as an American Sign Language Interpreter in Washington, DC, Alaska and Boston. She joined Benetech so she could learn more about Bookshare and how it is making books and periodicals more accessible to people with print disabilities. She also loves the fact that Benetech is based in California’s naturally beautiful Bay Area. During her summer internship, she has been developing the business plan for Bookshare International, which will bring the benefits of reading to people with print disabilities outside of the United States.

Craig Wing

An electrical engineer, MBA student, South African of Chinese descent, founder of not one but two companies, world traveler, former missionary, and current blogger, it's pretty hard to keep up with Craig Wing, let alone categorize him. Craig is a summer associate exploring new applications for Miradi, Benetech’s user-friendly conservation project planning and monitoring software. When he was 22, Craig launched a company to help partially sighted children. He followed up by launching another company helping startups find funding, write business plans, etc. At Benetech he’s learning about the nonprofit world and making contacts that he’ll use when he launches his next business, after he finishes his MBA at Babson College. He plans to start a search fund (a vehicle for entrepreneurs to raise funds from investors) to find businesses – and intellectual property – that have a social focus to help out developing countries, particularly South Africa.

Jule Krüger

Benetech has been lucky to have Jule Krüger working as an intern from January through August as part of her fellowship with Humanity in Action, a transatlantic educational program in human rights and minority issues. Jule has been working with Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group, HRDAG, which completed analyzing data for Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Her goal while at Benetech: to learn more about the data processing techniques and quantitative analysis methods that HRDAG uses to investigate large-scale human rights violations. Before coming to HRDAG, Jule was co-founder and deputy president of the German student organization Studies Without Borders. She holds a master’s degree in Political Sciences, Public Law and Contemporary History from University of Konstanz, Germany. She hopes to use the tools she learned at Benetech – including new programming languages, codes and statistics – to work on human rights projects around the world.

Aaron Firestone

Aaron Firestone, a recent graduate of the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, also has a background in the nonprofit world, where he worked for five years before going to business school. At Benetech he’s able to indulge in his passion to find market market-based solutions to social issues. He’s working on the new Bookaccess program – and he’s working on Benetech’s larger mission – “Raising the Floor,” a phrase that refers to making technology accessible to all. Firestone grew up on a small farm in Vermont, and has always been interested in agriculture. Right now he gets his green fix by tending to an aquarium and houseplants.

Kristian Lum

Kristian Lum wants to save the world – with math. And she's been getting her chance to do it here at Benetech. As an intern, Kristian has spent her summer doing what she loves: statistical analysis. She has focused on data analysis of human rights violations that occurred in Columbia. A recent graduate of Rice University, Lum is working on her PhD in statistics at Duke University. She has studied wireless sensor networks and how to get the most out of minimal data transmissions, which she explains means “choosing which data to send from wireless nodes and which ones to suppress in a smart way.” She’s currently working on “spatial quantile regression” and has learned at Benetech how to use statistics to address real-life problems.

Paul Farestveit

A trained historian with a degree in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, Paul Farestveit has spent the majority of his career working for STA Travel, a global student travel company that operates large businesses in Europe, the United States, and Australia. For the past five years he worked customizing and integrating a single set of software systems that Benetech could use globally. His specialty: user testing. A move to Benetech’s quality assurance team was a great fit. Paul is spending his six-month fellowship testing software – for a company that allows him to do cutting edge work and cut his teeth even deeper on the engineering side. When he’s not at Benetech, he’s still traveling the world and getting tattoos – by the same artist who does tattoos for Johnny Depp.

Janet Kornblum

Janet Kornblum began writing about technology in 1994 when she was deemed the newsroom expert because she could actually log on to the Internet. She's been hooked ever since. A specialist in technology and culture, Janet came to work for Benetech this summer as a communications fellow after a long career in dotcoms and newspapers, most recently USA Today. She's reveling in the opportunity to be part of the solution – rather than just writing about it. In her spare time, she updates her Twitter and Facebook feeds and engages with her Kindle, iPod and other assorted tech toys.

Ryan Fan

Before Ryan Fan, a high school senior, came to Benetech for his school’s career day, he consulted Wikipedia to understand this concept called “social entrepreneurship.” Shortly after career day he contacted Viji Dilip, head of Bookshare International, to see about an internship. Alas, Fan, a high-school senior, had to depart in July to attend summer classes at Stanford. This summer Ryan learned how to research and develop business plans for the potential expansion of Bookshare into new countries.

Stan Tiu

Stan Tiu came to Benetech as an intern last summer and liked it so much that he came back for more – but this time, as a fellow. Stan, who recently completed his MBA from Duke, is now the interim education program manager for Bookshare. His job: running and tracking national communications campaigns for Bookshare and maintaining relationships with Kindergarten through 12th grade district administrators, assistive technology coordinators and special education teachers. Before pursuing his MBA, he worked in the textile manufacturing sector in the Philippines where he did front-line operations, quality control, sales and marketing. Benetech has given Stan access to the nonprofit world and allowed him to gain more experience in marketing. Right now his biggest project is at home – caring for his newborn baby.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

National Family Literacy Day

This Sunday while you're finishing off the Halloween candy, think about doing something for National Family Literacy Day. For Bookshare members, that can be as simple as downloading a new book from Bookshare, or sharing one you already have. The idea behind the day, sponsored by the National Center for Family Literacy is to promote family literacy. Sunday, really, is just another reminder that every day can be literacy day. And, we want to make sure every kid has equal access to the joys of reading!

It's a well established fact that reading with your kids helps give them a lifelong love of books, for instance. So, put down the remote control -- and shut down the game consoles and set aside a few moments to read with a family member, a friend, a student -- or just by yourself. Then please share your experience on Bookshare's Facebook page. We're also sharing some of our favorite reads on Bookshare. So please come and join all the discussions. Happy reading!