Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Davos Blur

The Davos scene is nonstop: it starts with breakfast meetings at 8 am and ends typically after midnight. You rush from session to session, often jumping a shuttle from one hotel to another or back to the Congress Center. In between the meetings, there’s the powerful force of serendipity. In the hallways, you’re as likely to run into the head of an international NGO, as CEO of a Fortune 100 company, as a renowned professor as the foreign minister of a major country. And, everybody is working on something and usually is interested in several issues. Every table conversation brings a new perspective and a new idea: whether it’s new knowledge, a great contact or a new extension to the idea under discussion.

I spend time desperately trying to capture some of these insights myself, or give someone an action item (send me an email on that and I’ll do it). Each hour there’s something memorable.
James Moody at a flipchart talking about socially responsible licensingToday was an example of this. In the morning, I attended a session put on by the Young Global Leaders with six interesting proposals. James Moody of Australia’s national research organization was talking about an idea of a humanitarian license for patents that has been floated by the YGL community. Since I’ve been working on IP policy and licensing on Bookshare, I was quite interested and had ideas of how to work with companies to apply their IP to social needs.

Next, I went to the Social Entrepreneurs Corner (a space set aside for the SEs) and ended up talking in detail with Iftekhar of Waste Concern from Bangladesh about the idea they floated in the bar a couple days ago for software to help cities reduce their carbon footprint. With Iftekhar’s help, I was able to quickly get three pages of notes about the opportunity, the needs, the existing tech landscape, potential partners and funders.

I next attended a session on global biodiversity, and ended up talking to two of the three speakers afterwards about our Miradi project and about the software idea from my friends at Waste Concern. Stephen Schneider is a professor at Stanford: as often happens I end up meeting someone from across the street in another country! And, had a great chat with Achim Steiner, the ED of the UN Environmental Program.

With a few minutes to spare, I grabbed some lunch while discussing the best way to help one of the YGLs get expansion funding for her cool product that could fight cervical cancer nonsurgically. Then I plunged (late) into a session called “Discover a Hacker’s Mindset,” with Pablos Holman, which was chock-full of traditional hacking (lock-picking, credit card slurping) along with hacking the world: one on maintaining the arctic ice pack and the other on preventing hurricanes. I ran into Brian Behlendorf, one of Benetech’s board members, and he gave some very constructive feedback on the city software idea, along with pointers to a couple of people I should talk to in the eGov software space. I also got to talk to Pablos because he knew Brian, and ask about ideas that might be worth licensing for social purposes.

Musa, a young man in a wheelchair, pulling a face during his rapNext I zipped over to the Global Changemakers event, where six teenagers from around the world presented their projects to change the world, using the PechaKucha format (20 slides timed over five minutes). Prince Haakon of Norway kicked off the session, along with our moderator, Angel Cabrera, the dean of the Thunderbird Business School. My mentee, Musa, talked about his efforts to help communities in Iraq, including getting blind schools what they needed in terms of equipment (something I’m planning on helping him with), and ended with a rap. Each of these changemakers was dynamic and the crowd was excited about how to help them succeed.

Running through the hall, I ran into Kristine Pearson of the Freeplay Foundation (hand and solar powered radios for mainly Africa), and heard about her great projects. The goal of these devices is to provide educational and informational content to villages with limited resources: their player is loud enough to play for 20-40 people at one time.
She promised me a demo tomorrow and wants to help the blind with the device in addition to the her main constituency, the poor.

I did twenty minutes of email and then headed over to the social entrepreneur’s corner for a debrief with the Schwab Foundation staff, Hilde Schwab, and twenty five of my fellow social entrepreneurs. For those who had been at Davos before, it was clearly the best WEF meeting they had been part of. When I first attended, social issues were not top (or middle) of the agenda. But, the Schwab’s made the right call to bring us into the discussion ten years ago. Now, the social entrepreneur crowd are at the center of many of the big issues on the WEF agenda, especially the Global Redesign Initiative: global warming, sanitation and health, human rights, economic development and so on. The newbies were a bit stunned by Davos, and were like kids in a candy store talking about the contacts they had made that would advance their work.

Twenty-five social entrepreneurs and Schwab Foundation board and staffAnd then, we dashed off to get some fondue, dress up for the big South Africa party, and stay out ‘til 2 listening to great music and talking shop (just a little).

Friday, January 29, 2010

Three Fabulous Conversations

The WEF is all about having a critical mass of incredible people. This enables great conversations: the serendipity effect is huge. I just wanted to highlight three conversations I had today, each of which shows why this is such a great opportunity for Benetech to attend.

Conversation One
Just as I finished my breakfast, I looked across the way and saw Larry Brilliant, the new head of the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund. That shortchanges Larry’s background: he was the key leader in the campaign to eliminate smallpox in India, cofounded the Seva Foundation and a couple of high tech companies, and was most recently running

We then spent an hour in a wide ranging and stimulating conversation about the new Fund, its first grants, how to help social entrepreneurs we both know and admire, the energy coming from college and grad students eager to make a difference and the challenges of bringing more measured conversations back into a global society faced with enormous issues with significant uncertainty. What a great kick-off for a day!

Conversation Two
I had agreed to act as a mentor to a Global Changemaker, in this case Mousa Mousawy, an Iraqi teenager now living in Jordan. Mousa and I talked about his dream of helping centers for blind people in Iraq get the tech equipment they need. I had no idea when I agreed to the mentor gig that there would be something like this I actually know something (a lot) about. We brainstormed about people he needed to connect with like European Braille embosser makers, the Library of Alexandria (working on Arabic content for the blind) and of course Bookshare. It’s great to see someone who is not yet 20 with many creative ideas about how to help, and the drive to make it happen.

Conversation Three
When I got back late to the hotel and stopped by the bar, I found the founders of Waste Concern of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Maqsood Sinha and Iftekhar Enayetullah getting a late dinner of sandwiches. I’d visited them in Dhaka a few years back (and written a blog post), and they have a very impressive social enterprise that offers a municipality the following deal: let us haul away your waste for free. By collecting the waste and composting it using a technology that Waste Concern has created, they can access carbon credits sufficient to pay for the entire enterprise (including the capital to get the venture launched). They have expanded from Dhaka to at least ten cities, and are now wrestling with the right way to expand outside of Bangladesh.

The coolest thing was that they then explained that there was a big opportunity for someone like Benetech to write software to help them with this kind of expansion. It was a triple-play kind of opportunity: every city in the developing world needs help grappling with waste and with greenhouse gas challenges. The Waste Concern approach creates good jobs for waste pickers, keeps the city clean, reduces green house gases, and prevents corruption (the auditing process for carbon credits is rigorous and doesn’t leave much room for funny business). They just need software to help cities understand the size of their challenges around these issues. I’m going to chew on this more, but it sounded like a terrific opportunity for someone like Benetech!

Don’t get the idea that these are the only conversations that I’ve been having: but they were just a sampling of the kind of discussions I’m having every day here at the WEF. A veritable intellectual and social smorgasbord!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

First day in Davos

I’m joining many other social entrepreneurs on our journey to Davos, home of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. The journey itself is magical: you take a series of trains getting ever smaller, until the final hour meanders through the middle of mountain villages with a foot to spare on either side of the train, through tunnels and beneath spectacular mountains. Although this is my sixth time to Davos for the WEF, the train trip never fails to enchant me.

And then we're in a small ski village in Switzerland!

The Schwab Foundation arranges for the social entrepreneurs to stay in the Schatzalp mountain hotel. This is the hotel made famous in Thomas Mann’s book The Magic Mountain: it’s 600 feet up the mountain above Davos, and you ride a funicular railroad to get to it. The benefits of collocating the social entrepreneurs in one place has been proven in past years: a large amount of the value of attending the WEF is meeting with global social entrepreneur colleagues, and trading notes about the best ways to change the world for the better. The time out from the normal grind, plus the influence of dynamic peers, often leads to a leap of creativity. I’m already getting into the spirit.

My first event was the orientation for new Schwab social entrepreneurs. A few of the more experienced SEs join the Foundation staff in helping the new attendees get the maximum value out of the conference. Every year I’m amazed at the cool SEs I’ve never heard of, each of whom seem to be changing the lives of a million people already (something I’m still aspiring towards!).

We then joined the social entrepreneurship dinner. There are roughly thirty social entrepreneurs here at the Forum, headlined by such famous leading SEs as Muhammad Yunus and Fazle Abed of Bangladesh. Hilde Schwab, co-founder of the Schwab Foundation, welcomed us to the event, and highlighted the role of social entrepreneurs in the Global Redesign Initiative (GRI) that the WEF is pursuing. Four of the social entrepreneurs then made brief presentations about their GRI proposals that had been chosen by the WEF to present to the conference.

Martin Fisher of KickStart noted that technology innovations don’t tend to be adopted by poor rural farmers: technology that could change their lives dramatically for the better. His proposal was that time-limited “smart subsidies” be used to encourage the adoption of these innovations until the adoption curve gets to the point where the commercial market takes over.

Harish Hande of Selco of India advocated passionately to involve the poor in the planning for ventures and initiatives designed to help them. I think that many social entrepreneurs get intuitively that social change is best done with people rather than to people, and hope that this is more widely adopted.

Andreas Heinecke of Dialogue in the Dark (a social enterprise that employs blind people in putting on experiences in complete darkness) joked that he had never written a business plan: that his enterprise (which has expanded to many countries) just grew organically. He did highlight the importance of dialogue, and getting people out of their comfort zone to actually explore new ideas.

I spoke on Benetech’s GRI proposal to get intellectual property to more fully benefit all of humanity, not just the top 10%. I use examples like Victoria Hale’s nonprofit pharma companies, that take drug ideas that don’t make enough money for traditional pharma, but could save hundreds of thousands of lives. We have recommendations to government, companies, universities and the media around how to bring more of the benefits of humanity’s knowledge to the bulk of the planet, while balancing that with the needs of businesses to make money in bona fide profitable enterprises.

Getting a bunch of social entrepreneurs together in one room is a great way to start the week. The room was buzzing with ideas about improving society, and taking advantage of this precious opportunity to interact with the captains of industry and government leaders. The shocks of the last year or so has heightened the interest of finding new solutions to improve the world. We know social entrepreneurs are at the leading edge of that effort!

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Mismeasure of War

Our human rights team cares deeply about the issue of truth in human rights reporting. They just posted a response to a major debate on the question of whether deaths in war have been steadily declining. I think this well captures our approach to the question of truth and are worth repeating in the Beneblog.

A guest Beneblog by By Anita Gohdes, Megan Price, and Patrick Ball

Several media organizations including Reuters, Foreign Policy and New Scientist covered the January 21 release of the 2009 Human Security Report (HSR) entitled, “The Shrinking Cost of War.” The main thesis of the HRS authors, Andrew Mack et al, is that “nationwide mortality rates actually fall during most wars” and that “today’s wars rarely kill enough people to reverse the decline in peacetime mortality that has been underway in the developing world for more than 30 years.” This claim is based in large part on the authors’ graphical representations of pre- and post-conflict mortality rates for a variety of countries, and on their critique of five surveys conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2000 and 2007.

The authors’ illustration of the technical mistakes made by the IRC is necessary and valuable for scientific advancement.

We fully agree with their assessment that some of the IRC extrapolations are inappropriate, that IRC should have calculated a population-weighted mortality estimate and that the estimates contain very high levels of uncertainty. Each of these concerns suggests a corrective process by which better estimates could be made. In their argument, however, the HSR authors did not choose this course.

We are deeply skeptical of the methods and data that the authors use to conclude that conflict-related deaths are decreasing. We are equally concerned about the implications of the authors’ conclusions and recommendations with respect to the current academic discussion on how to count deaths in conflict situations. See Andrew Gelman’s blog and the HSR’s own discussion site for an overview of this discussion. We believe that the authors should examine their own data on mortality related deaths with the same rigor with which they critique the recent IRC surveys.

If they did this, they would find that they have inadequate information to conclude anything about the trend in war-related lethality in recent decades.

The central evidence that the authors provide for “The Shrinking Cost of War” is delivered as a series of graphs. There are two problems with the authors’ reasoning.

First, the mortality estimates of children under five described in Figure 2.1 of the report should include an appropriate measure of uncertainty. The purported trend could be overwhelmed by the error of the estimates describing child mortality, but these errors are not presented in the report. Therefore, it is impossible to test the strength of the trend versus the magnitude of the error.

Second, and even more importantly, the graphs showing a worldwide decline in war-related lethality, in Figures 2.5 and 2.6 of the report, include data from the PRIO Center for the Study of Civil War, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo and the UCD/HSRP Uppsala Conflict Data Program /Human Security Report Project Dataset, the World Bank, “World Development Indicators” and the Inter-Agency Child Mortality Estimation Group (IACMEG), “Child Mortality Estimates Info.”

These datasets include expert opinions, convenience datasets, and reproducible estimates from multiple-systems estimation and probability-based surveys. The quality and uncertainty of such an incompatible collection of datasets cannot be evaluated. The plausibility of the trends presented by the authors cannot be assessed.

In particular, expert opinions about the magnitude of violence are little more than guesses. These numbers are the statistical equivalent of hearsay. It is impossible to scientifically debate speculations, and it is impossible to reproduce speculations by a principled process in alignment with the scientific method.

Some of the other sources for the authors’ conclusions are convenience samples. A convenience sample is simply data that can be conveniently observed via witness accounts, press sources, or other means. These databases may be useful collections of cases, and organizing information in this form enables many non-statistical descriptions of violence.

However, convenience samples are highly unlikely to represent the underlying statistical patterns or magnitude of conflict related deaths. They cannot be used to extrapolate to a population beyond what was observed, and they are not necessarily representative of any population. In our experience, no two convenience samples about the same country tell the same statistical story.

The core problem with both expert opinions and convenience samples is that we have no way of scientifically measuring just how unrepresentative they actually are of the population they are attempting to measure.

The HSR’s broadest claim is that “[t]he average conflict in the new millennium kills 90 percent fewer people each year than did the average conflict in the 1950s (p. 2),” and that there has been a “20-year decline in conflict numbers” (p. 7). Due to the weaknesses in the data, there is no way of reproducibly or transparently verifying or testing this claim.

In the HSR and elsewhere, the HSR authors have shown that recent conflicts have been seriously mismeasured. Certainly this debate would benefit from a scrutiny of expert opinions and convenience samples as intense as that which the HSR authors’ have brought to the study of the IRC surveys.

Perhaps earlier conflicts were as mismeasured as recent conflicts. The HSR authors’ conclusion that the number of deaths in today’s wars is declining may be right, or it might be wrong. But we just do not know much about the quality of estimates from further back in history. Therefore, the only responsible conclusion is that we simply don’t know what the trend in war-related deaths looks like. More rigorous research is needed.We welcome the authors’ contribution to the ongoing debate about measuring war-related mortality. Technical critique of existing work is at the core of the scientific process. In our opinion, the HSR authors have done the IRC and the community of human rights analysts a service by highlighting errors in the Congo survey.

The response to errors with statistical estimates must not be that we abandon science by relying on expert opinions and convenience samples. Quite the opposite. The fact that the IRC’s work has been shown by the HSR authors to be flawed should remind us to limit our conclusions narrowly to what can be defended by the most appropriate and advanced scientific methods for the question at hand.

Social Enterprise Alliance Summit

As I head off to the WEF Summit in Davos, I'm also excited about the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit coming up in San Francisco at the end of April. The membership of the Alliance are "my people," folks who speak both social and business fluently.

The response to the early bird registration was incredible. We had to extend the early bird a week (actually, from last Friday to today) for member organizations to make sure everybody who wanted to register early got their double-discount (being a member and being an early bird). Benetech is sending four of our team, including me. We're really looking forward to it.

This year's Summit is special because we're cohosting the Social Enterprise World Forum, which was held in Scotland and Australia the last two years (I got to go to the first one in Scotland: it was incredible to see how vibrant and successful the movement is in the UK). So, we're expecting a great turnout from our international peers in the social enterprise movement.

The environment is also conspiring to make this a hot ticket: social enterprise and social innovation are big this year following our little global economic blip. Greed for its own sake is out of fashion (well, except for on Wall Street and in the big banks). Many consumer-facing companies are realizing that issues around the environment, food safety, local sourcing, employee relations and the like aren't frill topics: getting them wrong can trash your business. I see more and more forward looking companies engaging with the social enterprise sector and its values, and I think that will be good for our society. Business is an incredible engine for change: let's make sure it's going in a good direction for both society and for shareholders!

Hope to see you in San Francisco for the SEA Summit (and if you're an SEA member, today's your shot at getting your double discount on the conference!).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Going to Davos to Redesign the Planet

My latest post on HuffPo is now up: Going to Davos to Redesign the Planet, about my proposal to the WEF's Global Redesign Initiative.

I've included the post below, but comments are best done on the HuffPo site above.

How would you try to change the world if you had the chance? What would you propose to global leaders to make humanity better off? The Global Redesign Initiative is one of the core themes of next week's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

I made a suggestion and got invited to Davos to discuss it. That's not an endorsement of my proposal by the WEF, but I am certainly looking forward to going next week!

My proposal is that the world's knowledge should work for all of humanity. Some folks call newly developed knowledge "intellectual property," but this obscures the fact that we don't treat ideas and content the same way as we treat a house or land. We give inventors and authors a time-limited qualified monopoly on their creations to encourage them to bring them to other people through dissemination and commercialization, where appropriate. But, the whole point of the concept of intellectual property is that it's supposed to benefit society, that there is a balancing act between society's interest and self-interest.

In general, we have patents and copyrights and trade secrets as commercial objects because we as a society think that it helps bring the benefits of new creations to everyone. And it seems to work pretty well for stimulating creativity. I live in Silicon Valley, a place that exists to drive creation of new and exciting technology.

But, what happens when something falls short of its potential to help all of humanity? We often leave 90% of the planet out of these discussions. What about a life-saving drug that poor countries can't afford? What about access to knowledge about how to prevent your child from dying from a preventable illness? What about literacy and education? We get used to so many benefits of our incredible intellectual creativity, that we forget about the have-nots.

The challenge is to maintain the balance between commercial exploitation of creativity and society's interests. Neither extreme will achieve a reasonable balance. If you effectively stop all uses of knowledge that don't make lots of money, people will suffer needlessly. If you give all knowledge away freely, you'll discourage people and companies from investing in creating valuable technology and content. So, here's the proposal we made to the WEF, and which I look forward to advocating for in Davos next week.

Benetech's recommendation is to apply intellectual property to unmet social needs, by encouraging WEF stakeholders to think beyond solely profitable applications. We believe this can be accomplished by:

1. Corporate leaders encouraging the pro bono or low bono use of their IP to social needs that are outside the corporation's markets.
* CSR offices should go beyond donations and include actively finding the socially beneficial uses of corporate assets.
2. Universities and government labs encouraging their technology transfer offices to make social licenses of new technology.
* Like companies, university tech transfer offices are encouraged solely to find commercially valuable applications of inventions. We need university leaders incented to value the social applications equally.
3. Wealthy country governments (and their corporate constituents) being more open to limitations and exceptions treaties and policies at the World Intellectual Property Organization.
* For example, European and American governments, publishers and entertainment industries should actively support the proposed Treaty for Access for the Visually Impaired under current consideration at WIPO.
4. Governments creating tax policies and organizational structures to encourage capital for and the formation of social enterprises.
* National governments should encourage the creation of enterprises with explicitly social objectives.
5. Media lionizing those companies and universities that find social spin-offs for their inventions.
* Series of TV or print articles on these social applications, or an award for the tech transfer office that made the best socially responsible licensing deal.

The great thing about my proposal is that we already have examples of companies, universities, governments and media doing these things. We just need thousands of projects rather than dozens.

One of my favorite social entrepreneurs who effectively recycles intellectual property for the benefit of humanity is Dr. Victoria Hale, who has started two nonprofit pharmaceutical companies as social enterprises. She focuses her efforts on taking drugs that can save thousands of lives and prevent untold suffering, but won't make enough money for a modern pharma company to pursue. The companies are generally happy to help: they've already figured out they can't make enough profits to bring these drugs through clinical trials and to market, if the patient population is poor and the buyers are national or international health agencies.

Regulation is helpful, but not enough. Many universities and corporations are already doing great things voluntarily: we need to hold them up as the finest examples of global citizenship and encourage more voluntary action. Together, these changes would make it possible to employ the fabulous ideas and creativities of the business, academic and government sectors for the benefit of all of humanity, not just the top ten percent.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Human Rights Trainings in Nigeria

A Guest Beneblog by Vijaya Tripathi

As outreach coordinator for Martus, Benetech’s secure software application, I travel to many countries where human rights defenders need tools to gather, organize and back up information about human rights violations. Over the past few years, I have seen human rights groups become much more sophisticated about how they use technology to document human rights abuses.

My most recent visit to Nigeria confirmed this trend. While visiting the country, I met with members of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) who are using a growing collection of technology tools to confront reported human rights incidents. Nigerian security forces have been accused of a series of abuses including extrajudicial killings, election violence and vote rigging.

During my first visit to the Nigerian capital of Abuja last April, I learned that a member of the NHRC who had been monitoring local elections had been beaten and unlawfully detained. Human rights monitors in Nigeria continue to be harassed. But the NHRC is developing an information management system that uses our Martus software to keep their data more secure.

Martus 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. If a human rights group has a computer stolen or seized, the information it contains can put victims and witnesses in danger of retribution. Martus is used around the world by human rights workers, attorneys, journalists, government officials and others who need to protect their data and the people they work with.

When my colleagues at the Benetech Human Rights Program first visited the NHRC in 2005, the organization lacked the basic computer infrastructure necessary to use Martus. As NHRC staff members wryly told us, some of the organization’s computers didn’t have enough memory to even install Martus back then, let alone run the software. Several staff members were also not computer literate. Despite these challenges, the NHRC was clearly interested in using Martus to safeguard information about sensitive human rights complaints. We told the NHRC staff and the MacArthur Foundation, a long-time supporter of the Benetech Human Rights Program, that we would be happy to return for more training when the NHRC was ready.

That’s just what happened.

Three years after our initial visit to the NHRC, the MacArthur Foundation asked us to conduct another Martus training and work with NHRC staff to integrate the Martus software into the Commission’s complaint management system. We were thrilled to work with the NHRC as a new Martus partner. The MacArthur Foundation provided key support for the project by not only financing our work, but also funding computer literacy training for NHRC staff. They also helped the NHRC upgrade their computers so that they could prepare for our arrival in Nigeria.

During my April 2009 visit to work with the NHRC I noticed other changes in addition to upgraded computers and a better-trained staff, The NHRC had moved to a building that had a wheelchair ramp and a ‘talking’ elevator to accommodate visitors with physical or visual impairments. During this visit, I assessed the NHRC’s resources, conducted an initial Martus training, and made recommendations for how the organization could further strengthen the technology skills of their staff members.

On my second trip to Abuja last October, we conducted a two week intensive training for the NHRC’s own instructors. I flew into Abuja from Kinshasa, and my colleague Rahwa Tareke joined me from San Francisco. For five days, we focused on teaching the NHRC staff to use the Martus software. Then we spent the next five days mapping how human rights information flows into the organization and how Martus could be used to track that data using efficient and secure methods.

Our daily routine of hailing taxis to and from the Commission office was punctuated by rapid-fire brainstorming to customize the NHRC’s Martus accounts and make sure the software was configured to meet their specific needs. We also saw how the NHRC was committed to improving conditions for Martus users in their office. During our first training in April, we dealt with power outages and the failure of the NHRC’s backup generators. We also had sporadic and limited Internet connectivity. On my return trip, we had a weak but steady Internet connection in Abuja and, thanks to the NHRC’s new generator, only one power outage – just after we concluded our last day of training!

A key factor in any successful Martus implementation is addressing the particular challenges faced by users. In order to ensure that that our partners could use Martus, we strategized with them about how they will overcome the problems present in their specific environment. The NHRC has a central office in Abuja, as well as six regional, or “Zonal”, offices around the country. One of the most rewarding parts of this training was speaking to Zonal officers about the specific challenges they faced in their local offices and trying to help them implement Martus in spite of those difficulties.

We discovered, for example, that power failures are sometimes so frequent and Internet connectivity so poor, that sometimes it is difficult for the NHRC staff outside Abuja to accomplish key case work– and there isn’t always funding for fuel to keep the generators working. To manage this, we recommended that Zonal staff use Martus in ‘offline’ mode (that is, not connecting to the server to back up data) until a reliable Internet connection was available. When connectivity is reliable, they can go back ‘online’ to back their data up to the server and transmit that information securely to the Abuja office. We also suggested that the NHRC obtain USB modems for Zonal staff to establish reliable connectivity in each Zonal office.

We addressed the problem of power outages in a much quieter way: by simply recognizing them in the information management process. We recommended that each Zonal office prioritize data entry when power was available and save data frequently so that nothing is ‘lost’ due to a sudden loss of electricity. We also explained the implications of saving and backing up data to the server for data recovery in case of power or system failure. Although there is no easy solution to power outages and poor Internet connectivity in Nigeria, we helped the NHRC negotiate these challenges by developing strategies that help them work effectively.

We look forward to continuing our work with the NHRC and other members of the Nigerian human rights community as they expand their use of Martus to help ensure the security of key human rights data - and those who provide it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bookshare in Chennai

A guest Beneblog by Viji Dilip
International Bookshare Program Manager

Every morning braving the heavy Chennai traffic Maria wheels into Worth Trust to start her work as a proof reader. Maria was raised by the sisters of the local Chennai Church, given a basic education and was sent off to Worth Trust to learn life skills. Two years later, Maria who was affected by polio at the age of one and has to use a wheel chair and calipers, is now soon to be married on Jan 18th, 2010. The proud bride to be is full of smiles and happy that the Worth Trust- Bookshare partnership has given a new meaning to her life, she is full of confidence ready to face the world. She says, “This job has greatly increased my self-esteem. I now feel even I can help people living in America!!”

Thanks to a generous grant from the Lavelle Fund for the Blind, Bookshare has been able to work with Worth Trust, a nonprofit with offices in Chennai, India. The project's goals were to work with organizations that provide opportunities for people with disabilities and digitize a million pages of books to be added to the Bookshare collection. The partner we chose, Worth Trust employs people with disabilities, in addition they conduct life skills classes and provide training. Manufacturers of mobility aids like wheel chairs and Perkins Braillers (the leading braille typewriter in the world), Worth Trust’s main office is located in Katpadi, a few hours away from Chennai.

From manufacturing wheel chairs to digitizing books was a huge change but the employees at Worth Trust were up for the challenge. We started of with a few validators and proof readers, a scanner, a computer and a handful of eager learners. For the employees English is not their first language and for some it was not the medium of instruction. However that did not stop them from trying, learning and working hard. After several days of training in Chennai and through Skype with me in California and the Worth Trust team in Chennai they started off with 30 books a month. Today two years later they digitize about 150,000 pages a month and have far surpassed their goal of a million pages. They now work with higher level books with charts, graphs and equations and can turn around books for us in 24 hours if necessary.

Every employee on this project has a story to tell, some have moved on to get other jobs, like Vikas who is now a consultant at Tata Consultancy Services after having worked in the Bookshare-Worth Trust project. Vikas, who became blind at ten is a PhD in English but had never ventured far from home. Working on this project, utilizing his knowledge of English to proof read he was soon able to gain self confidence and is now residing a few hours from his home town, independently and exploring the world through the internet. Sheila on the other hand is a woman who is deaf and nonspeaking and could not find work that utilized her undergraduate degree. The Worth Trust-Bookshare project provided her with an opportunity where she could work hard and learn a lot. She is off next month on maternity leave but is certain that she’ll be back as soon as she can.

In addition this project alone has enabled us to add more than 6000 high quality books to our collection making our Bookshare members very happy.

Thanks to the Worth Trust team and to Lavelle in supporting these efforts!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Happy New Year (to the Benetech team)

[On New Year's Day, I wrote this to the Benetech team after literally waking up thinking about this, and thought it was worth sharing here.]

I awoke this morning a little later than normal, with NPR on the radio. The first news item was about the latest suicide bomber killing dozens of people: kind of a depressing start to the new year. But then, I remembered that we’re doing something to make the world a better place, and that cheered me up.

It’s easy to forget in the daily grind just how unusual Benetech and our people are. We’re working with groups right now on the front lines of human rights abuses around the world. Environmental activists and organizations are busy saving endangered species (and the planet) with our assistance. And we’re helping schools and teachers and parents and most of all people with disabilities get access to the information they need for school, work and society. We’re working on some of the biggest and toughest problems in the world, and we’re having a significant positive impact on the people we’re helping.

And that’s the true measure of our impact: it’s what our partners and users do with the technology and the knowledge we provide that matters. One of the great rewards of my job is receiving copies of those many emails praising our team or our software or our content for the difference we’ve made. Thank you!

By being part of Benetech, and doing our daily work, we share in the good work done by all of us. We heard loud and clear this past year from the team how much value you place on hearing more about what everybody is doing. I want to encourage more of the team to write guest blogs or host brown-bags or find other ways to share your work and its impact.

As we get started on this new year, and this new decade, I want to celebrate you, the Benetech team. Together, we’re going to figure out how to make a bigger difference for the better for many thousands, if not millions of people. As we face challenges, and see bad things happening in the world, I hope we all can take encouragement from the work we’re doing together at Benetech to make our world a better place.

I hope the new year is kind to you and your families. Thanks for being part of Benetech!