Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Microsoft's Fight Against Child Porn

Last week I was invited to attend Microsoft’s Citizenship Accelerator Summit. This was an opportunity for Microsoft’s management, including Steve Ballmer (Microsoft’s CEO) and other senior executives, to share what socially beneficial activities Microsoft is up to. Some of this was either predictable (but laudable) such as supporting volunteerism or the United Way, or activities I was aware of and have admired in the past. This latter category included such great projects as Tech Soup Global, which distributes donated Microsoft products at a deep, deep discount (a service we’ve used at Benetech for years) as well as support for the efforts of NetHope in disaster relief. NetHope is the organization of the CTOs/CIOs of the major global humanitarian NGOs, and gets a fair amount of support from Microsoft, Cisco and other tech companies.

The most interesting project I saw was in the admittedly dark and unpleasant topic of combating child porn on the Internet. As the Microsoft staff pointed out several times, child porn was not widely distributed before the Internet (they said it was almost completely gone). But, the advent of the Internet has made distribution of these images much easier, and in many, many cases, the same images that are distributed have been discovered as part of criminal investigations or taken down from websites on multiple occasions. But, the images are slightly different in many of these cases: they are the same image, but not the exact same image file.

Microsoft worked with researcher Hany Farid of Dartmouth College adapt their technology to identifying these images. This involves a kind of pattern recognition technology that Microsoft calls PhotoDNA, which recognizes that this new file is a highly similar to a known image of child porn. Since my background is in optical pattern recognition (especially character recognition), I was fascinated to see a new and different pattern recognition solution being applied to a new social problem.

Microsoft doesn’t actually host a database of these images: they make their tech available for free to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), a nonprofit group that has the mission of combating child abduction and exploitation. The software computes a single value, known in programming lingo as a hash, that is unique (or nearly unique) to each image. The technical advance here is to have a hash value that stays the same, even when the image goes through minor modifications and conversions.

When Microsoft’s Bing search engine indexes a new image file on the Web, they run the same software against that new image, calculate the hash value and check it against the database of known “bad” hash values. If there’s a match, it’s highly likely that the new image is just a version of the same old known image of cruelty to children. And then, Bing won’t serve up that image if it’s requested in a search result. In addition, Microsoft will let the National Center (or its counterpart organization in another country) know about the URL, so that they can pursue take-down or other compliance measures.

The business angle is there, but not as direct as it is in some of the other Microsoft initiatives: Microsoft sees a business value in not serving up child porn (even if a small number of their search users may be seeking it). But, I really liked the example of good software development techniques (hashes are really computationally efficient) being used to advance the social goal of reducing the availability of this repugnant material.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The New Miradi

Benetech is committed to developing technology for underserved communities that can reap big benefits from improved access to information. So we’re especially proud to announce the launch of Miradi version 3, the enhanced version of our user-friendly environmental conservation software. Miradi gives conservation planners cutting edge tools to design, manage, monitor and learn from their projects.
Bottom of the sea with different seaweed, mollusks and anemonesThe new Miradi 3 release offers a powerful work planning interface that lets users forecast expenses, develop budgets, and export project data to donor reports. The software also helps conservation teams prioritize environmental threats, develop objectives and actions, and select monitoring indicators to assess the effectiveness of their strategies. Miradi is the first software program designed especially by and for conservation planners based on a common set of environmental metrics. Two sea creature pictures side-by-side, left one has many appendages and right one is a crab that looks like the rocks behind itMiradi is a joint venture between Benetech and the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP), a consortium of global environmental organizations committed to improving the practice of conservation. Core CMP members include the African Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society, and World Wide Fund for Nature/World Wildlife Fund. The new version of Miradi also supports the creation of a future central repository of shared conservation data so conservationists launching new projects can draw on the deep knowledge accumulated by these groups.
Fishing boats in a harborMiradi was built in partnership with these global conservation groups and input from users around the world. The program guides users through a series of step-by-step interview wizards, based on the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation.

As conservationists progress through these steps, Miradi helps them define the scope of their project and design conceptual models and spatial maps of their sites.
Ytre Hvaler Najional Park emblemKosterhavet national park logoMiradi is already being used by conservation practitioners around the world to develop conceptual models for their projects and rank threats to the species and habitats they seek to protect. Environmental planners from Sweden and Norway are using Miradi to develop management plans for the Swedish Kosterhavet Marine National Park and the Ytre Hvaler National Park in Norway which share the same marine area.

These planners say that Miradi makes it much easier to report detailed biodiversity objectives to their national environmental agencies and share these goals with conservation colleagues in the neighboring park. The software also helps them present the end results of their conservation efforts to a wide variety of audiences and solicit public support for their projects. You can check out a very cool case study that includes more details about these projects here.

We regularly update our software with steady improvements: Miradi is already up to version 3.1 with new changes based on feedback from our users.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Work on Stuff that Matters

I was impressed when I heard Tim O'Reilly recommending to all tech folks last year that they Work on Stuff that Matters. Tim's point wasn't that all tech developers should go to work for nonprofits, it was that people should step back and think about what matters to them. Life is too short to throw your professional life away on stuff you don't care about.

Like many techies, I came to the field because I loved doing tech. We get a charge out of figuring things out, and understanding how the world works in a deep ways. Almost all the geeks I know want to do something important, something meaningful, whether exploring something new in cosmology, designing a building that could better resist an earthquake, cure a disease or design a new and faster chip.

I see this hunger for meaning in most of the people I'm privileged to meet: from the college freshman to the fresh grad to the mid-career professional and the senior executive. We all want to work on Stuff That Matters. And, the opportunities to do so have never been better.

Business as usual hasn't been working out so well. There are a new wave of leaders who want business to both make money and do right by society and the planet.

Government as usual is changing fast, because it needs to. We need to do more with less money, and grapple with the big issues facing humanity.

The social sector is having to evolve in this changing world. Education the way we've always done it isn't meeting the needs of our nation. Social services that were innovative thirty years ago now need to be rebuilt to better meet the needs of today.

At my nonprofit tech company Benetech, our team applies successful models from Silicon Valley to better solve really important social problems. For example, we combined the business strategies of Amazon and (the old) Napster to create Bookshare to bring accessible talking books to students who can't read print books because of their disabilities.

If you're looking for a new job, look for a company that offers the chance to work on Stuff That Matters. We need you to get engaged now, in business, government and the social sector, to build the better world we all need, and that our children and grandchildren will need.

Oh, and by the way, Benetech has four job openings for people who want to join us to fulfill our motto "Technology Serving Humanity."

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Measuring Conservation Effectiveness

At a two-day event at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation on changing an entire movement. The people attending all believe that we have to focus much more on conservation outcomes: are there more tigers? are there more gorillas?

Nick Salafsky used the death of George Washington as an example of what happens when you don't use evidence in making decisions. Apparently, when George got sick, one of the early treatments was to bleed him. When that didn't work, they bled him again. And again. And again. By the time they'd removed more than six pints of blood in one day, he died. It wasn't until later that we found that with rare exceptions, bleeding people doesn't work!

Measuring outcomes is difficult, measuring activities is easy. But, if we only measure activities, we could find ourselves being "successful" while the species we're trying to protect goes extinct or the biome we're trying to protect loses viability and diversity. The focus is shifting from managing activities to results-based management.

One of the best quotes was the search for "contribution, not attribution." It's difficult in looking at real world environments and finding direct and sole causation from a given intervention. At the same time, we should be able to gather enough data to find out whether certain practices contribute to better outcomes.

It was exciting for me to participate in this meeting, which was roughly balanced between funders and conservation groups. It was a chance to both hear how much our Miradi tool is getting used, as well as things we needed to do to make Miradi much better for a range of needs. I particularly heard about the need of Miradi to do more for advocacy groups, foundations and smaller groups (who need a simpler solution).

This is a very action-oriented community. The final half of the meeting was around organizing working groups to tackle different aspects of making this change throughout the field. I'm coming away with ideas and actions to work on with Jeremy Yoches, our Miradi product manager (who also noted a wealth of ideas and actions!).