Friday, October 29, 2010

Verdict in Guatemala Disappearance Case!

Just got late-breaking news: the judges just rendered a guilty verdict in the trial I was about to discuss in the following blog post! Will share more details from our team later, but this is a great day for fighting impunity around forced disappearances.

Benetech Statistical Expert Testifies in Guatemala Disappearance Case

The Benetech Human Rights Program uses cutting edge computing methods and statistical analysis to provide objective evidence of human rights violations. The scientifically defensible data in our findings serve as a powerful tool to combat impunity and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. A strong example of this work was shown on October 18th when Benetech statistical consultant Daniel Guzmán presented expert legal testimony in the trial of two former agents of the Guatemalan National Police, Abraham Lancerio Gómez and Héctor Roderico Ramírez. The officers have been accused of complicity in the disappearance of Guatemalan student and union leader Edgar Fernando García who vanished while in police custody in 1984. A conviction in this case would help establish, for the first time, the act of forced disappearance as a crime within the Guatemalan judicial system.

Guzmán’s testimony was based on his analysis of the Guatemalan National Police Archive which was discovered by chance in 2005 in a munitions storehouse in Guatemala City. This astonishing collection of crumbling papers, books, photographs and floppy disks was revealed to be the historic archive of the Guatemalan National Police which were disbanded after country's 1996 Peace Accords. The estimated 31.7 million documents in the archive produced from 1960 to 1996 contain critical information about police operations during Guatemala's 36 years of internal armed conflict during which an estimated 200,000 people were killed or disappeared.

Guzmán and his colleagues at the Benetech Human Rights Program (HRP) have been analyzing the archive since 2006 when they were invited by the Guatemalan government and partner NGOs to develop a plan to examine the records. HRP director Dr. Patrick Ball developed a plan to collect a multi-stage random sample of the documents and secure the sample data with Benetech's Martus information management tool for careful examination. This analysis has resulted in a clearer understanding of contents of the archive and generated quantitative results that can answer questions about which police units or commanders may have been responsible for disappearances.

“The content of the expert testimony is important, but the competence of the expert is equally important,” says Jorge Villagran, IT manager of the archive project. “In the case of Benetech, credibility and technical competence are guaranteed.”

Guzmán’s expert testimony helped the judges in the case remove doubt about the authenticity and reliability of the documents. He showed that the records are consistent in structure and overall content with many other documents in the archive and were not chosen deliberately or selectively. He described the patterns of data found in the documents and the probability that police officials knew about the 667 documents related to García.

Guzmán’s statistical estimates about which police units had access to which documents showed evidence of communications between the army and police. This is critical because historical data has show that the Guatemalan army was most involved in human rights violations against civilians. Prosecutors hypothesize that the police may have carried out crimes against civilians ordered by the army.

“If prosecutors can establish that the archive is a reliable source of proof for them, it is huge,” says Guzmán. “There is a lot of potential in the archives to find information related to human rights violations that can serve as a resource for these kinds of cases.”

You can read more about the case at

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bookshare International’s Viji Dilip Profiled in Magazine

The staff I work with at Benetech are committed to the communities that we serve with our technology. Among the people I’m privileged to call a colleague here at Benetech is Viji Dilip, the International Program Coordinator for our Bookshare International service.

Washington Square Magazine, which is published by Viji’s alma matter San Jose State University, included a profile of Viji in their most recent issue. Entitled The Gift of Insight, the story recounts Viji’s personal journey and how it inspired her to work with members of our Bookshare service who have print disabilities that make it difficult for them to read traditional text.

Viji, who is from India, received a BA in accounting from Madras University and moved with her husband to the Bay Area. After receiving an MBA and CPA from San Jose State in 1995, and working for Hewlett-Packard and several tech startups, Viji received an unexpected diagnosis from her doctor. She was told that a brain tumor was pressing on her optic nerve and may cause her to become blind. After undergoing surgery, Viji emerged with her eyesight intact – and strong desire to reshape her career.

"I said to myself what if?” Viji told the magazine. “After that close brush with blindness, I decided I didn’t want to do anything more with accounting. I wanted to give back to society, to help people who didn’t have vision with their education so that they could become economically and socially independent."

After her surgery, Viji left her job at the startup company Net6 and volunteered for Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic in Palo Alto, California. In 2005, she started volunteering for Bookshare, which is also based here at the Benetech headquarters in Palo Alto. Since Viji was raised in India, she began looking at the educational challenges faced by people from that country. She found that India was 20 to 30 years behind the United States in providing assistive technology for the blind. I heard we had a high powered finance executive volunteering on book scanning, and decided to meet her and learn more.

Even as a volunteer, Viji began bugging me about the need to expand Bookshare’s collection of accessible books and magazines to readers around the world. When we received a grant from the Bernard Newcomb Foundation in 2007 to take Bookshare international, I asked Viji to become Bookshare’s International Program Coordinator.

Vjii now works with organizations in Canada and the United Kingdom as well as in India, where Bookshare employs four people to scan and upload books. In countries outside the U.S., getting permission to scan and upload books in accessible formats can be a slow and complicated process.

"In underdeveloped countries, the biggest problem we face is that copyright issues have not been addressed by government in the local area," Viji told the magazine. "We get around those issues by talking to publishers on a one-on-one basis and gaining their permission."

As the magazine story notes, 15 Indian publishers have now agreed to make their books available to Bookshare. Other Indian publishers and authors are also coming forward to offer their titles. Viji has set up partnerships with several noted publishers including Seasons Publishing, based in Chennai, India and Sahitya Akademy which publishes award-winning titles in 15 local languages. In her quest to Bookshare International, Viji also collaborates with other international organizations including the International Council for the Education of the Visually Impaired and Sight Savers.

Bookshare International now offers texts in English, French, German and Spanish. Viji and the Bookshare engineering team expect to add Hindi and Tamil language books by the end of this year and other non-European languages soon thereafter. Viji explained to the magazine that these additions will "make a huge difference in places like India where a huge portion of the population uses the local languages to continue their education."

I’m proud to work with people like Viji who brings her personal commitment to service with her to work each day. As social entrepreneurs, we apply our hearts and our heads to create technology that serves all humanity.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Google Maps Dirty Trick or Malfunctioning Feature?

[Update] Brewster and I discussed this, and it looks more like a malfunctioning feature. He pointed out that putting more of the address in gets the right location, i.e. "300 Funston Avenue, San Francisco CA" works. So, perhaps "300 Funston" is ambiguous enough that Google Maps is trying to figure out where it is, connects it to the Archive (Wayback Machine) and then routes to an obsolete location? Reported it to Google of course, but may take a while. [/update]

Wasted about 30 minutes this morning thanks to a weird coincidence. I'm going to the Internet Archive's new office at 300 Funston in San Francisco, to attend the Books in Browsers conference.

However, Google Maps routed me to a point two miles away when I typed 300 Funston into my Android phone's Google Map function. Not really knowing all of San Francisco's streets, I got out and recognized the old location of the Internet Archive. Walked up, and they said that the Archive had moved out a couple of months ago. Called a friend at a PC, and they got the same misroute to 116 Sheridan Avenue, San Francisco, California 94129.

Here's the link as it works right now: [deleted link], hope they fix it soon.

Any coincidence that Brewster Kahle happens to be one of the major thorns in Google's side when it comes to the Google Books lawsuit settlement? Inquiring minds want to know.

Or did Google Maps just know that I needed to go to the Main Post of the Presidio to honor the original location of the Archive?

Helpful hint for people hoping to go to the actual 300 Funston address: type in 298 Funston. That works!

Update: or the full address...

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Delivering Bestsellers to the Bookshare Community

An Insider Reveals How the Latest Hot Books Are Added to Bookshare’s Collection of Accessible Titles

A Guest Beneblog by Liz Halperin

After working for many years as a volunteer for Bookshare, I became a paid proofreader for the collection about two years ago. I now review books that are scanned and uploaded in formats that can be read using different forms of assistive technology such as text-to-speech, digital Braille or enlarged fonts. Most of the books I work with are books requested by students and titles from the New York Times (NYT) bestsellers list.
Liz Halperin with white cane, shades, and spectacular socks
Last spring, I had a chance to visit “The Mother Ship,” Bookshare’s main office at the Palo Alto, California headquarters of Benetech, Bookshare’s parent nonprofit. While I was there, I discovered how the NYT bestsellers make it into the collection. I used to think that publishers just sent electronic copies to Bookshare. Wrong. While publishers do donate thousands of digital texts to Bookshare, the NYT bestsellers are added to the collection through a "people process." Since I was there to witness it, I want to tell you how it happens.

The Big Day is Friday, when we eagerly await email from Carrie Karnos about new book assignments. Carrie, who manages the scanning and proofing of books for Bookshare, has worked out a procedure.

First, Carrie and I waited impatiently for the week's books to be announced on the NYT website, always on Fridays, but at various times of day. Next, she checked the collection to see if any of the bestsellers were already there. Then we headed off to an independent bookseller who lets Bookshare buy new books at a discount and order others. We also picked up books Carrie had previously ordered - including special requests from students who need specific texts for their classes.

After returning to the Bookshare office, we collected more requested books that arrived from other sources Then Carrie examined various aspects of each book to determine the difficulty of proofreading it and recorded this information on The Master List.

Next, Carrie "chopped" the books in a special big scary sharp machine to remove the bindings and the spine. This freed up the pages which were placed in a fast scanner. The machine uses OCR (optical character recognition) technology to convert the text to a digital exact image file and to a second file format that we use for direct editing.

During this process, Carrie tells the three of us proofreaders (I’m one of them) which books are available for review - and helps negotiate who will take which book. The books we can’t proof immediately are outsourced to readers in other countries who take a little longer to proofread the texts. Once we sort out who is proofreading what, Carrie transfers the books to the main server where the files are kept forevermore. Copies of the files are sent to each individual proofreader and Carrie also proofs a few books herself each week.

This entire process is completed by Friday afternoon so bestsellers can be proofed and uploaded to Bookshare as soon as possible. If we see an error in a book, we can't break the copyright by correcting our digital version. This drives us crazy. If you see typos, a few will be ours in oversight, but most are in the original printed text. When Bookshare scans a book, the OCR program removes all accent marks from non-English languages. The proofreaders track down every accent mark and put them back. One book I worked on included more than eight languages, including Polish and Hungarian, with some unusual accent marks. Italics often come through with errors so they must also be carefully checked.

Of all I saw and participated in during my whirlwind week at Bookshare, this process for getting the bestsellers into the collection affected me most directly. When I returned home on Friday night, my new books were sitting there in my Bookshare folder waiting for me to download and proofread. Kudos to Carrie Karnos who keeps the books moving every Friday!!!

A note about Bookshare

Bookshare, the world’s largest accessible online library, serves more than 100,000 readers with visual impairments, and physical or learning disabilities. Bookshare’s collection of more than 80,000 books, newspapers and magazines, is free to qualified U.S. students thanks to support from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Bookshare members in the U.S. who are not students pay a $50 annual fee.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Science Technology and Society Forum in Kyoto

I'm in Kyoto, Japan for the STS forum, an incredible gathering of top scientists and policy leaders from around the world. The caliber of attendees is amazing from all countries: ministers of education and science, top scientists, university presidents. The event is the brainchild of Koji Omi, former Finance Minister of Japan. His concept was that science and technology was critical to the future of society, and he wanted to build an inclusive international forum of top leaders literally from all over the world to tackle major problems.

Of all the discussions I heard, the ones on climate change were the most exciting and compelling. The phrase "the failure of Copenhagen" was often repeated, especially poignant given that we were meeting in the same building where the Kyoto Protocols were agreed. There was special energy around the concept of climate adaptation: the idea that no matter what happens on controlling greenhouse gases (see, failure of Copenhagen), that climate change is already affecting the world and we will be having huge challenges adapting to that change.

People mentioned that there had been a reluctance to talk about adaptation, since it would take the focus off of the critical challenge of mitigation. But the consensus in the group was that we needed to get on climate adaption. We had a mind-blowing presentation from one of the engineering leaders on Venice's efforts to respond to sea level rise with giant barriers to the Venice lagoon. But, most climate adaptation strategies are going to by necessity be less expensive than that.

The biggest idea I heard was that while mitigation is a global issue, climate adaptation will be a local issue. Dan Goldin (former head of NASA) and Charlie Kennel (former head of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography) pulled together a proposal for what they call "Knowledge Action Networks," to help local community get access to data about how climate change was likely to affect their communities. Since I came to STS to plug open content, open data and transparency in general, it really resonated. It seemed like a larger scale version of what we are already doing for the conservation movement with Miradi, and what we've been kicking around as the "Carbon P&L" concept for a possible new social enterprise.

I'm looking forward to more brainstorming on this: very exciting!