Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bookshare Creates Opportunities For Gifted Students

I talk a lot about how technology can help create tremendous educational opportunities for students with print disabilities. As part of my holiday greetings this year, I would like to introduce you to two young people who have used Benetech’s Bookshare library to reach academic excellence and find the books that keep them engaged in their off hours.

Steffon Middleton and Jessica Pinto have both mastered the art of searching and downloading Bookshare’s accessible texts. Steffon, who attends Gadsden Community College in Gadsden, Alabama is a straight-A student who has made his college deans list each semester. He downloads Bookshare texts to a portable device called a BrailleNote that allows blind people like him to read digital Braille. Steffon sitting at a computer, fingers on a Braille notetakerTwo years ago, Steffon worked with us to create a Bookshare how-to video and a video profile which also features his teacher Jill Dunaway who helped him become a Bookshare member.

Because the Bookshare collection is free to qualified U.S. students, Steffon says downloading from the collection helps him gather his required texts and recreational reading without eating into his limited funds. Steffon also points out that Bookshare texts are far more searchable than other e-books or printed Braille. He says Bookshare books also contain fewer errors that require time consuming correction from his school’s student services department.
"The Bookshare books are better-quality and very easy to navigate with a “find” command that allows you to scroll through it,” says Steffon. “They are there when I need them and I don’t have to depend on anyone. Everyone needs help in this world, but I’m not old or a cripple and I want to be on an even plane with everyone else.”

Bookshare has already been helpful to Steffon’s younger brother Devante, a Bookshare member who is now a student at Steffon’s alma matter, the Alabama School for the Blind. Steffon points out that Braille books are still difficult for blind people to acquire and he wants more readers to know about the Bookshare service. Next fall, Steffon will enter Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama where he plans to major in public relations. He plans to include his Bookshare videos in his portfolio and we hope that he will also join us as a Bookshare volunteer proofreader. You can read our full profile of Steffon here.

Jessica smiling with a ribbon in her hairNew Mexico high school student Jessica Pinto also depends on Bookshare’s accessible digital texts to meet top academic standards. Jessica, who is a junior at Manzano High School in Albuquerque, is a straight-A student and a member of the National Honor Society. Bookshare provides Jessica with books for her English literature class and her personal reading where her tastes run toward young adult fiction. Cerebral palsy makes it difficult for Jessica to hold a book. She gets around this by downloading Bookshare texts on her laptop, enlarging the font, and scrolling through the text with the down arrow key on her keyboard.

“Jessica has always been smart, but Bookshare gave her the books she needed to really excel,” says Jessica’s mother Mary Pinto. “Jessica is on the honor roll, has an academic letter and was voted into the National Honor Society because of Bookshare. She is learning so much because I am not having to read her books to her.”

Mary Pinto adds that no matter what kind of assistive technology a student needs to succeed, Bookshare gives students like Jessica the opportunity to make the critical transition into high school and from there to college level academics. Jessica is planning to attend college after she graduates from high school and expects to continue downloading her required college texts from Bookshare.

In addition to fueling her college ambitions, Jessica credits Bookshare with encouraging her wish to become a writer. She says she is now working on piece of fiction for teenagers about a girl’s adventures in a winter fantasyland. “Without Bookshare, reading would just become a task and it wouldn’t be fun,” says Jessica. “It depends on how much homework I have, but I try to read as much as possible. Getting these books is really important to me.”

Here is our full profile of Jessica Pinto which lists the books she is now reading. Like Steffon, Jessica also worked with Bookshare to create a how-to video and a video story about her life as an unstoppable reader. We are proud of both Jessica and Steffon and we wish them both a New Year full of good books and new accomplishments.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

Benetech Human Rights Data Analysts Uncover Critical Evidence

As the worldwide debate continues about the release of government information by Wikileaks, history has shown that the uncovering of government data can be an important factor in human rights investigations. In 2010, Benetech’s Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) examined once hidden government documents from Guatemala and Chad that provided key evidence needed to hold former national leaders and security forces accountable for human rights violations. HRDAG analysis of this information was carried out with the support of the current governments and NGO communities in both these countries.

Discovered by chance, these police and prison records told the stories of serious human rights violations from the perspective of the perpetrators. They revealed the culpability of powerful people who never expected that these records would ever be exposed to public scrutiny - let alone scientific analysis. The past year of research by HRDAG analysts has supported key criminal prosecutions and uncovered the truth about political violence in Guatemala, Iran, Colombia, Chad and Liberia.

In conflict zones where abuses are often concealed and crimes are forgotten, the scientists of HRDAG have the tools to create truthful accounts that challenge impunity. Expert testimony from HRDAG statistician Daniel Guzmán provided critical evidence in the October 2010 conviction of two former police officers for the 1984 disappearance of Guatemalan labor leader Edgar Fernando García. Guzmán’s testimony was based on HRDAG’s analysis of the 31.7 million documents in the Guatemalan National Police Archive which was discovered by chance in 2005.

A cache of prison records generated by a former state security force in Chad provided data for a 2010 HRDAG report about human rights violations in Chad. The HRDAG analysis shows that former Chadian president Hissène Habré was well informed of the hundreds of prison deaths that occurred during his regime. The files were discovered by Human Rights Watch at the abandoned headquarters of Habré’s security force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). They contained detailed accounts of the interrogations, movements, and deaths of prisoners, as well as information on the internal functioning of the DDS. Habré has been accused of killing and systematically torturing thousands of political opponents. Representatives from the European Union, the African Union, Chad, and other countries agreed last month to finance Habré’s trial where prosecutors may use HRDAG’s analysis to argue Habré’s responsibility for the prison deaths.

HRDAG analysis of formerly hidden data has promoted respect for human rights and raised the cost of crimes against humanity. These researchers set the worldwide standard for calculating scientifically sound statistics and quantitative findings that support human rights claims which are transparently, demonstrably, undeniably true. Their work illustrates Benetech’s mission to create technology in the service of humanity.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Breakthrough Philanthropy - Thiel Foundation event

I've been asked by a lot of people both inside and outside Benetech lately to not only talk about the what we do, but the why we do it: the thinking behind it. I met with a very senior nonprofit leader last week in New York who explicitly asked us to talk more about what we're thinking. So, I hope to have more Beneblogs that give a window onto our thought processes (even when raw and not quite baked)! So, after I do my readout on what happened, I'll try to inject the way it got me thinking at the end of this post.

Last night I had the privilege of attending the Breakthough Philanthropy event put on by Peter Thiel's foundation, covered in the local press with articles like "Silicon Valley billionaire backs futuristic philanthropy" from the San Jose Mercury News.

The foundation spotlighted eight unusual nonprofit groups. I knew of a fair number of the groups already. The Santa Fe Institute is probably the best known: a research institute dedicated to studying complex problems. Benetech's chief scientist, Dr. Patrick Ball, has spent time there working on the scientific challenges of our work studying large scale human rights violations. We and Santa Fe also share a common board member: Dr. Leighton Read (founder of Aviron, the original makers of the FluMist nasal spray vaccine, author of Total Engagement, etc.). SFI had Dr. Murray Gell-Mann there, the Caltech Nobel Physics laureate, in person as well with a bobble-head doll!

Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute has been a leading proponent of the nanotechnology field (and expected revolution). I got to meet Christine when I was part of the private rocket field in the early 80s (I recently discovered the best article about my brief rocket science period online: The Wrong Stuff).

Three of the groups were loosely affiliated with Ray Kurzweil and his ideas around human uploading and the Singularity. There was a group called the Seasteading Institute: they want to experiment with new political forms by starting new countries on the high seas. The SENS Foundation wants to advance "Rejuvenation Biotechnologies." Their thesis is that we have to study the progressive development of aging to get ahead of treating pathology: sort of studying how to fix it before it's broken. And the last group is well known to tech people, the X PRIZE Foundation.

So, I was initially kind of skeptical about this eclectic group. I've not been a huge fan of Ray's somewhat dystopian ideas of the future of mankind. I also don't think the X Prize approach is applicable to most of the social challenges I see, although I loved the Ansari X Prize as driving space flight through Burt Rutan's winning entry.

The groups each had four minutes to pitch their ideas. They all had big picture goals, and some of them made explicit funding asks during their lightning presentations. These were much more effective than I expected, and even two of the three Kurzweil-inspired groups were convincing enough (Singularity U and Humanity+). Only one didn't work at all for me: Singularity Institute.

But, Peter Thiel did a good job of setting up the framing for these investments in brief final comments. He acknowledged that many of these ideas struck many in the philanthropy field as weird. But, he drew a distinction between incremental change and breakthrough change (he used the words "extensive" and "intensive"). Extensive change is going from something that works at one scale and bringing it up to a larger scale. He pointed out that it's much harder to go from zero to one, than it is to go from one to many. He's looking for those breakthrough opportunities that will have a major impact. But, that means you have to bet on a lot of unusual, "weird" ideas, to see one or two that have that kind of revolutionary impact.

There aren't many philanthropists that explicitly endorse a strategy where the majority of their grants are likely to not be successful. But, if you have a heightened appetite for risk, the frame changes. What if only one of these groups gets revolutionary change going that changes society on a big scale? Probably a pretty good return on investment. Of course, we might not know that for a decade or two or three, and any change at the scale will require far more groups helping make it happen. But, through the lens of one home run justifies all of the other efforts, it makes sense.

I see the same kind of energy present in these groups that I saw in the early days of the private rocket business in the 1980s (and to be honest, in the social entrepreneurship movement of today!). Being a rocket scientist (even though my rocket admittedly blew up) was the catalyst for me to go in a completely different career direction and helped make me into what turned into a social entrepreneur. So, even if I don't buy the Ray Kurzweil vision of the singularity happening in the next century, I can imagine that a bunch of brilliant young people excited by that vision will invent the future after going through Singularity U. As one VC put it to me after the talks, you don't have to become a Jesuit to benefit from a Jesuit education! And, if a one in ten chance of Ray's vision coming true in the next 50 years is acceptable odds, investing in guiding that transition makes a lot more sense than if your standard is certainty.

Finally, I also took away that this is not an either-or proposition from Thiel's standpoint. We need investments both in breakthrough opportunities and in scaling up great ideas that have already been proven.