Thursday, May 26, 2011

Caltech and Sustainability

When I can find the time, I jump at the opportunity to visit universities. It stimulates the same pleasure center that brainstorming does for me! The universities I visit tend to be full of students and faculty committed to doing important and innovative work.

My recent visit to Caltech was no exception. Of course, I have a soft spot for Caltech, having gotten my two degrees there. It was a class at Caltech that prompted me to first think of making reading machines for blind people, my personal jumping off point that led me to found Benetech (hmm, name similarity probably not a coincidence!). I no longer do any of the scientific work I was trained to do. But, Caltech taught me how to size up a problem and model how a system works: skills that have been indispensable in both my entrepreneurial and social entrepreneurial pursuits!

The most exciting thread of the day concerned sustainability. I was turned on to climate and energy issues six years ago by reading Caltech professor David Goodstein’s book, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil. Caltech faculty and students are especially focused on sustainability. Caltech even has the new Resnick Institute established to address this issue. This is an increasing area of interest for me and Benetech, so these were great connections to make.

My student host, Cole Hershkowitz, demonstrated this sustainability focus. Although he’s a few weeks away from graduating, he’s spending a huge amount of time on the SCI-Arc/Caltech joint entry in the international Social Decathlon competition. It’s so cool! Teams from around the world build houses that are expected to be zero in net energy usage: they should generate enough energy to sustain themselves, and be built for less than a certain sum (I think about $350k is the limit).

Getting into the design of a net-zero house was a cool thought experiment for me, but the team is actually building their house right now. They’ve already raised $800k of the $1.1-1.2 million they need to build the house and transport it to the Mall in Washington DC for the judging. In my day, an expensive student project cost a couple of thousand dollars. I think their biggest issue is trying to find a transportation company who would be able to move their net-zero house from LA to DC. If you know a trucking company with a sustainability urge, send them towards Cole and his team!

The students are, of course, the treasure of a place like Caltech. I was able to meet those Tech students who really want to make a difference in the world, more than just figuring out the latest science or tech breakthrough (wonderful as that is). I was able to meet with three separate sets of students, both undergraduate and graduate students, and get into conversations about how to get started in social innovation.

And lastly, staying in Caltech’s faculty club, the Athenaeum, is a real treat. The first big dinner held there was in honor of Albert Einstein’s extended visit to Caltech in the 1930s. You just to have to imagine thinking better and more creative thoughts while dreaming in a place where Einstein once slept!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Martus: The Next Generation

Picture of the Star Trek Next Generation bridge with Patrick Ball's face pasted in over the original captain.  Main title text is: Martus: the Next Generation. Other text bubbles talk about connecting with local partners, engaging the engines of innovation, blue skying and searching for bold new applications of technology to human rights.
Benetech brainstorms are always a treat: it's a chance for all of us to step back and imagine how much more and better we could be doing for our users. Today, Captain Patrick (Ball, not Stewart), our VP Human Rights, led a brainstorm on the next major upgrade of our Martus secure human rights database software with our human rights program team as well as key technical leaders.

The graphic above was delivered to us purporting to be our agenda. It kicked off our meeting with even greater enthusiasm. Human rights is serious work, but it always helps to be inspired!

And Jeff Klingner (who cooked this up) asked that I credit CBS Studios for the still from Star Trek: The Next Generation and for the captioning technology!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Benetech Truth #1: Social Change Through Technology

[Note: this is part one of seven posts on the Benetech Truths.]

The world has big problems. We need fresh, original solutions that are better than the status quo. Technology has revolutionized business, but bringing those breakthrough developments to government, education and the nonprofit sectors can take 5, 10, even 15 years. It doesn’t have to be that way.

We’re convinced that there are many innovative social applications of technology could make a 5X or a 10X or even a 15X improvement over status quo solutions.

At Benetech, our team is committed to using technology to drive positive social change. We want to see technology serve much more of humanity than just the richest ten percent. We use technology to create products and projects that serve humanity where the market will fail to go because they offer modest financial returns.

To create these breakthrough solutions, our team uses its skills to build upon the incredible talents and productivity of the larger tech community. We just bridge the gap between possibility and profitability. We see what’s already possible with technology, and build what we call the “last social mile.”

Our work to date repeatedly demonstrates bridging this market failure gap:
  • Our Literacy team has reinvented the traditional library for the blind, reducing the cost of producing an accessible book by a factor of 100 and ending the book famine that people who are blind or print disabled have faced for years. Through our Bookshare online library, they now have equal access to the books they need for education, employment and full participation in society!
  • Our Human Rights team is bringing the power of technology to the defenders of human rights. When activists speak truth to power, we help them to ensure that it is truth! We help to protect the testimonies of the victims of violations, as well as the safety of those who take their statements. We are database experts who help to answer the key question in human rights: who did what to whom? We are expert witnesses in war crimes trials, helping bring an end to impunity.
  • Our Environmental team is helping to bring results-based management to the conservation and biodiversity field. We want to help environmentalists do a better job of stewarding our precious natural assets. We help them to do more of what works, less of what doesn’t, and see that donor dollars are applied for maximum impact.
And we’re nowhere near done! We are expanding our new projects pipeline, growing our capacity to make social change through technology. We’re working hard on building our field: making it easier for other techies to follow their dreams of doing the most important work they can possibly do. We invest time in sharing how Benetech and other technology social enterprises work, and write essays and articles on how to start and run social enterprises. (To see one example, check out my recent paper “For Love or Lucre” on how to decide whether to be a nonprofit or for-profit when starting a social enterprise.) We’re also developing a new platform, Beneforge, to make it easier to engage with new and existing projects both inside and outside Benetech, applying technology to achieve positive social change.

We hope that you’ll join this movement and realize the true dream of the technical person: to work on challenges that Matter!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Benetech: President's Update

Benetech President's Update

Winter 2011

I’m pleased to provide you you a detailed update on Benetech for the first time in two years. Last summer I talked about our great summer interns and fellows and early this year, I sent a copy of our 20th Anniversary Report that talked about our entire history. Reviewing where we were at the beginning of 2009, it’s amazing to see the growth in impact that Benetech and our team have had in the world. It’s worth celebrating but even more important, worth recognizing the incredible opportunities that we now have to make a difference on an even broader scale. I’m spending more and more of my time trying to figure out what’s next for Benetech—how we can do much more.

Bookshare Hits 100,000 Members

Boy reading at a computer with teacher in the background.Since the beginning of 2009, we’ve tripled the number of people with disabilities Bookshare is serving with our accessible library of ebooks. For years, our extraordinary cohort of dedicated volunteer scanners has provided Bookshare with most of its new content. This past year, we’re getting most of our content directly from top publishers: high-quality digital content for free. Our volunteers, together with these socially responsible publishers, are making sure that our members have the content they need. We just added 847 books to the collection in one day—that’s more than we used to add in a month! All of this means that when people living with a disability such as blindness, severe dyslexia, or a significant physical disability (such as our returning veterans who may have polytrauma) come looking for a specific book they need for education, employment or simple enjoyment, we’re much more than likely to have it available for them in an accessible format.

The amazing thing about serving 100,000 students right now is that our commitment to the U.S. Department of Education was to serve 100,000 students by the end of our five-year contract in late 2012. Based on hitting that number two years early, we’re now projecting that we could serve perhaps twice as many students, 200,000, by the 2012 milestone date. And the price to the Dept. of Education won’t change: we’ll do twice as much for the same price. I know that funders aren’t used to hearing that from the social sector!

Now that we believe we’ve really begun to solve the problem of making the text in books accessible for the 1% of the population with a severe print-related disability, we’re busy thinking about the next frontier. We just won a $5 million competition that will fund our DIAGRAM R&D center to tackle the problem of image accessibility for people with print disabilities. And we’re busy discussing with educators and publishers how we can bring Bookshare-style accessible content to the ten times as many students who could benefit from talking books but don’t qualify under the very limited copyright exemption.

Human Rights Program – Changing the Field of Human Rights

Making the truth matter is the core theme of our human rights work. If we’re going to speak truth to power, then we need to make sure that we are speaking truth. Overstated claims hurt the cause of the human rights movement over the long term. The way that we can best honor the victims of past human rights violations is to document and share their stories in support of the campaign to drive change today—by seeking reforms, ending impunity and if at all possible, securing justice.

Men being trained to use Martus to enter testimonies.Our human rights team is active all over the world. The head of our group, Patrick Ball, is spending most of this year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, working with the United Nations on a range of human rights issues (of which the DRC has many). One of our team just testified regarding evidence in the disappearance of a prominent human rights activist more than twenty years ago: the trial is one result of our extensive work at the Guatemalan National Police Archive. The human rights team trains groups how to use their number one asset, information about human rights violations, as a strategic tool to advance their social justice mission. Working with groups that range from front-line activists to truth commissions and war crimes tribunals, we’re using databases, data security and statistical analyses to realize positive change. Our team is helping activists and organizations worldwide ensure that the truth matters.

Miradi – Expanding Throughout the World

Images of sea life from the Ytre Hvaler National Park in Norway.I’ve been amazed by the growth in adoption of Miradi, our conservation project management software tool. We’re helping the environmental movement become more effective through using Miradi to manage its conservation projects and to better steward environmental assets. In the last couple of years our biggest users—the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Rare and the National Audubon Society—have funded 100% of Miradi’s development costs by tapping core funds and seeking grants for Miradi from foundations, most notably the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. It is a great testament to the strength of support for Miradi in the environmental sector.

We now have more than 3,500 users in over 140 countries using Miradi for projects as varied as a coordinated national strategy for the preservation of the chimpanzees in Tanzania, to the development of management plans for two Marine National parks bordering Sweden and Norway.

Benetech’s Powerful Management Team

Gerardo Capiel, VP of Engineering.I’m thrilled to announce a key addition to Benetech’s senior management team. Gerardo Capiel is our new Vice President of Engineering, with a strong background as a successful entrepreneur and Internet developer. Our board and management team are working on a new strategic plan right now: the plan is not a detailed prescription for our future, but a powerful statement of our values and direction, preparing us for what’s next.


Benetech has become an engine of sustainable social change: we’ve figured out how to use our technology social enterprise model repeatedly to scale new ideas that deliver far greater social impact at the same or lower cost than status quo solutions can offer. We believe that the world needs more Benetech-style social enterprises, and we’re dedicated to doing more ourselves and to helping other social entrepreneurs succeed with their new ventures.

To accomplish this goal within Benetech, we need more risk-taking capital. We need innovation money that represents probably less than 5% of our budget, but is essential to our future. If we have ten hot innovative ideas, then we need to invest in figuring out which idea makes the most sense, and then to take that idea to sustainability. Benetech’s board and I are starting a new campaign to invite visionary donors to get behind the next generation of innovative Benetech social ventures.

Literacy, human rights and the environment are critically important to the future of humanity. Every day, we at Benetech see new opportunities to help more people and organizations do more with information. With your help, we will!

Jim Fruchterman
President and CEO, The Benetech Initiative