Friday, September 23, 2011

My Guide Dog Ate My Paycheck

Brownbag lunches are a regular feature at Benetech, and one of our most popular regular speakers is Bookshare team member Liz Halperin.
Jim Fruchterman with Liz Halperin and guide dog WellieLiz had just gotten back from getting her new guide dog, Welton. She told an enthralled audience all about the ten stages of guide dog training and the process of being matched up with a dog. Her prior guide dog had not been all that successful and she had to switch after just two years (5-9 being more typical for the length of guiding service).

The highlight of the talk was when she took the apparently mellow Wellie off his harness and then he dashed around the room to be petted by 30-40 people.

The funniest thing was her description of her prior dog's love of eating paper: the dog actually ate her Benetech paycheck. Our CFO, Teresa Throckmorton, explained that she switched Liz to being paid by wire transfers. As a dog owner, I know that they can sometimes chew through money, but this was ridiculous!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Making the Book Truly Accessible for All Students

Schools are back in session, and with them millions of American children who struggle daily to learn using traditional printed books. Having learning disabilities or various learning differences, they need alternative reading environments that rely on their strengths rather than on their weaknesses. This includes accessible educational materials, such as e-books that can be used with computers, or mobile devices that display enlarged text or read the book aloud while also highlighting text.

We have the technological innovations to help these children and their families and educators, who are looking for strategies to aid their success. Yet, we are still far from where we need to be in order to give them equal opportunity to succeed in school and beyond.

In September 2007, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) selected our successful Booksharelibrary as the provider of accessible materials to every student in the U.S. with a legally qualifying print disability per the Chafee Amendment to the Copyright Act. We’re extremely proud of what we’ve accomplished with Bookshare over the past four years and are hopeful that by the end of our OSEP contract term, we’ll have delivered double the results we initially proposed. Bookshare has grown into the largest online digital library of accessible books and periodicals in the U.S., with a collection of over 126,000 books (and counting) that currently serves more than 148,000 members, including over 143,000 students.

Qualifying students, however, represent but a small fraction of those who can benefit from accessible books. Everyday, we have to turn down students who are disadvantaged and need reading accommodations, but are not “disadvantaged enough” to be considered qualified for Bookshare services. Nor can they buy accessible content from the commercial sector.

The International Dyslexia Association calls these students “SEEDS kids,” for “struggling readers, English language learners, economically disadvantaged youth, dyslexia students and specific learning disability students.” They include struggling readers whose learning problems have never been fully diagnosed. Economically disadvantaged individuals are more likely to report having learning disabilities than the rest of the population. Plus, this includes individuals with mild dyslexia and those with a variety of specific learning and other disabilities. Thousands of students with differing learning styles and language requirements can also benefit greatly from accessible books.

There are some 7.5 million students (15% of the U.S. public school population) who could benefit from accessible books but currently go without them or get them at great cost in both time and funds to schools and educators. They deserve an equal shot at learning and realizing their potential.

Benetech is working on a new program that will serve these students who are not qualified under the copyright exemption. We call it Bookaccess: a cost effective “fulfillment engine” that will deliver digital accessible books to commercial partners (like publishers) who would sell them to customers.

The conditions for launching Bookaccess are on our side: technology convergence is making the production of accessible digital content simply a click of a button away; the federal government is pushing states to find methods to meet the special needs of all their students; and we already get tremendous support from publishers.
We revolutionized the accessibility of books through Bookshare for people with severe print-related disabilities. Our next bold step is to diffuse this innovation into the service of all of humanity who might need it!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Public speaking for change

I originally started this blog as a way to keep more of our Benetech team aware of what was going on with me and other team members (through guest blogs) while on our travels. Many of us spend a big chunk of our time on the road rather than in the office, and it's good to share some of the reasons our office chairs are often empty!

Speaking publicly is an important part of our work. We do it both to advance Benetech objectives and projects, as well as advancing the field (we call these karma gigs). We invest in public speaking coaching (thanks, Melinda Henning!) to become better speakers, both for old hands like me and Benetechers getting ready for their first public speech.

I asked Joan Mellea, who keeps track of these and many other things at Benetech, about my upcoming speaking commitments: she quickly came up with fifteen! More than ten of these are in just the next two months. So, I thought I'd share what's coming up to give a flavor of where in the world Jim will be in the next two months (the other four talks are scheduled for next year already). Of course, I have other trips planned for just meetings as well.

9/19 (tomorrow!) Speed Geeking at the Gates Foundation Global Library Program about Bookshare International

9/22 Stanford Social Innovation Review online webinar "Nonprofit, For-profit, or Something in Between?"on choosing to be a nonprofit or a for-profit, based on my For Love or Lucre SSIR article

9/26 Kicking off the Stanford Social Entrepreneurship Lecture Series

10/1 Speaking at the Disability Rights Advocates board meeting

10/5 Duke Fuqua MBA High Tech Club Panel (Cloud Computing /Social Entrepreneurship panels)

10/5 Duke CASE Award for Enterprising Social Innovation, presentation and lecture

10/25-26 Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference

10/29 Keynote at Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired Regional conference in Cleveland, Ohio

11/2 Moderate a CEO's panel at the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit in Chicago

11/5 Address a foundation board meeting in Connecticut

11/20 Short inspirational talk at TEDxYouthCastilleja (high school in Palo Alto where my wife Virginia used to teach: we had our wedding reception there)

All of these talks are about social innovation, about technology doing social good, about the possibility that everybody can do something to help. Sharing these ideas is the way I recharge my batteries for doing more!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Read2Go Tops iTunes Literacy Charts!

Gerardo Capiel, Benetech's VP Engineering, just sent me a couple of exciting screen shots on our Read2Go iOS application for accessible reading of ebooks. The first one shows the Special Education category on iTunes, with the Read2Go logo being used to represent the Literacy and Learning section.
screen shot of an iPhone showing the Special Education category and subsections
And, the second one shows why: our Read2Go application is at the top of the Literacy and Learning section!
screen shot of an iPhone showing Read2Go as the top featured app in the Literacy and Learning Section, 4 stars with 38 ratingsWe also are just about through the process with the first major upgrade to Read2Go since its release, with a bunch of fixes and improvements requested by our users.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Zerofootprint: A Cool Approach to Sustainability

We’ve been exploring the area of sustainability a great deal lately. We have some new ideas for software Benetech could be developing. But, one of our core values is to see what’s already out there and to not duplicate great work already being done. That means we frequently run into cool projects (and mentally check the box: taken care of!).

In this exploration effort, thanks to John Danner, the incredibly connected entrepreneur who hangs his hat occasionally at the Haas Business School in Berkeley, I was able to meet Dr. Ron Dembo, founder of Zerofootprint. Ron showed me a brief demo at TED and we followed up with a more extensive demonstration more recently.

Zerofootprint is working to make a dent in minimizing climate change, by changing people’s behavior. And, it’s not clear that making the scientific case is sufficient for people to change. But the reality is that people don’t even need to buy the scientific case for climate change to take actions that address the issue: wouldn’t everybody like to save money on energy efficiency if it was painless or easy? But, we can approach human behavior change from a social perspective.

Zerofootprint shows what you can do with real data to influence meaningful social change. What blew my mind in the demonstration was how the Zerofootprint team took a metro area’s schools, and mashed the energy consumption data together with student census data to demonstrate how much the energy costs by dollar per student per year.

As a human, I zero in right away on the schools that are spending ten times as much per student as their most efficient comparable schools in the same neighborhood. Are they running the heat with the windows open during the winter? Are they using a boiler built in 1910? Do they leave the lights on in all the classrooms all night?

Shining a light on this issue, and making it easy to understand, is the first step on changing behavior. Zerofootprint supports the running of contests between schools (or whatever unit you want to pick). Suddenly, we have a tool to focus on the most wasteful schools, and to help all schools improve their energy efficiency.

Zerofootprint is an exciting social enterprise, and one I hope to see gain expanded adoption. It shows how crunching the numbers plus a great data visualization approach, offers a great example of how technology can really serve humanity!