Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Angels

When I first started pursuing the idea that technology can be harnessed to the cause of social good, it was pretty far out. Now, more than twenty years later, what has become known as social entrepreneurship is a hot global movement that is transforming the ways in which we approach the world’s most pressing problems and in which society organizes itself to solve them. Social entrepreneurship has its own conferences, publications, academic programs and awards. We celebrate the notion that nothing is as powerful as a great idea when put in the hands of a bold entrepreneur, and the lionization of entrepreneurs is a trend.

Let’s remember, though, that behind the entrepreneurs are equally daring angel investors: those who bet on these men and women when they have nothing to show but passion and excitement, and who empower them to realize their vision. After all, any great idea needs a vote of confidence, great advice and an infusion of cash to have a large-scale impact!

Even today, it’s not an easy task to find investors who are willing to take a chance on socially responsible ventures that prioritize social good over profitability. You can imagine how difficult it was back in 1982, when I founded Calera Recognition Systems (originally named the Palantir Corporation). My first successful tech company created technologies that could read just about any book or document. My very first angel investor who helped us get Calera off the ground was Sheldon Breiner. Sheldon is an amazing guy: a Silicon Valley serial inventor and entrepreneur who’s known as the Indiana Jones of geophysics. He’s an expert in magnetometers for natural resources and defense applications, and the inventor of the security walk-through metal detector and many other cool devices. Sheldon invested his own money in the newly born Calera and made important connections to key figures. Sheldon saying “I’ll invest in you” was the catalyst that led to Calera's first round of venture capital. Today, Calera is part of Nuance, the leading company in its field.

Sheldon was someone who I stayed in touch with even after leaving Calera to start a nonprofit social enterprise to make the Arkenstone reading machines for the blind (Arkenstone was the original name of Benetech). At a crucial turning point in Benetech’s history, I ran into Sheldon and outlined my dreams of doing more. I remember the event well: it was a rare speaking engagement by Bill Gates in 1999 when Gates was starting to shift into philanthropy in a big way.

Sheldon’s quick-shot reaction was, “you need to meet my friend, Robert.” And so, my very first for-profit angel introduced me to my first nonprofit angel! Robert Levenson had a tremendous impact on shaping the incredible organization we now know as Benetech.

At the time, I was in the process of selling the Arkenstone product line to a for-profit. I was eager to repeat the experience under our new name of Benetech. I thought if I was lucky, I could use the money from the sale of the Arkenstone assets to start a second successful social enterprise.

Robert, however, changed my mind about what the new nonprofit should be like. His first comment after hearing the Arkenstone story and my dreams to start another Arkenstone-style enterprise was that if I did so, he’d consider that a failure. I was flabbergasted. But Robert went on to explain that he felt that the best use of my efforts was to drive the creation of five or ten new enterprises at Benetech, not just a second one. And, he made the case that I should work to help build the field of social enterprise, and see if I could help build a movement that would lead to the creation of hundreds of technology social enterprises! He argued that I could have a bigger impact on the world by mentoring new social entrepreneurs, finding resources for them and helping them avoid the pitfalls I had experienced. Robert felt that, by aiming high, I would help build a movement of technologists who were more engaged in meeting humanity’s critical needs.
It was a breathtaking moment for me, to have a first-time meeting go in this completely unanticipated direction. What was stunning was being told that I lacked ambition, something I had never felt short of in the past! But, Robert was right. If I really wanted to make more social impact, I had to take on a different role. I’d have to become more like an angel like Robert and Sheldon.

But, Robert wasn’t just about giving me advice. He was a big believer in finding the precise intervention that would have the maximum impact. Like many angels, Robert didn’t have the most money to donate to us, but he was sure he could find a way to utilize leverage to help us. He connected me with two fabulous senior fundraising consultants, who mentored me at Robert’s expense for more than a year on how to become a better fundraiser for social innovation. He introduced me to leaders in the social innovation space, expanding my network and my understanding of the opportunities ahead. As a result of Robert’s help, one of the very first donors I met was Sally Osberg, who was just starting as the head of Jeff Skoll’s foundation (Jeff was the first CEO of eBay, and also the founder of Participant Media, the people behind incredible movies like Good Night and Good Luck, An Inconvenient Truth and The Help, among dozens more). Sally and Jeff have been the largest and longest term supporters of Benetech since that early meeting.

Robert went further and personally pitched Benetech to a very wealthy donor. At my first meeting with this donor and Robert, Benetech received an incredible unrestricted one million dollar gift. That funding, along with backing from Skoll Foundation and the Omidyar Network, was the rocket fuel for what Benetech has become today. Benetech was no longer just what I was going to do next, but a new phase in the search for innovative ways to apply maximum leverage to solving pressing problems on a scale well beyond a single project.

So here’s to Sheldon, Robert and all the other angels out there. You, who much like the entrepreneurs whom you support, act as society’s change agents. Thank you for unleashing resources where others see only problems. Thank you for seizing opportunities, which others miss, enabling new approaches and creating social value. And thank you for believing in crazy entrepreneurs, even those with little or no track record. Let’s hope that, as the social entrepreneurship movement continues to build, even more socially responsible angel groups and venture funds will arise and with them more opportunities for social enterprises to change the world for the better!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Slice of the Joy of Being at Benetech

My job is so much fun! I get to spend most of my time talking to people about social good: what we're doing with technology, what our partners are doing and what the many cool people we get to meet are doing along the way. I realize that it's rare that I can share some of these meetings with our team and with the blogosphere, so here are few tidbits just from last week!
  1. The first group was the De Novo Group, co-founded by famed Internet entrepreneur Eric Brewer to take cool, socially beneficial software (often created at UC Berkeley) and bring it to the world. We connected at the recent Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference and decided we should get together. Scott McNeil came to Benetech and we talked about their MetaMouse project (getting multiple mice to work on the same PC, so that kids in low-PC resource places can work together). KoBoToolbox is a toolkit for making it easy to collect survey data on mobile devices (turns out, I later found out we're already proposing to use this to do a survey in Africa). Plus, we discussed much more exciting tech that's in the De Novo pipeline, contributing to areas Benetech is very interested in!
  2. Next, our Palo Alto neighbors D-Rev (for Design Revolution) dropped by in the form of CEO Krista Donaldson. D-Rev wants to create solutions to help the poorest people in the world. We talked about their Jaipur knee project, and a low-cost lighting solution to fight jaundice in newborns. Krista and I had a wide-ranging conversation, the kind that social entrepreneurs tend to have when they get together (like, how to get projects to have impact at scale and where to find the money to launch new projects and scale them).
  3. Then, I heard that one of our partners had just been recognized as the first recipient of the David Kato Vision & Voice Award, which honors the murdered Ugandan LGBT activist. Jamaican lawyer and activist Maurice Tomlinson of J-FLAG will be recognized next month. We've been honored to support J-FLAG in their work, and we believe that our work with J-FLAG has helped lead to our new major project helping LGBT groups in Uganda and other African countries.

And that was on top of the normal hubbub at Benetech: meeting on existing and new projects, talking to donors and supporters, and even having our quarterly board meeting (went really well) and our annual holiday party (hope to provide more soon on the holiday party, we did something really cool with another social enterprise).

As we look forward to 2012, it's easy for us to be optimistic when we see the quality of the work of our partners, and see other technical people working to see technology fully serve all of humanity!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

International Human Rights Day 2011

Today, December 10th, the international community is observing Human Rights Day to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since its adoption at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the Declaration has become a universal standard for the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. On International Human Rights Day, we pay tribute to all human rights defenders, celebrate the recent victories of the human rights community, and recognize the challenges that still lie ahead in the global struggle to advance justice, accountability and an end to impunity.

2011 has been an amazing year for human rights defenders. We have witnessed thousands of people taking to the streets to demand fundamental human rights and social justice; ordinary citizens turning into activists by using social media to mobilize protest movements that brought repressive governments to an end; and dramatic changes transpiring – like Tunisia’s first elections, or the encouraging signs of progress in Burma.

The Benetech Human Rights Program (HRP) is hard at work to ensure that technology and science best meet the needs of human rights defenders in these critical times. This past year, our HRP team helped the human rights movement achieve great things. Here’s a sample of our accomplishments:
  • Martus, our secure, open-source information management software for human rights defenders continued to empower many human rights groups worldwide to secure thousands of stories of human rights violations and to use this information strategically to advance their causes. Our new and long-term Martus partners crossed a milestone and backed up to our public servers over 200,000 bulletins, each of which captures crucial, sensitive information about incidents from a victim’s story or from a field investigation.
  • Our Martus team trained two new partners focused on rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people: Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, or J-FLAG and AIDS-Free World. Both organizations work in the Caribbean, where sexual minorities face widespread violence, bigotry and marginalization. In the case of J-FLAG, Martus enables the organization to protect the identity of victims of abuse who come forward to tell their stories, to secure the information from their interviews, to report on the types of crimes documented, and to aggregate evidence for future court proceedings. Our support of groups advancing LGBTI rights is opening up new opportunities for helping many more such groups around the world.
  • HRP members produced scientifically sound analysis that is advancing the process of legal justice in Guatemala. In a recent blog post, I described how HRP statistician Daniel Guzmán’s expert testimony in a breakthrough legal case against two former police officers helped score a remarkable victory in the fight to end impunity in Guatemala. I invite you to read Daniel’s first-person account of his expert testimony as published in the statistical magazine Chance. The testimony prompted further investigation that led to the arrest of three former senior officials. I’m proud to report here that, at the request of the Attorney General of Guatemala, our team has prepared statistical analysis to inform the prosecutions of these high-profile officials. We’re honored to support the process towards justice and accountability at this critical time in Guatemala’s history.
  • Our team members are creating an “accountability toolkit” – a set of innovative techniques for identifying patterns of responsibility for grave human rights crimes. To that end, we combine statistical analysis of patterns of violence with information about military and police hierarchy, communication flow and deployment patterns. The combined analysis supports scientific arguments about responsibility for mass atrocities – arguments that are successful in court cases.
  • Through projects that integrated statistical analyses into multidisciplinary human rights work, we engaged in the public debate about human rights violations in Colombia. First, in partnership with Colombian NGO Corporación Punto de Vista, we assessed a methodology for studying conflict-related sexual violence in the country. We identified important opportunities for developing a substantive, quantitative-based sexual violence research agenda. This analysis is now helping to reframe how sexual violence is studied and understood by groups in Colombia and by the United Nations. Second, we strengthened the public debate about the free trade agreements that Colombia negotiates with the U.S. and the European Union. Colombia’s record of violence against trade union members has been an obstacle to finalizing the agreements. HRP’s calculated estimates of trade union member homicides – part of our work with the Colombian Commission of Jurists – brought clarity to this intense debate.
  • We advanced human rights advocacy and the community more broadly by placing human rights at the forefront of academic research and by educating wide audiences about statistical best practices in the analysis of violence. HRP team members presented papers at academic conferences, published articles in academic journals, and offered many public talks. All HRP’s publications are available online.
Benetech's Human Rights Program also received this year great recognition by the media and by experts in the field of human rights. In my Fall 2011 President’s Update, I mentioned PBS NewsHour’s two stories, and complete press coverage of our work is listed on our website.

In addition, our work is praised in a report and recommendation for donors entitled “Human Rights and International Justice: Challenges and Opportunities at an Inflection Point,” which was commissioned by The Atlantic Philanthropies. Based on extensive conversations with experts in the human rights and international justice field, the authors – Jonathan Fanton (former President of the MacArthur Foundation and of New School University) and Zachary Katznelson – provide an overview of the state of the field along with concrete recommendations that aim to stimulate more philanthropic investment in it. Among their recommendations is that NGOs be trained to collect, analyze and use data effectively, since the impact of their advocacy depends on establishing credibility through good data. They state: “An investment in Benetech to allow it to train leading NGOs in how to gather, verify, and use data and evidence could significantly raise the quality of information.” In another section they add: “[Benetech’s work in] human rights data collection and analysis … should grow at least tenfold.” We’re deeply grateful for this strong support of our work.

Looking ahead to 2012, training NGOs in collection and effective use of data, and developing new technology tools to enable these efforts will be core components of our agenda. In that regard, we recently got
terrific news about our Martus project. First, last June, the HRP received a generous multi-year grant from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to develop the next generation of Martus. The new Martus will harness today’s emerging technologies in order to ensure that human rights organizations, journalists and other social justice actors achieve more with the invaluable stories that they collect. It will make data visualization and comprehension, as well as information collection and sharing much easier by integrating mobile applications, cloud hosting and innovative tools while maintaining the highest level of security. We’re so excited to embark upon this new project!

Moreover, in September, our Martus project received a 2-year grant from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor to train partner African human rights organizations that gather information about violations against LGBTI people. The award will enable us to increase the capacity of local human rights organizations in Uganda and key Southern African countries to sustain a long-term monitoring and documentation effort. We’re delighted about the opportunity to advance the strategic goals of local NGOs working to end discrimination against LGBTI people.

The year 2011 has shown in many ways that the arc of history is bending toward justice. But the road toward justice is long and nothing is inevitable. Many challenges to global respect of human rights still lie ahead, and many more groups around the world need our help. In 2012, we will also continue to carry out multiple, high-stakes projects in which we provide scientific assistance with statistical analysis of violence. True to our organizational values, our team is working hard to ensure that the upcoming projects we undertake in the service of the human rights community are the right ones to do and that we do them right.

There are a lot of things that – for privacy and security reasons – we can’t reveal about our future projects. But we can promise that we’re going to continue to develop innovative technology and science solutions to defend human rights defenders, promote legal justice by strengthening court cases, and advance post-revolutionary accountability. We invite you to visit the HRP’s websites (Martus; HRDAG) for updates about our work, and to join us in celebrating global human rights.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Benetech: President's Update

President’s Update
Fall 2011

Don’t be surprised, but we’re picking up the pace of change at Benetech! The world’s problems are many, and we keep seeing opportunities for technologists to address those problems effectively. Our team has been thinking hard about scaling positive social impact of technology work.

I want to unveil several of these new initiatives, as well as sneaking in some of the incredible things happening in our core programs in literacy and human rights.

Highlights of this Letter:

  • SocialCoding4Good
  • CityOptions
  • Read2Go and Route 66 Literacy
  • Selected Program Updates
    • Human rights: Legal victory in Guatemala, PBS NewsHour stories
    • Literacy: Major milestones for Bookshare at home and abroad
Just funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, our SocialCoding4Good initiative will kick off later this year. Led by Benetech’s VP of Engineering Gerardo Capiel, we will create an online space, SocialCoding4Good, where people in the tech community interested in social causes can volunteer ideas, connections, time and skills. All interested nonprofits or social enterprises will be able to leverage SocialCoding4Good by posting their open source software development projects for social change and inviting volunteers to work on them. We believe that having more minds working simultaneously on a problem increases the odds of solving that problem well and quickly. So, we’re creating a new place where techies can find social tech applications that resonate with their personal passion for change!

The best idea we received last year for a new project is getting underway! CityOptions is an environmental initiative to help local governments—particularly small and mid-sized ones—plan and execute effective sustainability initiatives. Taking into account each city’s unique situation, constraints and opportunities, this online open source software will zero in on the top strategies for meeting that city’s objectives for cost reduction, energy efficiency or reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We also want to enable effective information sharing among agencies about what does and doesn’t work. Our goal is to revolutionize the effectiveness of local governments in responding to climate change and other environmental impacts.

Bookshare goes mobile! The number one request from our users was for an iPad/iPhone app that would enable them to easily read on the go. With our Read2Go app, Bookshare members can now search, download and read Bookshare books and periodicals on their iPad, iPhone and iPod touch devices. We’re thrilled that students and other readers who have disabilities that keep them from reading standard print can now read the same books as their peers, using the same devices.

Route 66
Route 66, our online platform for teaching reading, has officially launched thanks to support from the Peery Foundation. Route 66 is software that provides teachers (and non-teachers!) with the tools to teach reading to adolescent and adult beginning readers, such as those with developmental disabilities. The key here is providing materials that are age, interest and ability appropriate. Route 66 pairs this reading content with teaching tools and learning exercises, effectively empowering any literate person to become an early reading instructor. Dr. Karen Erickson, one of the nation's leading experts in literacy for people with disabilities, invented the original concept for Route 66 and collaborated closely with us on the instructional approach and content. Being able to read is crucial for life success and independence, and we’re hoping to empower thousands of people to become readers as teenagers and young adults.

Program Updates

Human Rights Program - Legal Victory in Guatemala
In my last Update, I wrote about our testimony in Guatemala at the trial of two policemen, charged with the disappearance of a prominent union leader. Now I can report that the two policemen were convicted and sentenced to forty years each for the disappearance of Edgar Fernando García. HRP’s statistical analysis of evidence from the Guatemalan National Police Archives, which contains some 80 million documents, has helped to establish forced disappearance as a crime in Guatemala. This is a huge legal victory! After decades of human rights work to achieve justice for the victims and families who suffered forced disappearances, this recent ruling opens an opportunity for the Guatemalan court system to address the massive human rights crimes of the armed internal conflict.

PBS NewsHour Stories
In March, PBS NewsHour published two stories about Benetech and the HRP. A lengthy broadcast segment, “To Combat Human Rights Abuses, California Company Looks to Computer Code,” noted that Benetech's Martus software is used to secure sensitive human rights data such as the type of information about abuses that have recently been documented in the Middle East. PBS’ online story, “The Panic Button: High-Tech Protection for Human Rights Investigators,” explained that Martus includes a “panic button” feature that allows users in threatening situations to delete all data and even the program itself with one keystroke.

Literacy - Major Milestones at Home and Abroad
Bookshare had promised to serve 100,000 students over five years in our major contract with the Department of Education to provide all students with print disabilities in the U.S. with the books they need for educational success. We passed this milestone in less than 3.5 years, and continue to expand rapidly. Our members are now downloading accessible books at a rate of more than one million books per year! Bookshare now has over 150,000 members and more than 125,000 books. It is the world’s largest online accessible library, adding books at nearly four times the rate of the next most prolific U.S. library that serves people with print disabilities (on less than one-sixth the budget)!

Internationally, Bookshare is operating in twenty-eight countries that span the globe and offering content in Hindi and Tamil, Spanish, French and German. Through a funded partnership with the Mada Center in Qatar, in 2011 we will pilot Arabic language capability and content, enabling Bookshare to start serving readers throughout the Arabic-speaking world.


With strong values and a commitment to making revolutionary social change through technology, Benetech is just getting started! Not only do we want to do more at scale, we want all other socially minded technologists to find their passion and make good things happen. I hope you’ll join us in growing this movement, and seeing that technology fully serves all of humanity!

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Leveraging Impact through Technology (LIT)

The annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) is today, December 3rd. The Day aims to raise awareness of disability issues with a focus on the rights of persons with disabilities and the benefits derived from their integration in the social, economic, cultural and political life of their communities. People with disabilities make up an estimated 15% of the world’s population of 7 billion, and they remain largely marginalized and affected by discrimination and unemployment, among other significant difficulties. The theme of IDPD 2011 is “Together for a better world for all: Including persons with disabilities in development.” This year, for the first time, IDPD is commemorated with supporting sub-themes (see the full list here), to draw attention to key issues that come into play in the intersection of disability and development processes. One of these sub-themes is “Accessibility: removing barriers and promoting disability-inclusive development.”

Of course, accessibility is right up Benetech’s alley and the focus of our Literacy program. In my Fall 2011 President's Update
, I mentioned some of our incredible recent achievements in this core program, including the amazing milestones of our Bookshare library. Bookshare is dramatically exceeding its five-year collection and member targets at the close of the fourth year of our Bookshare for Education (B4E) project funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). Today I’m delighted to share the exciting news about the new award we just received from OSEP to build upon Bookshare’s success and significantly improve access for students with disabilities.

This last September, Benetech won a 3 million dollar award over one year from OSEP for a project we call Leveraging Impact through Technology, or, very appropriately, LIT. In partnership with the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the LIT project will dramatically enhance the availability and quality of accessible educational material for students with print disabilities at all levels of education. Through the LIT project, we’re adding many new innovations to the groundwork laid by the B4E project, with a focus on three core areas: content, tools, and utilization. Here’s a glimpse at what we’re delivering:
  • Open-content, publicly available and freely shared image descriptions and reusable graphical models to improve accessibility of NIMAC textbooks and Common Core content (this is so cool, I'm going to write another blog just on this aspect: look for the Triple Play blog!)
  • Exciting new tools, including a free, open source Android ebook reader and a free web-based ebook reader along with an accessible bookshelf in “the cloud.” These will enable educators to easily assign accessible books to students, and allow students to access these materials – available in mp3 and DAISY audio – on multiple devices of their choosing, whether at home, on the move, or at school.
  • Free professional development for school districts across the country in order to increase utilization of Bookshare and serve as many students as possible.
Our innovative approach has revolutionized the traditional library for people with print disabilities. Bookshare is currently serving 150,000 (and counting) students with a collection – the world’s largest – that tops 126,000 accessible books, including NIMAC textbooks, teacher recommended reading, reference materials, periodicals and best-selling titles. Thousands of ebooks pour into the library from over 168 publishers and textbook requests are fulfilled every month. This innovative approach is now opening up completely new horizons.

One of the reasons why the LIT project is so exciting and cool is that it enables us to pursue some of these new directions, using tech innovation to scale up efforts to ensure equal access to quality education by students with disabilities for years to come. In the U.S., Bookshare is allowed to serve only students with a legally qualifying print disability per the Chafee Amendment to the Copyright Act. Yet those who qualify represent but a small fraction of the demographics that can benefit from accessible books. With the LIT project – especially with its open-content aspects and new tools – we’re setting our sights on changing the lives of many more students. We’re honored and proud to embark upon this new project!