Digital Divide Data: our Partner in Laos

Benetech is a tech social enterprise.  While our activities often creates jobs beyond the core high technology jobs around software development and user support, we don't see it as our core competency.  When we do something that creates entry level jobs in quantity, we reach out to social enterprise partners who specialize in job creation and training.  We call this our social enterprise supply chain. We really love this approach, which we think of making our money work twice.  Our social enterprise partners not only deliver a high quality product or service at a fair price, they also are using the revenues to train disadvantaged people who otherwise wouldn't have these opportunities.
Digital Divide Data sign on office building

For example, our Bookshare online library for the blind, uses several different social enterprises to do data entry and proofreading work on textbooks.  Our first partner in this work was Digital Divide Data, an organization that has an outstanding training program in the area of data entry and outsourcing.  This field has acquired the name of "impact sourcing" in recent years. I met founder, Jeremy Hockenstein, when he was just getting DDD going.  I remember being mightily impressed: I'd seen many ventures with a "train people in the developing world on PCs" mission, but this was one that seemed to have real prospects of actually creating jobs for their trainees (and they've done a terrific job at this over the last ten years).  We've been a big fan of DDD, and nominated them (one of many nominations they received, I'm sure) for the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, which they received several years ago. 

 Two students work at PCs
The DDD student staff people work half days at DDD, proofing textbooks to make them accessible to students with print disabilities.  The other half of the day they go to university pursuing advanced studies in numerous different fields (I asked a bunch of the students their area of study and heard answers like business, law, accountancy and even forestry).  We scan the books in the U.S., and ship the images and recognized text to Laos (and several other countries with other partners, including of course the U.S.).  Our partners proofread the text, fixing mistakes and adding accessibility, and ship us the files back to add to our Bookshare library. 

Screen shows math ebook being edited

Although we've worked with DDD on and off for seven or eight years, this was the first time anyone from Benetech had had the chance to visit their offices in Laos (I've been to their New York City offices where founder Jeremy Hockenstein is located and where their sales efforts are based, but Laos is much cooler to visit!). The head of DDD's Laos office is Ms. Phabphada Dokbouathong (who goes by "Phab"). She met us at the airport and dropped our bags off at our hotel and took us to a major crafts fair being held outside of town (where we saw products produced by numerous social enterprises: more on the social enterprise action in Laos and Thailand in my next post).  Phab is on a mission: she believes strongly that she is building her country by helping her students acquire the skills they will use to help advance Laos in the future.  She worked hard to get each student to talk to me 1:1 and use their English, a skill she thinks is crucial for the future.

I also was able to meet and have dinner with DDD's Chief Operating Officer, Cynthia Hauck, an experienced outsourcing exec based at DDD's Cambodia offices, who has joined DDD recently.  

Phab watched Jim demonstrate software on an iPad.

I was able to demonstrate what we do with the files the students help generate, using our Read2Go application on an iPad.  Seeing the words being spoken aloud on a device really helped them visualize how blind and dyslexic students use the accessible text ebooks that they create.

Twenty DDD staff and Jim Fruchterman, making the "wai" greeting gesture (hands held together)
I think the team was thrilled to have someone from Bookshare visit.  For me, it was amazing to meet more than twenty people who work on Bookshare every day, but whom I'd never met before.

Six DDD students on three motorbikes on main road
After the visit, we headed out for a nice lunch, where Phab had me work the tables talking to the students.  And then they climbed on their motorbikes (wearing helmets that DDD mandates!) and headed off to school for the afternoon.  I promised to bring their best wishes back to the Bookshare team in Palo Alto. 


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