Thursday, November 29, 2012

SocialCoding4Good Going International with Random Hacks of Kindness

It’s a terrific experience to spend a weekend hacking for social good. Knowing that you’re working with literally thousands of others worldwide makes it simply awe-inspiring.

That’s why we love Random Hacks of Kindness Global: 2 days + 30 countries + 3000 geeks working on making the world a better, safer place. Its mission is strongly aligned with our own at our SocialCoding4Good project: build awareness of technology serving humanity, engage technical volunteers to contribute their time and talents to design and develop it, and foster cross-sector collaboration to amplify its impact.

At RHoK Global in June 2012, we joined the RHoK Sustainability Project and invited participants to build solutions addressing challenges in accessibility or human rights, two core program areas at Benetech. One solution would be selected to receive technical development leadership and guidance toward application and organizational sustainability. We were deeply impressed by the creativity of the teams and their projects and, after a challenging decision process, selected Amnesty International’s Invisible Victims project, which seeks to leverage digital services to support migrants, making the invisible crimes against them visible without putting migrants, their families and networks at further risk. Our partnership, launched shortly after RHoK June 2012, continues forward with a focus on data and digital security.

As RHoK Global December 2012 event is taking place this weekend (December 1st and 2nd) worldwide, Benetech and SocialCoding4Good are thrilled to be participating once again. We realized that our humanitarian free and open source software (HFOSS) partners had important roadmap projects with tremendous potential, but in many cases lacked the resources to design, prototype and develop them. Each of these partners has established deployments, an active community and a demonstrated history of creating transformative impact. RHoK Global presented a perfect opportunity to support the sustainability of an existing partner and thus connect individual developers and corporate teams around the globe with the chance to apply their energy, enthusiasm and experience for social benefit.

We’ve teamed up with Mifos, The Community for Open Source Microfinance, an open source platform currently being used in 20 countries to deliver financial services to more than a million people and with HP Social Innovation, a Random Hacks of Kindness core partner as well as our own. Mifos is building a world where each person can access the financial resources needed to create a better life for themselves and their family, truly demonstrating the power of technology to empower peoples’ lives every day. Mifos, HP and SocialCoding4Good will have subject matter experts, technical leads and developer teams at RHoK Bangalore, Dublin and San Francisco, focusing on three key projects:

The contributions of global RHoK participants during the course of the weekend and beyond will strengthen Mifos’ efforts to scale towards a vision of enabling 3 Billion Maries to create a world without poverty. Please join us in creating this transformative impact.

Are you ready to RHoK with Mifos? Learn more at and sign up for your local event on the Random Hacks of Kindness website. We’re excited to collaborate with you!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Getting Close to a Treaty!

The latest session of the Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) just concluded last week. The session was pretty successful, in that the Committee called for an extraordinary general assembly meeting in December with the aim of calling a diplomatic conference to finalize the Treaty for the Visually Impaired in June 2013. There is a draft of the treaty that was finished on Friday, November 23, and many issues have been settled over the last year or two of negotiations.  The rest of this post looks at this draft treaty in its current form.

Expert Advisors Review the Treaty for the WBU

I’ve been here in Geneva the last few days, meeting with the World Blind Union immediately after the SCCR session. The WBU convened a small meeting of experts to take a close look at the treaty draft from an operational and technical standpoint. They wanted a fresh perspective on the treaty text from the point of view of the people (authorized entities like Bookshare and its peers) that would be taking advantage of the treaty to do more to help people with print disabilities access the information they need for education, employment, health and everything else needed for full inclusion in society. This draft represents the latest state of the negotiations at WIPO. Content contained in square brackets in the draft is still being negotiated, and the remaining content is assumed to be agreed (at least, we certainly hope so!). The technical advisers reviewed the treaty specifically to look at how authorized entities and consumers with print disabilities would be able to operate if the treaty passed in its current form (with all bracketed material omitted) or with some of the bracketed additions included. We did not look at this as legal experts, but rather as organizations that are dedicated to serving people with disabilities. Here are our recommendations to WBU, to inform the next round(s) of negotiation based on the 11/23 draft.

Problems with the Treaty as is

If the Treaty were passed as is, with all bracketed materials dropped, we see only two painful omissions. The first issue is that the treaty would not permit direct access by consumers to international authorized entities. The only way you could import and export books would be directly between organizations, not people. Everyone who is not disabled globally can directly access and order books. We think that it is essential that the Treaty allow for direct provision (known in the tech field as B2C, or business to consumer) of accessible materials, especially for consumers in developing countries who lack access to local authorized entities with the capacity to meet their accessibility needs. The second item is because Article G on contracts was dropped from the treaty completely this week (earlier drafts had said that contracts wouldn’t be able to overrule accessibility). Being silent on the big issue of circumvention would lead to a world where accessibility could be prohibited by contract. This is especially a problem as the world moves to electronic books, which have license agreements (contracts, that are rarely looked at by consumers) that almost always prohibit making them accessible. We believe that this means that circumvention needs to be addressed in the Treaty to ensure that access does not become a dead letter in an increasingly digital world, where people with disabilities get locked out of ebook content by contractual and technical means. Therefore, we recommend that the WBU strongly advocate for:
  • the inclusion of Article D(2)B, allowing authorized entities to export accessible content directly to people with qualifying disabilities in other countries,
  • that the bracketed text in Article E read [them] and not [authorized entities], permitting the importation of accessible content by people with qualifying disabilities from authorized entities in other countries, and
  • Article F, Alternative A, is an effective way of permitting accessibility work to proceed. Alternative B qualifies this issue so much as to make it ineffective. 
 If the Treaty passed with these three fixes, we think that it would be an effective treaty that would meet the social goals of the WBU to greatly improve access to reading for people with print disabilities. 

Commercial Availability 

With respect to the bracketed materials in the current draft, here are our concerns with bracketed clauses that might end up being in a treaty. First, the concept of commercial availability is a real concern. Since many of our organizations operate as libraries, we note that commercial availability of a book rarely impacts the availability of that book on the shelves of a library. Why should people with disabilities be denied library services because the book might be available for sale in an accessible format? Libraries exist to serve those who do not always want to buy books, either because they cannot afford to buy the books because of their economic status (a real concern for people with disabilities generally, and especially in developing countries) or because they need to look at many books perhaps only once or twice and don’t want to buy them (for example, for doing research or school reports) . Many library users are active book purchasers, and we want to encourage blind people who can afford accessible books to purchase them, without denying them access to a library for that content. As experts in this field, we feel strongly that publishers should ensure that their ebooks are universally designed, so that people with disabilities can purchase and use ebooks obtained through mainstream channels. But, we don’t think people with print disabilities should be denied access to library services just because the book is for sale. We don’t think the commerciality issue belongs in the treaty. One of the bracketed sections on commerciality makes the exporting authorized entity responsible for knowing the state of specific book distribution in the country where the disabled person lives. This undercuts one of the major goals of the Treaty, which is to encourage authorized entities in richer countries to actively assist beneficiaries in other countries. If this was in the Treaty, it would make the treaty useless because these organizations would find this burden a strong disincentive to helping users in other countries. Please note that we are not objecting to the clause in the Treaty at the bottom of Article D charging us to be responsible for not exporting accessible materials if we know (or would have reasonable grounds to know) that such materials would be used by people who do not qualify under the Treaty.

Information Point at WIPO 

Article J needs to be watched, to ensure it doesn’t become a back-door method of control used to exclude authorized entities that would otherwise meet the requirements of the treaty. If it indeed is simply a place where any authorized entity (broadly interpreted) can reasonably get added to a resource list, it might be helpful.

The Three Step Test 

As our organizations that are not copyright mavens, we don’t particularly care about the three step test one way or the other, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of utilizing the provisions in the treaty. We put this in the following way:
  • If the treaty says something like: all of these provisions are considered to meet the three step test as presented, we don’t have a problem. We have been assuming that an exception to help the blind and disabled has to be a great example of a provision that meets the three step test.
  • If the treaty says, all of the treaty provisions need to be respected, but by themselves are not good enough, they need to be subjected to an additional three step process beyond meeting the requirements of the treaty, then we’re concerned that it’s a back-door way to undo the substance of the treaty. 
Articles D4, alternatives A or B, as well as Article Ebis, alternatives A and B, all seem to introduce the three step test in a way that seems to throw the entire treaty into question to us. And, we don’t understand some of the other three step mentions and if they might also have similar problems. That’s a matter for the legal experts to take a look at for the World Blind Union.


There are other issues in the bracketed sections that may be worthy of attention, but the ones we mention above are the ones that struck us as being important to note. As the one American person at the meeting, I also noted the subtitle of the World Blind Union's press release on the latest negotiations: “Talks in the balance: EU backs treaty leaving USA isolated." The USA seems to be holding out against calling this instrument a treaty, something for which we and many leading US disability organizations have been advocating. We hope that the World Blind Union is successful in convincing the USA to join with the rest of the world in backing this work as a treaty, and that they are able to convince the WIPO negotiators to drop the problematic bracketed sections for good from the treaty! If they can, I'm sure we'll end up with a treaty that truly helps people who are blind or have print disabilities globally, while safeguarding the interests of authors and publishers.   

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Southeast Asia, Social Enterprise Accidental Tour!

I just spent almost three weeks in Thailand and Laos on a combined work and vacation trip. Roughly once a year when I travel overseas, my wife Virginia puts up her hand and says “that’s the one!” So, we stretched out my visits to Bangkok, Vientiane and Chiang Mai to include some sight-seeing and, of course, shopping for Christmas presents in predominately Buddhist countries.

One of my business visits was to a long-standing social enterprise partner of ours, Digital Divide Data in Vientiane, Laos. I wrote about that visit in my last blog post: Digital Divide Data: our Partner in Laos. As I said to the DDD team, we love to make our money work twice as hard by choosing social enterprises as vendors. Not only do we get outstanding quality and value for our money, we also know that money is supporting a social objective by helping disadvantaged people build assets financially and experientially. We call it using the social enterprise supply chain. An unexpected bonus of this trip was how often Virginia and I came across social enterprises in our travels. Even cooler: several of these groups are, like DDD and my organization Benetech, Skoll Foundation social entrepreneurship awardees (known as SASEs)! In this post, I’ll just highlight these personal visits to terrific social enterprises. This Thanksgiving week in the United States, it seems timely to be thankful for the great work being done by these outstanding social entrepreneurs. And, when you travel, keep an eye out for a great social enterprise and make your money work twice as hard!

Cabbage and Condoms sign, with arrow saying 30 meters away Cabbages and Condoms.

Bangkok, Thailand (and other locations). 

The restaurants that guarantee that eating its food will not make you pregnant!
Evening photo of an open air restaurant
When your bill comes at Cabbages And Condoms, you get something extra: condoms as a going away present. The man behind Cabbages and Condoms is Mechai Viravaidya, Santa Claus close-up, showing that that the mannequin's beard, hair and clothes are made with colored condoms. founder of Thailand’s Population and Community Development Association (“PDA”).  Mechai made birth control socially acceptable in Thailand, so much so that his nickname is “Dr Condom” in the country. PDA is also fighting HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. In addition to great food, service and the bonus condoms with your bill, PDA’s other social efforts are also on display in the restaurant. Santa Claus with women and boy, all made with condoms. The gift shop features wonderful products created by disadvantaged communities that PDA works with, since poverty is a huge factor in procreation and vulnerability to disease. At this time of year, a lifesized Santa Claus made from condoms (along with Mrs. Klaus/his current girlfriend and a young boy in football jersey) greets you as you come in, as well as a giant sex ed poster.
Sex education poster with different combinations of stick figure people doing different acts with safety suggestions
Mechai is an outstanding social entrepreneur who manages to tackle serious social issues with irrepressible humor. When I first met him a decade ago, I got “coolest dad” of the month from my sons’ friends in high school when I returned from meeting Mechai in Switzerland with keychains featuring condoms encased in plastic labeled “break in case of emergency.” It was great to see his social enterprise in operation!

Makphet Restaurant

Vientiane, Laos (and other locations)

Exterior of Makphet restaurant
Makphet Restaurant, photo by Backpack Foodie
Like DDD, Friends-International started its efforts in Cambodia and then spread its programs to Laos. Their goal is to help protect vulnerable children. One of their programs is to have restaurants that provide employment opportunities and skills development for street kids on their way out of poverty. After trying and failing twice to get into Makphet (“pepper” in Lao) Restaurant for dinner, we had a fabulous lunch there. Apparently, it’s the best-rated restaurant in Vientiane (maybe the country) on Trip Advisor. All of the staff have name badges identifying them either as students or teachers. There’s also a small shop attached with products, again made under some of their other development programs. We came away with one of the most beautiful cookbooks I’ve ever seen, and I know Virginia and I will be trying to replicate some of the tastes we had in Makphet. I’ve met the founder, S├ębastien Marot, several times at the annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England. It was great to see the project in operation. Someday I hope to plan enough in advance to get dinner there!

Big Brother Mouse 

Vientiane, Laos (as well as in Luang Prabang, Laos)

Our friends the Pitlicks turned us on to this social enterprise, which I had never heard of until we started planning this trip. I especially appreciate Big Brother Mouse because of their shared focus on access to literacy. The founder, Sasha Alyson, saw a dearth of children’s books in Laos and went into the business of publishing affordable books in Lao (and also in Lao and English).
Cover of book titled "Village Life" with a picture of a horse and Lao title and info as well as English Cover of book: Sandar the Robot Boy, picture of boy with artifical leg

It turns out to help adults as well as kids, since many adults hadn’t seen books in their native Lao language before. Based in Luang Prabang, one of Laos premiere tourist destinations, Virginia and I tracked down their bookshop in Vientiane on the edge of the downtown area. We walked away with a handful of books, and I’ve been in touch by email with the founder: I hope we can find ways to help each other bring literacy to far more people who need it!

Sop Moei Arts 

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I was visiting Chiang Mai mainly to meet with groups working on Burmese human rights issues. Our team has been working with Burmese groups for more than eight years on human rights documentation issues, and the ND-Burma coalition of expatriate Burmese social justice and human rights groups has been one of our biggest Martus users. But, just next store to the great guesthouse we were staying in (Baan Orapin), was Sop Moei Arts.
Sop Moei Arts shop adjacent to entrance to Baan Orapin guesthouse

They had the most beautiful handicraft work (silk scarves and tapestries, basket weaving that seems like a different level of art than I’ve ever seen). Moreover, they were produced with techniques and skills that led to products unlike the millions of examples of mass produced products we saw in the tourist markets. One of the founders, Kent Gregory, was in the shop, and we ended up talking for most of an hour about the work. He came to a remote village in Thailand as a public health worker with a plan to fight disease and malnutrition.
Sop Moei Arts brochure cover, photo of older rural woman in beautiful clothing
But, after several years, he realized that the real cause of malnutrition in children in this region was poverty. So, like many social entrepreneurs, he embarked on a journey of finding the assets possessed by these communities and then turning those into economic opportunities. In the end, retail shops in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, targeting the tourists looking for uniquely beautiful products from Thailand, created the financial engine to lift these communities out of the cycle of poverty and malnutrition.

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.