Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Benetech’s Framework for Developing New Social Enterprises

I was delighted when Ron Schultz invited me to collaborate with him on his latest book Creating Good Work – The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy. What I liked most was the idea to create a body of knowledge that’s truly helpful to prospective and emerging social entrepreneurs. I’m honored to join my fellow contributors in sharing practical lessons we’ve learned throughout our journeys towards actualizing positive social change. I look forward to continuing the conversation the book has opened.

Ron Schultz's latest book, Creating Good Work

Creating Good Work arrives at a critical time for the social entrepreneurial movement. We see tremendous innovations in social enterprise, but these are merely part of larger, global changes in the ways in which society organizes itself to create public goods. Digital and mobile communications are changing the rules about social networks, intellectual property, and the availability of big data, with an overall blurring of the boundaries between state, for-profits, and nonprofits. We’re learning new ways to create and sustain social value. As philanthropy wonk Lucy Bernholz writes, together, these changes add up to a new social economy: “[A] dynamic and diverse set of enterprises that deploy private resources to the creation and sustenance of public goods.”

As I was thinking about this, it became clear that now is the time to look beyond the tools for social change that we’ve built and consider the frameworks that guide us in moving them forward and in identifying the next projects to work on. In my contribution to Ron’s book, I discuss the framework that guides us at Benetech, the technology nonprofit I lead. I hope this discussion helps other social enterprises examine and develop their own frameworks.

When I first started pursuing the idea of using technology to solve challenging social problems, it was a pretty radical idea. Now, more than two decades later, social entrepreneurship is a hot global movement and Benetech has become the “go to” nonprofit software company in the heart of Silicon Valley. During that time, we’ve grown from offering one product to offering many products and services, in four program areas: education, human rights, the environment, and, now, tech volunteerism.

We are always exploring new projects with the hope of launching a new product each year. And as we’ve grown, we’ve learned what works for us and what doesn’t, which has led us to codify two frameworks to guide our team. Benetech’s New Project Framework helps us identify the next projects to work on. The Benetech Truths define our culture and focus our efforts on how we operate. I want to focus here on our New Project Framework, but if you’d like to you can read more about the Benetech Truths in this blog post.

At Benetech, we look to fill the gap between what’s possible and what’s profitable with technology. We address the market failure that occurs when the needs of the social sector don’t match the goals that for-profit companies consider worth pursuing. But we have far more opportunities to respond to these gaps then we can possibly take on, so we use our New Project Framework to identify the one project each year that offers the greatest chance of making a difference. To explain our approach, let’s look at Bookshare, our accessible online library for people with print disabilities.

When Bookshare was first created, most people with print disabilities read printed material via books on tape or hardcopy braille books delivered through the mail. Converting and delivering these accessible books was expensive and time consuming. With the old approaches, only a tiny fraction of print materials were made available in accessible formats. As a result, people with disabilities were left behind, facing insurmountable barriers to opportunities in education, employment, and social inclusion.

With support from stakeholders in the education, technology, publishing, student, parent, and volunteer communities, Benetech changed that reality. The Bookshare breakthrough put our users in charge of the collection with a crowd-sourced library built by—and for—the people it serves. Instead of deciding what people with disabilities should read, we let our users decide which books to scan and share with each other, which was all made possible by an exception in U.S. copyright law.

Our lower cost model allowed us to invert the power structure. As a result, we quickly became the world’s largest online library for people with print disabilities. By partnering with the Bookshare community, we reinvented the traditional library for people with print disabilities and brought modern ebook technology to this underserved community. We developed strong relationships with publishers who share our values and voluntarily submit high quality digital files directly to Bookshare. In fact, during the past two years, over 70% of our new books have come directly from publishers and we can add them to our library automatically, almost all without needing human intervention. Now, when a person who is blind needs a specific book for school, work, or simply to read the same book as their peers without disabilities, s/he is likely to find that title in Bookshare—in the format they need—with Benetech delivering it for less than one-fifteenth of the cost of previous approaches.

Here’s how Bookshare maps to the top seven considerations in our New Project Framework:

  1. Chance for Revolutionary Change: Making something 10-20% better than the status quo isn’t enough for us to build a new software product. But if we can lower the cost of delivering a social good— say, an accessible book to a blind person—by a factor of ten or bring a technological capability to a community that didn’t have a technology solution at all, now that’s worth doing! In the case of Bookshare, we’ve gone from solving a sliver of the problem to most of it, while hitting more than an order of magnitude reduction in cost.
  2. User Needs and Product: We must understand our users’ needs and how the new product will thrill them and affect the social outcomes we (and they) desire. Prior to Bookshare we built affordable reading machine for the blind, so we understood our users’ needs well. Then, with Bookshare, our users decided (and still do) what books they want in the collection.
  3. Distribution and Go-to-Market Plan: Our product will only matter if we can get it to the people who need it. With Bookshare, we knew that a web-based platform would enable us to get the product to scale and into the hands of hundreds of thousands of users today.
  4. Partnership Plan: We engage cross-sector stakeholders who help us ensure that our product truly creates social change. Bookshare is a global asset we built in partnership with our user community, and then the publishing industry jumped on board to help.
  5. Sustainability Plan: Every product needs to sustain itself on revenues after the initial donor investment in building and bringing it to market ends. We planned for Bookshare to be viable on individual subscription fees, but eventually found that focusing on serving students with disabilities is the key to the library’s sustainability.
  6. Exit Options: Each of our new ventures needs at least three exit options. It might be selling the venture to a for-profit company, spinning off a nonprofit, or having our software solution be built into mass market products. Bookshare could sell out to publishers, merge with one of the traditional libraries, or even convince the publishers to solve the problem and reduce the need for us to do it.
  7. Low Technical Risk: We focus on applying existing technologies to bear on social needs. To develop Bookshare, we hired Silicon Valley engineers who had built something similar more than once for one of the major early commercial ebook companies.
Each year, we look at the pipeline of dozens of good, new project ideas and measure them on this framework. We choose a few ideas to further research and develop and then zero in on the one we think is the top contender to create maximum social return on investment. But our measure of success goes beyond what any one of our initiatives alone can achieve. At Benetech we want to help catalyze the creation of many new products and many new organizations that do great things with technology. Our aim is to be part of a larger movement—one that harnesses the power of technology to improve the lives of all people across the world. Check out the new book. We hope you’ll join us in this movement!

This post originally appeared on CSRWire in their series on Creating Good Work!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Big Meeting on the Treaty this Week!

This week in Geneva is a major meeting on the path to the expected Diplomatic Conference on the Treaty for the Visually Impaired. The goal of the Treaty is to make a copyright exception for the blind and other people with disabilities that stop them from reading print, and to make import and export of accessible content legal. As the operators of Bookshare in the USA, which was made possible through a great exception in our copyright law here, we would love to make all of our books available to people with qualifying disabilities around the world.

We expect that many of the big issues with the current text will get ironed out this week. After the last WIPO session in November, the World Blind Union convened a group of experts to review the current Treaty draft and make recommendations to the WBU on the most important issues for WBU to work on in this next session. I wrote a post at the time
with the detailed suggestions from the expert group about the text of the draft. This post is my own personal take on those expert recommendations.

My core point: Don’t put up bureaucratic barriers to access. 

The biggest challenge for access is that it’s expensive. It’s expensive to make braille books. It’s expensive to adapt textbooks to be accessible. This is why the making of accessible books is a classic example of market failure: if publishers could make a lot of money selling braille, large print, audio, and fully accessible textbooks, we wouldn’t need a copyright exception. It’s why the great majority of accessibility work is done by volunteers, charities, and with government support.

Bureaucratic barriers to utilizing a copyright exception, as proposed by some publishers, makes the cost even greater. For example, one proposed change to the Treaty draft would make it the responsibility of an exporting library to need to know details about the publishing status of a book in another country before we could fill a request from a bona fide person with a print disability from that country. The biggest demand for this Treaty is to meet the needs of people in developing countries, where people with disabilities tend to be among the poorest of the poor, and where the publishing infrastructure is often nonexistent!

For example, we run Bookshare in the U.S. under a terrific exception to copyright that makes it possible for a nonprofit like ours to simply provide accessible books to people with disabilities. Other than confirming that the people we’re serving have qualifying disabilities, we can simply go and get the books they need and convert them into accessible formats. So, in the U.S., we don’t have these kinds of barriers, and we’re doing a great job of getting people the books they need. The goal of the Treaty is to provide access to the great accessible libraries of wealthier countries, as well as make it legally possible to make local content accessible in each country. If you make it expensive and time consuming to help people with disabilities in other countries, with greater barriers to access than we have in our home countries, most libraries from rich countries won’t bother. And that’s the status quo today: very few libraries bother with the effort to request permissions to export the books they already have, meaning duplication of effort in the wealthier countries on the most in-demand books, and almost nothing available for the developing countries. 

For what am I advocating? 

Several key points under the avoidance of bureaucracy banner:
  • The goal of the Treaty is to make it easy to make books accessible. The base draft accomplishes that, and mirrors the effective exception in the U.S. Don’t load the Treaty up on with arcane processes that waste scarce funding for no benefit. If our Bookshare team is trying to help a blind student in India get a book she needs for university, make it easy for us to do that. 
  • Make it possible for people with disabilities to obtain the books they need from wherever they can find them. The Treaty should allow an individual person with a disability to import the book they need directly. The ability of that Indian blind student shouldn’t depend on whether she can get her university or a local blindness charity to do it for her. 
  • Rely on national law in each country to qualify the nonprofits that can use these exceptions to help people with disabilities. Don’t create a global Swiss registry of nonprofit organizations qualified to use exceptions. That’s so 20th Century (or 19th?)! 

In the United States, the battle for equal access has moved beyond access to library services under a copyright exception to a battle for the ability to buy an accessible ebook on the same terms as people without disabilities. But even as we work for fully equal access, we need the safety net of a copyright exception for libraries to ensure that the civil right of access to information isn’t denied on the whim of a publisher, or even the publisher’s businesslike calculation that they won’t make enough money to justify selling their books to people with disabilities. 


The base Treaty draft doesn’t have these bureaucratic provisions: if we can get the base Treaty, as is, without them, with copyright exceptions that work like the copyright exception that has proven so effective in the United States, we will be successful in ending the book famine for people with disabilities that stop them from reading standard print books!

A Postscript 

Although the advocates for people with disabilities are excited about making big progress this week, our excitement is tempered by the unexpected and sudden loss of one of the foremost advocates for the Treaty, Rahul Cherian of India. I saw Rahul hard at work on the original drafting team for the treaty, and he had been one of the most dedicated advocates for assuring access to information for people with print disabilities. I understand from our peers in India that he was also essential in the passing of India’s recent copyright exception. Jamie Love pulled together a playlist of videos of Rahul at WIPO events: the one where he was joyfully trying out a scooter for the first time is indelibly imprinted on me. We’ll all miss his presence as we approach the finishing line on the Treaty. An effective Treaty would be the most appropriate memorial I could imagine for Rahul Cherian.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Benetech Spins Off Human Rights Data Analysis Group

From a Project to an Organization: Benetech Successfully Spins Off the Human Rights Data Analysis Group

Benetech is celebrating a major milestone: On February 1, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG)—which focuses on the statistical and analytical side of Benetech’s human rights work—spun out from being a project within our organization to become its own, independent group. Dr. Patrick Ball, who has led our Human Rights Program since 2003, now heads HRDAG as its Executive Director and Dr. Megan Price, formerly a senior statistician at Benetech, has joined Patrick as the organization’s Co-Founder.

Spinning off projects when they reach sustainability, and when doing so would allow them to better achieve their mission, is all part of the Benetech model. As a matter of fact, the funding for Benetech to start Bookshare and our Martus human rights software project came from a successful spinoff of  our first social enterprise, the Arkenstone reading machines, which we sold to a for-profit for roughly $5 million. We may be a nonprofit, but we’re also a tech company: in ten years, we shouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today!

With each of the projects we launch, we plan for at least three successful exit options. When we convinced Patrick to move his team to Benetech from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and HRDAG became a full-fledged project of Benetech’s Human Right Program, we discussed a three-to-five year timeline to spin off his own human rights group. The process took us longer than we anticipated, but that is due in large part to the great things we’ve been able to achieve from the collaboration between the technology and the analytical sides of our work. During that time, HRDAG has also grown to a place where it can be self-sustaining.  Patrick has become widely recognized as the world's leading human rights statistician, something that I personally already felt was true when I recruited Patrick to Benetech!

As HRDAG sets out on its own, its primary focus will continue to be on the data-driven and scientific side of analyzing human rights violations around the world. I encourage you to check out HRDAG’s new website to get more information and to stay informed about their new and ongoing work.

Benetech will of course continue the software and technology development that is the primary focus of our Human Rights Program. That work includes updates and upgrades to Martus, our free, open source software that enables human rights fieldworkers to securely document abuse that is occurring in dangerous environments. We will continue to support human rights defenders and other social justice actors and our theory of change remains the same. We continue to believe that the stories of individuals suffering abuse, secured with Martus and combined with analysis of the patterns and scale of abuse, can make a powerful contribution to the cause of justice. That's one of the many reasons why Benetech is looking forward to partnering with HRDAG whenever possible.

Our goal is to empower human rights and social justice groups to leverage their information assets for maximum impact: For current and near-term advocacy and for larger scale truth telling when the time is right.

Interestingly enough, our 2013 budget projection for the Martus project is larger than the combined group was in 2012.  And when you combine Patrick's projection for the new HRDAG, together these groups will be between 50% and 100% bigger than the combined program was last year.  This growth in human rights work, supported by strong donor relationships, makes it possible to carry out a spinoff at a position of great strength!  I want to especially highlight the role of the Oak Foundation in supporting this transition and continuing to support both Benetech and HRDAG for the next two years. 

We have also begun searching for a new senior executive to lead our Human Rights Program. This is a rare chance to operate at the forefront of the intersection of technology and human rights. We're looking for someone with great human rights experience with tech cred, or someone with great tech experience with human rights/social justice cred!

Anna Berns, longtime Program and Product Manager and now a Director at Benetech, will continue to oversee our human rights field outreach staff and manage Martus product development (including our new mobile Martus tool, which is already working on my Android phone).

We’re very excited to see HRDAG on its way and are confident that the human rights movement will only be stronger with our two independent efforts. Coincidentally, just as we began announcing HRDAG’s spin-off to our supporters we learned from Darius Cuplinskas, Director of the Open Society Institute's Information Program, about this interesting Spin-Off Tool Kit made available by the Vera Institute of Justice. It’s a great resource for organizations that are engaged in spinning off sustainable projects, or that are considering similar strategies. We used it to review our planning as we wrapped up this move.

We hope our own successful experience with HRDAG’s spin-off, too, inspires other social enterprises to shape their own spin-off strategies and fuel their innovation process.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Bookshare Valentine’s Day Love Story

This true story was written by two Bookshare volunteers, Evan Reese and Lissi Deren.

She was a proofreader in Ohio who saw a new Welsh name, Evan Reese, on the Bookshare volunteer list. His messages were articulate, optimistic, technically sound, sometimes funny, and always courteous. He was a scanner who saw happy messages from Lissi, noticed she loved animals, and better yet, she was a fan of The Lord of the Rings, proofreading a book, One Ring to Bind Them All. On May 20, 2006, he emailed her off list asking her to hurry because he wanted to read it. Ten days later the book was added to the collection and they’d agreed to tackle Tolkien’s 12 volume history of Middle Earth together.

It was all work between them, figuring out how to prepare accented elvish and format footnotes until the day he wrote, “Not to get too personal, but I really like ketchup,” and she impulsively bought a half gallon bottle of Ketchup at Super K-Mart. A week after one of his best friends died, feeling lonely, and bolstered by how well they worked together and their mutual interest in Bookshare and Tolkien, he impulsively called her. They talked and talked. They exchanged more and longer phone calls and emails. One night they listened to the Fellowship of the Ring movie on the phone until 4 in the morning.

By October, he declared he loved her. She was ecstatic but fearful he was too good to be true. He began a campaign, sending love letters, love songs, and reassurance. She said that he had the persistence of a used car salesman, but he finally won her shy permission to fly to Ohio to meet. They became a couple but were so discreet that it was over a year later before a canny volunteer noticed some of Evan’s messages were sent from Lissi’s email address and speculated a Bookshare romance was in progress.

He moved to Pennsylvania to be closer to her. By then they were collaborating on projects to add more books appealing to young boys, holiday books, books about Ireland, Scotland and Wales, mysteries, and science fiction. They worked on projects with many other Bookshare volunteers at the same time.

They live together in Ohio now with two cute, affectionate, house dogs. They download regularly from Bookshare’s exploding collection to their various braille and listening devices. Though they’ve contributed over 1,250 books to the collection, his scans exceed the standard for accuracy; she proofreads every word, and they both double check everything. Jim Fruchterman is their hero, and they treasure their friends among Bookshare’s staff and volunteers.

Without having to do an advanced search in the romance section to read it, you have our story, one that wouldn’t have begun if Bookshare hadn’t welcomed our volunteer contribution and given us an email list, a means of pooling talent and helping one another. We have many reasons to be grateful to Bookshare, most important of which is that it brought us together. As Bookshare continues to evolve, serving up more books in more diverse ways, our romance grows too, no doubt to reach new heights on Valentine’s Day.

Wishing happy reading and full hearts to our Booksharian friends,
Evan and Lissi

Friday, February 08, 2013

Increasing Accessible Publishing Globally

Plenary Talk at the Eighth General Assembly of the World Blind Union 

Access to published information is an essential requirement for education, employment and full social inclusion. People with vision impairments and other print disabilities deserve equal access to that treasure of information. These are exciting times for everyone who’s been working to meet the accessibility imperative, as we are witnessing global movements that will increase accessible publishing and create new and better opportunities for people with disabilities. This last November, I had the honor of giving a plenary talk at the Eighth General Assembly of the World Blind Union (WBU), in which I addressed these opportunities and the challenges ahead.

WBU is the global organization representing the estimated 285 million people worldwide with vision impairments. The organization’s priorities are decided upon at the WBU General Assembly, which is held every four years. The November 2012 General Assembly took place in Bangkok, Thailand. Under the theme “Achieving Our Vision through Empowerment and Partnerships,” this was the first-ever combined General Assembly of both WBU and the International Council for Education of People with Visual Impairment (ICEVI), another world-class organization in the field. I was delighted to speak at the November 15th joint plenary session on “The Right to Read” campaign to achieve a world where published books are accessible and available to all individuals who are blind or have other disabilities.

In my talk, I highlighted three global movements towards increasing accessible publishing. The first is the shift to electronic distribution of published materials. The world has finally moved beyond just electronically creating books that are then distributed as ordinary print books to actually delivering digital ebooks. This shift is already happening in major markets: now sells more digital books than print books. This change creates an incredible opportunity that will affect the entire world, making access an affordable reality as more and more people have a device in their pocket that is capable of being an accessible e-reader: from inexpensive mobile phones and MP3 players to braille notetakers that can store thousands of ebooks in digital braille.

The second movement is the alignment of accessible disability formats with mainstream digital formats. Pioneers like George Kerscher and the DAISY Consortium have worked tirelessly to ensure that the standard format for talking books for people with visual impairments has become the primary commercial ebook standard. In technical terms, this means that the next version of the DAISY format, version 4, will be the same as EPUB3, the main format used by commercial publishers of ebooks. This has the potential to make standard electronic books work equally well for people with print disabilities as they do for people without disabilities. Furthermore, organizations serving people with disabilities are increasingly working together and with publishers to provide increased access.

The third movement is the effort to make copyright exceptions a global norm, thus enabling easy import and export of accessible materials. A copyright exception allows specialist organizations (generally a government agency or disability NGO or library) to make an accessible version of a published book without having to get permission from the author or publisher. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, Switzerland is currently debating a global treaty to help the blind. I was honored to be part of a WBU-convened expert team that authored the original draft of the treaty. You can read about the latest developments in the effort to make it legal for people with print disabilities to share books across borders in my recent blog post.

These three movements all bode well for improved access to books and other content, but there remain challenges before we can fully realize the vision of equality of access to information. One of the biggest issues is digital rights management. Publishers are worried about the ease of copying digital materials and many of them therefore use technical protection mechanisms to make it difficult to copy their ebooks. Unfortunately, these technical protection mechanisms can’t tell the difference between making an illegal copy to sell or give away for free on the Internet, on the one hand, and making a copy for using text-to-speech to speak the content aloud or creating large print or braille versions of the content, on the other hand. As a result, people with visual impairments – the most natural customers of digital ebooks – have been locked out of using them!

The good news is that users without disabilities generally hate these locks. They don’t like being told that the ebooks they purchase can only be read on certain devices or in certain software programs. My hope is that publishers will decide to take the locks off their ebooks, like the makers of digital software and of digital music. Some publishers already do this and they point out that their business is doing just fine. As a matter of fact, more and more of them are explicitly working to ensure that the ebooks they publish are accessible. Clearly, publishers and authors need to make fair compensation for creating books in the service of society. But it’s also clear that people with disabilities who can afford to do so should be able to buy accessible ebooks when they are available. True equality of access means the ability to buy ebooks like the general public and to be assured that assistive technology will work with those ebooks.

What can we do today to build that accessible future? National organizations of the blind, as well as WBU, need to keep the pressure on publishers to build accessibility into their products. This includes the kind of legal advocacy pursued by the National Federation of the Blind in the U.S., which has secured a series of legal victories. It includes pressuring national governments to enforce existing accessibility laws. It also includes passing a global treaty for people with print disabilities, creating a safety net for accessibility when the commercial publishers choose not to make their content accessible, and meeting the needs of people with disabilities who cannot afford to purchase content.

Benetech’s Bookshare is the world’s largest accessible online library dedicated to serving people with print disabilities. Today, Bookshare has more than 175,000 books available in the U.S. thanks to our domestic copyright exception. Unfortunately, we can’t export these books, as other countries have copyright laws that we wouldn’t violate. It’s this kind of problem that the global treaty is designed to solve.

But we can’t stand by and wait until the treaty is passed and ratified and then until countries change their national laws: that could take years. We’re therefore working with the publishing industry to bridge the gap. We’re dedicated both to helping the commercial publishing industry create accessible content and distribute that as their primary product. That is, we want the ebooks that are purchased by the general public to be fully accessible. We call our dream “ensuring that content that is born digital is born accessible!”

As a library, we’re also dedicated to providing the abovementioned safety net – today and in the future. Our work continues to provide people with print disabilities access to books and other materials. More and more of our publishing partners are providing worldwide rights to their titles and expanding opportunity beyond the U.S., so that we now offer over 80,000 titles of the total Bookshare collection in most countries.

As the entire industry is changing the ways in which content is produced, we’ve expanded our focus to providing free tools to publishers to ensure that all new content that is born digital is born accessible. Funders like the U.S. Department of Education and the Gates Foundation have supported Benetech – both by itself and in partnership with other accessibility groups such as the DAISY Consortium and WGBH of Boston – to work with standards bodies, technology companies, authors and publishers in order to make those tools widely and freely available and see that they are built into mainstream products and standards.

There is much more work to be done to ensure accessibility of all content, including math, images and other media. But this is a critical and hopeful moment where technology and massive industry shifts make it possible to end the constant catch-up effort that limits access and dominates the day-to-day life of so many consumers and professionals. If all born-digital content is born accessible, we will have realized our shared dream of equal access to information for all people with print disabilities!

Monday, February 04, 2013

Betsy Beaumon on Benetech's Literacy Program

The Year That Was and the New Year Ahead

 Guest Beneblog by Betsy Beaumon, Benetech's VP and General Manager of the Literacy Program

2012 was a year of titanic shifts in the fields of consumer technology, education, and publishing, along with the requisite challenges brought about by such rapid change. At Benetech, where innovation is the engine behind our mission, we did our best to make the most of it and help lead the charge into the future. Bookshare and our other Access to Literacy initiatives, including the DIAGRAM Center and Route 66 Literacy, all made big strides this year through the significant dedication of the community that makes it all happen.

We celebrated the tenth anniversary of Bookshare—both online and with in real life—with gatherings of users, volunteers, partners, employees, and friends throughout the year. As we get older, some of us like to increase the length and number of celebrations for our own birthdays, so why not apply this to Bookshare too? After all, in the world of eBooks, ten years is pretty old! This gave us the chance to say thank you to many people, and a number of very cool dogs, who have helped make Bookshare what it is today. Thanks again!

One of the biggest changes to Bookshare in the last ten years has been in the area of education, through funding from the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). This has led to advancements that benefit everyone. What began as a small online library, with a collection built in large part by its users, is now the primary national supplier of electronic accessible educational materials for students with print disabilities. At the close of 2012, we are five years into our work in education and are serving over 230,000 students. Bookshare has over 175,000 total titles and well over 1 million book downloads each year, mostly by our student members of all ages. Time flies when you’re having fun…and apparently so do books.

Last year, we added 39,536 books to the collection ending the year with 174,235 titles. I always advise people to check back regularly given how fast books are added. For example, if you haven’t looked since December 31, you are SO 2012. We’ve added over 1800 books since then.

How people access our books also got a whole lot more interesting in 2012. We introduced new formats and new readers to give users not only what they want, but also a choice in how and where they want it. Have an Android device? We now have a free, open source reading app for you called Go Read. And more than 20,000 of our users now use Read2Go, our reading app for iOS introduced in 2011. For those who want to use audio with other mobile devices or DAISY players, we have added DAISY audio and MP3 format download capability for all of our titles, in addition to our existing DAISY text and Braille Ready Format (BRF) options.

We are committed to regularly raising the bar on the level of accessibility we can offer. In 2012, this meant a growing push to add image descriptions, especially to math and science content. We are ramping up an amazing volunteer force of individuals, on their own and from universities, corporations, and other groups, who have created tens of thousands of descriptions, vastly exceeding our expectations. Our team also made a dramatic investment in teacher training efforts, by not only providing several webinars each month, but also delivering our hands-on professional development workshops nationwide. And we now have 500 highly qualified Mentor Teachers—very special people who assist their peers in using Bookshare and assist us in testing new products and features.

This increase in accessible images would not have been possible without great tools. Luckily, we know some people who are into that stuff. In June, we began the third year of our DIAGRAM R&D Center, whose goal is to revolutionize the accessibility of graphic material. We held a gathering of leading practitioners who are at the intersection of accessible images, assistive technology, special education, and publishing. Together, we brainstormed even more ways to create, use, and discover accessible images. And if you’re not sure what all that means, no worries—this group is determined to let you know more about it as well. Click here for more info on this work, including tool demos.

What if you’re a U.S. veteran, or you speak Arabic, or you live in Korea? Or all three? In addition to being a fascinating person, you had a lot to be happy about in 2012.

Bookshare for U.S. Veterans
Bookshare has always been a great resource for veterans with print disabilities. Things got even better in 2012 as we were able to work more closely with the Veterans Administration to get the word out and begin to offer free memberships to qualified veterans in their vocational rehabilitation programs. We have also created a special collection for returning veterans, in addition to our useful career resources collection, and of course tons of books for fun.

Bookshare International
Yup, Bookshare now has Arabic books. Not just a couple, but 100 of them. The news that this is the largest accessible Arabic book collection in the world is bittersweet. Clearly, more are needed, but it’s a solid start. We hope to work on this thorny challenge further with our partner, the Mada Center, in Qatar, and benefit others throughout the region, such as the members served by our new partner, Emirates Association for the Visually Impaired, in the United Arab Emirates. Is Spanish more your bag? We’ve increased our Spanish collection, with thousands more Spanish titles coming soon from our partner Random House Mondadori, one of the largest Spanish language publishers in the world.

Other new international partners in 2012 include the National Library of Korea, Royal New Zealand Institute for the Blind, Studiebogservice (Denmark), South African Library for the Blind, and Celia Library (Finland). These partners work with us to offer Bookshare to their constituents, helping ensure good service as well as compliance with the rules of the road. In addition, we are active members of the DAISY Consortium, where we are able to contribute back code and other technical expertise so that all may benefit.

Route 66 Literacy
Did you know that we have another fabulous online service that helps adolescent and adult beginning readers learn to read? In partnership with Dr. Karen Erickson at UNC Chapel Hill, Route 66 combines engaging content for older readers with research-driven pedagogy, allowing a teacher, parent, or friend to help the learner through reading, writing, and word study exercises. This year, we launched new content, including a unit on Romeo and Juliet, to help Route 66 users stay in sync with the Common Core standards.

Looking Ahead
In October, we began another five year project with OSEP to keep offering free Bookshare services to students. During this time, we plan to at least double the number of students served once again. But doing the same thing in 2017, or even in 2013, isn’t an option if we want to best serve our users and increase our impact in a changing world.

One of the big changes: Publishers are no longer solely focused on how to get words onto dead trees, which are inherently inaccessible. Now, as new educational materials roll out to meet the new Common Core standards in K–12, and as publishers strive to meet consumer demand for eBooks, the products are increasingly “born digital.”
 Our new work in the coming years is based on a simple premise: Everything born digital should be born accessible.

Really, there’s no longer an excuse for inaccessible materials…or unhappy trees. However, accessibility doesn’t happen automatically just because something is digital. So our focus is on the standards and tools that can help publishers create accessible materials from the very beginning. We also focus on the standards and tools that allow users to find and read materials in the manner that works best for them—whether by sight, hearing, touch, or some combination of these. Another growing trend is that everyone is a publisher. So we will go beyond the traditional providers and ensure that teachers, students, and other authors also have platforms that help them create materials that are instantly usable by everyone.

Stay tuned in 2013 for new and improved tools for creating accessible content, including extensions to our Poet image description tool, its math helper that creates MathML, and a web-based tool that creates math graphs with descriptions. You’ll hear about our work with publishers, distributors, and makers of content platforms to implement our born accessible strategy. And we will be delivering on a project with the Gates Foundation to add accessibility metadata to the Learning Resources Metadata Initiative (LRMI) via

If you’re a Bookshare user, stay tuned for new ways to read, new ways to find even more materials (how about over one million accessible books?), and a new audio option for Spanish titles. Our outreach and volunteer efforts will grow, with a new parent program to match our incredible Mentor Teacher program. And we continue to gain new friends, as we extend our message to over 40 countries around the world. We also reach more people through our partnership with the Lions Clubs International in their Reading Action Program. As a Route 66 Literacy user, you’ll see a great new user interface, progress tracking, and a cool new video review feature.

We are excited as we jump into a new year. It’s a pleasure to serve our current users as we strive to increase our impact through technology and the power of dedicated people.

Friday, February 01, 2013

MagnaFlyer: New Tech Helping People with Central Vision Loss

For more than 20 years I’ve worked to harness the power of technology to do social good. One area I’ve had the pleasure to focus a great deal of time and energy on is helping to improve the lives of people with vision impairments. So for me, it was incredibly cool to be introduced to a new piece of technology that has a clever and (as far as I know) new approach to making information accessible to people with vision impairments. It’s called MagnaFlyer.

MagnaFlyer was developed with a large and specific audience in mind—individuals suffering from Macular Degeneration. Macular Degeneration is the leading cause of permanent impairment of fine or close-up vision among the elderly population. It is often called age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), though it also affects younger people in smaller numbers. The disease damages the light-sensitive nerve cells located in the center of the retina, resulting in sharp and central vision loss. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1.8 million Americans aged 40 and older are affected by AMD and predict this number will reach close to 3 million in 2020.

One important thing to note is that a person with AMD generally retains enough peripheral vision for good orientation and mobility. Individuals with central vision loss can therefore maximize their vision through a corrective technique called eccentric viewing. It is a method by which the person looks slightly away from the subject so as to view it using his or her peripheral sight. The rod cells in the intact peripheral visual field can then take over for the cone cells in the damaged central visual field. This is a complex biological task that’s difficult to self-teach: it requires the eyes and the brain to learn a new method of seeing, which means acquiring new habits and skills. Adopting eccentric viewing is thus best accomplished by working with a trained low vision therapist. And this is where the MagnaFlyer comes in.

In essence, MagnaFlyer displays a sequence of single words in the sweet spot of peripheral vision for the person with macular degeneration. Let’s say that the place where the user’s peripheral vision works best is below and to the right of the center of their visual field. So, the software gets them to focus their eyes at the upper left hand corner of the computer’s screen, and then shows the word to be read in the middle of the screen. If the user shifted their focus to the middle of the screen, they wouldn’t be able to see the word, because their central vision is damaged. But by focusing above and to the right, they can read the word in the middle of the screen (but off to the side of the center of their gaze). Denny Moyer, Executive Director of Colorado-based Ensight Skills Centers for Low Vision Rehabilitation, who introduced me to MagnaFlyer, told me that users can read a given amount of text several times faster by having the words rapidly flash by in this way, when compared to traditional approaches to reading the same text.

Of course, text is pretty universally accessible on computers, so you can read text from all sorts of sources (like word processor documents, PDFs, web pages). Probably my most favorite part of the MagnaFlyer demonstration was easily cutting and pasting a Bookshare ebook I downloaded into the application and seeing it read it (it was a Creative Commons licensed book—so completely legal!).

MagnaFlyer was developed through collaboration between SoftOlogy IdeaWorks, a technology invention company that develops computer technology to help people accelerate the acquisition of knowledge, and an Ensight team of low vision specialists. I was quite taken with MagnaFlyer’s smart approach to using a person’s available vision more effectively! As MagnaFlyer moves forward, our team at Benetech is looking forward to supporting Ensight in adding Bookshare books as part of the MagnaFlyer training program and bringing up the application to even more people who could benefit from it.