Saturday, April 20, 2013

Receiving the 2013 Migel Medal

Earlier today, I attended the American Foundation for the Blind’s (AFB) National Leadership Conference in Chicago where I received the 2013 Migel Medal. The Migel Medal, often called the highest honor in the blindness field, is awarded annually to one or two individuals whose careers exemplify exceptional accomplishments in the field. It was named for the first board chair of AFB, M.C. Migel, whose experiences with blindness caused during World War I, led to him helping start the Foundation.  Helen Keller, who worked for AFB for many years, was on the original award board for its first twenty years, starting in 1937.

The other recipient this year was Kay Ferrell, Professor of Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, who won the Medal for her tremendous work with and on behalf of children and youth who are blind and visually impaired. I’m honored to join Kay in receiving this prestigious award and deeply grateful to AFB for its recognition.


Here are my remarks to the Leadership Conference on receiving the Migel Medal from Carl Augusto and Paul Schroeder of AFB:
It’s a great honor to address the leadership of this field, and receive the Migel Medal in recognition of our shared commitment to service to the community of people who are blind or visually impaired.
This is the field where I found my life’s calling, applying technology to meet critical needs of society, where the market is likely to fail. From my college dorm room, where I thought that pattern recognition could do more than target missiles, to my first successful high tech company where we built technology that could read just about any font without training, to Benetech’s founding with the Arkenstone reading machine for the blind.
I remember the day I told my wife, Virginia, that I’d do this “nonprofit thing” for just one year and then go back to regular for-profit high tech companies. That was over 24 years ago!
I also remember thinking how nice people were when I shifted out of regular high tech business into the field of assistive technology, how people threw great parties at these small and intimate conferences, and how appreciative people were of what our technology could do for their independence.
I especially want to acknowledge two people who helped make this award possible. First, one of last year’s Migel Award winners, George Kerscher. He started Computerized Books for the Blind the year before we started Benetech, and became one of our earliest partners. Even back then, we included information about his service in the box of each Arkenstone Reader because we knew people would rather not have to scan a book before reading it! And when the idea of a peer-to-peer ebook library came to me, it was George who I went to with the idea. After talking me out of calling it Bookster, he explained how the DAISY format would be ideal for our new Bookshare project, that he had made sure that it would work well for ebooks like the ones we were hoping to provide. We were following in his footsteps, on a path he helped create!
And second, Donna McNear, the itinerant teacher of the visually impaired from Minnesota, who kept telling me that I had to go to Washington and talk to the Department of Education. “Washington? Isn’t that where good ideas go to die?” I said! But, by eventually following Donna’s advice and talking to the Office of Special Education Programs in DC, we discovered the funding and the way forward for Bookshare to begin to realize its potential.
Thank you, George and Donna, for helping us make real our dreams of service!
However, in the immortal words of Revolutionary War naval captain John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to fight!” The book famine may be receding here in the United States with Bookshare and the increasing advent of universally designed and accessible ebooks, but globally we have only scratched the surface of the need. The World Blind Union is working right now, with support from our community, to get a global treaty to help the blind, with a hopeful date of this June for that treaty to be concluded. That treaty should replicate the successful copyright exception here in the U.S. that made Bookshare possible, by putting the power to make accessible books into the hands of blind people in far more countries of the world. With Betsy Beaumon leading the Bookshare team, I feel confident that we will go from the quarter million people with print disabilities that we serve today to millions around the globe.
The support and inspiration I found here in the vision field made today’s Benetech possible: our nonprofit organization that now works in other fields as well, fields like human rights, the environment and volunteerism. From capturing the stories of human rights violations in Guatemala, Burma, Syria and Uganda, to helping a biologist plan a better restoration of a wetlands, or matching up an open source geek with the social good project of his or her dreams, Benetech’s team is using technology to make the world a better place. While we remain committed to serving people with disabilities, our work with Arkenstone and Bookshare has created a model that is being replicated by Benetech and many others in new fields. Together, we all hope to have a world where technology fully serves all of humanity, not just the richest or most able 5%.
Thank you again for this honor!


I’m fired up by the opportunities ahead and looking forward to continuing working with our remarkable partners in the education, technology, publishing, student, parent and volunteer communities as we advance towards the day when accessibility of the written word is no longer a challenge for people with disabilities. We hope you’ll join us on this journey.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Big Data Means More Than Big Profits

This post originally appeared as part of an online debate about How Big Data Can Have a Social Impact, which the Harvard Business Review Blog Network hosted jointly with the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Right now I'm in Oxford, England, for the annual Skoll World Forum!

Big Data is all the rage in Silicon Valley. From Facebook to Netflix, companies are tracking and analyzing our searches, our purchases, and just about every other online activity that will give them more insight into who we are and what we want. And though they use the massive sets of data they collect to help create a better experience for their consumers (such as customized ads or tailored movie recommendations), their primary goal is to use what they learn to maximize profits. But can Big Data also create positive social change?

Many activities in the social sphere also generate lots of information. Massive amounts of data are collected on the pollution in our cities and the changes in our climate. The more we use technology in our education and health systems, the more data we collect about how people learn and what keeps us healthy or makes us sick. These information-centric areas are built for Big Data—data that if better understood could help provide a pathway to maximize our human potential, instead of maximizing profits.

Now, as a pragmatic idealist I’ve always believed that technology could be an immense force for good in the world, but I’ve also recognized that great technology wouldn’t get developed—no matter how beneficial—if it was missing one important factor: big profits. That’s what inspired me to start Benetech, a nonprofit tech company, over 20 years ago. I knew we could help a lot of people if we focused on finding a sustainable—instead of a highly profitable—way to develop technology for the social good. As we build new enterprises, our goal is for them to break even from revenues (or come close), while also making the maximum positive impact.

Let me share two examples of the Big Data opportunities we’ve seized at Benetech: a long-standing use of data that has global implications and a nascent one that has just launched.

First, we’ve been using data to aid the human rights movement, especially in providing evidence for truth commissions and war crimes tribunals, for a decade. Human rights workers collect massive amounts of information about abuse that occurs in their countries—the individual stories are compelling, but scientific analysis of the collective data can inspire action. For example, Benetech’s recent analysis for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights—using information from six databases compiled by Syrian human rights monitors and one database collected by the Syrian government—found that at least 60,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. This number was significantly more than the existing estimates that had dominated news and policy discussions. The analysis made news globally and expanded an international conversation. Here big data affected a global policy debate—and will hopefully make a big difference.

Second, Bookshare, a social enterprise operated by Benetech, last year processed requests for more than 1.3 million downloads of accessible books through its online library, to over 200,000 people with disabilities such as blindness and severe dyslexia. We already collect a great deal of information like which books are downloaded most, but our delivery model has been similar to that of print textbooks: “Here it is; hope it’s useful!” We don’t know if the student ever gets past Chapter 1.

Last month we launched a new feature for Bookshare that allows students to read books within a web browser, instead of needing additional software or tools. Over the next few years, we’ll be able to collect (ethically and legally with proper respect for privacy) and analyze the many millions of interactions our users are having with these books. Talk about Big Data! We’ll learn much about things like how (or whether) textbooks get used and which approaches to a specific learning objective work best. Just like data has been used to understand why online shoppers often abandon their shopping carts without completing their purchase, perhaps we could use the same techniques to understand why students abandon learning. Looking forward, we can imagine a world where content is matched to the learner because we’ll be able to tailor education to the individual and how they best learn.

Social entrepreneurs should focus on Big Data for the social good. Of course, data has to be collected in ways that match our value systems and respect ethics, privacy, and informed consent. Benetech’s experience collecting information about human rights violations and about people with disabilities, two highly sensitive areas, shows that this can be done.

I urge social entrepreneurs and mission-driven businesses who have developed a solution that involves digital information to think about what Big Data will mean to their efforts: How can it make your services or products better, solve more of the problem, or do more with the same or less money? Working together, we can show how Big Data makes more than big profits—it can make a big difference.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Promise and Peril: Martus for Human Rights in Burma

I recently had the pleasure of visiting one of our longtime Martus partners in Thailand, The Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma (ND-Burma). It was so gratifying to see firsthand how Martus, a free and open-source software tool developed by Benetech, is empowering people to be the change they wish to see. Martus enables human rights workers to securely document and organize information about violations in a way that protects those who would face violence and repression for telling their stories.

Four Burmese activists with Jim Fruchterman
Jim Fruchterman with ND-Burma members
In the years since the 1988 suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, the military junta in Burma has committed many thousands of human rights violations, including killings, torture, forced displacement, rape and political imprisonment. ND-Burma, a Thailand-based coalition of over ten human rights groups, has been collecting narrative testimonies from victims and witnesses of human rights abuses by the Burmese regime. We have extended Martus capacity building and technical support to ND-Burma since its inception in 2004.

ND-Burma member groups regularly send observers, at great personal risk, across Burma’s borders with India, Bangladesh, Thailand and China. To understand the grave risks involved, consider this one account from a ND-Burma observer about her trip across the border: After interviewing and collecting information from witnesses and victims in Burma, this woman had to hide scraps of paper with scribbled notes on her person and then cross back over the border. At one point, she was stopped and interrogated by Chinese border security who were looking for drug traffickers. Luckily, the hidden notes escaped detection and she was released. As soon as this brave observer could reach a place of relative safety back in Thailand, she used Martus to secure the sensitive information she had risked her life to obtain.

Our Martus team has worked closely with ND-Burma over the past eight years, strengthening the capacity of member groups and of the coalition as a whole. To date, ND-Burma member groups have secured thousands of narrative accounts documenting human rights abuses by the Burmese government and they now utilize their collective documentation to reveal patterns of violations. For the past three years, member groups have produced regular reports on continuing abuses as well as thematic reports that examine specific aspects of the Burmese human rights situation. For example, ND-Burma’s May 2012 report, “Extreme Measures,” sheds light on torture and ill treatment in Burma since the 2010 elections, demonstrating that the Burmese government continues to commit abuses despite its being bound to international human rights treaties and norms.

ND-Burma’s growing archive of detailed abuses—mostly documenting issues of forced labor, torture, forced displacement and property rights—informs its current advocacy, bolsters its calls for change and provides a rich evidence base in preparation for a Commission of Inquiry, when such a Commission (or a similar mechanism) comes to fruition. Equally important, as noted by Patrick Pierce, Head of the Burma Program at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ):
“ND-Burma has used Martus as a basis to foster a spirit of solidarity and mutual good will among its diverse members. This cooperation is a harbinger of the stability and unity that could develop in a democratic Burma.”
Burma has seen dramatic reforms and there is now a momentous opportunity to strengthen current advocacy and prepare for future justice measures. However, a great deal of work remains before realizing democracy in Burma. The recent hacking of email accounts of journalists in Burma and last November’s brutal crackdown by the Burmese government on peaceful protesters against the China-backed Letpadaung copper mine are painful reminders that ongoing reforms are fragile and reversible.

During my visit with ND-Burma member groups, we reflected on their achievements to date through their Martus implementation, discussed the opportunities and challenges ahead and considered the ways in which Martus can best support their future work. They had short-term feedback on the need for Martus to support a new Burmese font: something we worked with our donors (thanks, OTF and OSF!) to prioritize.  We expect to have this new font support done already in the next month or so. 

This bigger picture feedback on Martus, from ND-Burma and other partners, has been instrumental in shaping the product roadmap for the next generation of Martus. For instance, after the first global Martus Users Group Meeting, which ND-Burma hosted in Chiang Mai last year, it became clear that it was paramount to prioritize our development of a Martus mobile application. We are now gearing up to beta test the prototype application and hope to soon release it to our growing Martus user community.  I've been showing the prototype around to our partners and supporters for the last month: it's quite elegant!

Fifteen people in an outdoor group photo.
Participants at the 2012 global Martus Users Group Meeting
Benetech is committed to doing this kind of ongoing development to help advance the broader human rights movement. We believe that technology can improve the lives of people all across the world, and in some cases that means developing tools that help document fundamental human rights violations. The data and stories collected are often what is needed to pursue reform, seek justice and begin reconciliation.

Although Benetech's social enterprises often generate most or all of their budgets from revenues, the human rights movement just doesn't have that kind of funding to support even nonprofit social enterprises! Almost all of the money in the human rights field comes from donors who believe in the importance of fighting injustice and oppression around the world. Our sustainability model for our work is that 90% of the funding for Benetech's Human Rights Program should come from the third-party supporters of human rights (that is, donors to the issue of human rights) either through our larger partners as revenue for services or directly.  [The balance comes from unrestricted donations to Benetech as a cool overall nonprofit organization!] Your support gives us the resources and capacity we need to continue and grow these efforts. Please consider donating today or reach out if you’re interested in partnering with us in other ways to help advance the global cause of human rights. Thank you in advance!