Thursday, July 11, 2013

When Flexibility Becomes an Operating Principle: Lessons from a Nonprofit

This post originally appeared on CSRwire Talkback.

The staff at Benetech, the nonprofit tech company I lead, recently came together to answer this question: “What values define our identity and drive our work?” It was a very meaningful exercise for our entire team, resulting in what we call “The Seven Benetech Truths.” Among them are truths like “We Get Stuff Done” and “Value Flexibility” — highlighting that we focus intensely on results and upholding our commitments, while also being flexible about how we get the work done. For many in the nonprofit space, being “flexible” and “getting stuff done” don’t always go hand in hand. But for an organization like Benetech, naming them as part of our values and putting them into action has led to better ideas and stronger products. Our most recent initiative, SocialCoding4Good, and last week’s launch of its Corporate Partner Program, which offers companies a new, skills-based volunteering channel for employee engagement and their pro bono initiatives, is an example of this.

Matching Techies With Social Causes

SocialCoding4Good began with the idea of building a sort of for tech volunteerism — an algorithmic platform that would match individual software developers to nonprofit organizations that were building open source software for socially good causes. Everything would be automated, everyone would get what they needed and our idea would help change the world! At the time of inception, venturing into the world of corporate social responsibility was not even on our roadmap. The problem: our idea wouldn’t address the real challenge. We realized as we worked with more partners and volunteers that the process of matchmaking required a higher touch for it to be a quality match — and quality was the key here. Over and over we heard high-tech volunteers talk about past projects being “not what I was passionate about” or “my contributions not having lasting impact,” and we heard organizations talk about getting “talent, but not the talent we need for this project.”

Practicing Flexibility

As this insight was surfacing, we had also been talking with a number of different tech companies in Silicon Valley, where Benetech is based, with the hopes of building awareness of open source software for social good among their employees. What we discovered in these conversations was that many companies were starting to build skills-based volunteer programs to increase employee engagement, but that there were very few options out there for their engineers, and almost none that engaged them to actually develop software. I’ll admit that these two discoveries were disruptive to the original plan we had in place for SocialCoding4Good—and that was OK! We have a framework by which we assess new projects at Benetech (one which I describe in Ron Schultz’s book Creating Good Work), but because flexibility is named as one of our truths, we never approach our projects with a rigid agenda or a “we need to make our idea catch on” mentality. And it’s that flexibility that has led to a bolder, and better, SocialCoding4Good.

Connecting The Right Volunteers To The Right Projects For Lasting Impact

Software developers at tech company VMware sitting in a conference room and observing a presentation.
VMware employees at a
SocialCoding4Good tech talk
Today, SocialCoding4Good provides both a platform to connect tech volunteers with our nonprofit software “Project Partners” (organizations like FrontlineSMSThe Community for Open Source Microfinance, and the Wikimedia Foundation) and a managed service that focuses on quality matches — connecting the right volunteers to the right projects for lasting impact. Now, volunteers get to contribute time and talent to causes they are passionate about and social good projects get the expertise they need to advance their work. Over the past year, SocialCoding4Good has been focused on providing shared value across sectors. We’re actively participating in initiatives such as the Taproot Foundation Pro Bono Summit and the A Billion+ Change campaign, and we’re working closely with tech giants like HP and VMware to match and structure the right opportunities for their engineering teams to collaborate with our Project Partners. These opportunities can range from small tasks to extended projects but they all result in enhancements or improvements to open source software being actively used to address social issues such as education, environment, health, and poverty alleviation.

Developing Open Source Software For Social Good

For example, in the last few months, individual employees have used volunteer hours to create fun interactive, online learning tools for educators and students using Mozilla’s Webmaker. One even dedicated an entire three-month sabbatical to making it easier to use Mifos X, software that is deployed by 45 global microfinance institutions to help lift more than one million people and their families out of poverty. In addition, technical teams have participated in single-day company events—like one where important new reporting features were designed for Miradi, a tool used by thousands of NGOs, in over 130 countries, to monitor worldwide conservation projects. And there are extended engagements that will add features to a mobile ebook reader app for the more than 250,000 print disabled users of Bookshare, the largest online library of accessible content in the world.

The Takeaway

By being flexible and extending our vision to include the millions of people working in software development at for-profit technology companies, we are able to offer unique opportunities for professional and personal growth while drastically increasing the support we provide to our Project Partners. And, in so doing, we can help amplify the real, global impact they have on the lives of real people every day. Benetech and our initiatives, like SocialCoding4Good, are constantly adapting and growing to ensure that we are living our Number 1 truth: “Social Change Through Technology.” The success we’ve had with many of our projects has proven to us that something like “being flexible” doesn’t have to mean you’re compromising your values. In fact, it can mean you’re upholding them. By being flexible we’ve been able to get stuff done and uphold yet another one of our truths: doing the “Right Stuff Right.”

Friday, July 05, 2013

We Have a Treaty…and It’s Great!

I’ve been actively advocating for an international copyright exception model that would greatly benefit people with disabilities, as anyone who has read my blog over the years can attest! My passion at Benetech for the last twenty-five years has been making technology tools to meet the reading needs of people who are blind, dyslexic or have other print disabilities. After all, Benetech’s Bookshare initiative is the largest online library serving people with print disabilities in the world.  We help more than 250,000 people with print disabilities thanks to our U.S. copyright exception. We could serve many more with a comparable international model.

A large room with rows of table and chairs filled with diplomats from all over the world. On top of the tables are placards that display the country or organization that the diplomat is representing.
Diplomatic leaders gathered
in Marrakesh, Morocco
Last month, leaders from around the world gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, with the hope of taking a huge step forward and designing that international model. I’m excited to report: they did just that. The “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled,” which will make it possible for people who are blind, or have other print disabilities such as dyslexia to get access to the books they need no matter where they live, was adopted by the diplomatic conference and signed on the spot by over 50 countries. We have a treaty…and it’s great!

Thank you to everybody who helped to make the treaty possible!

Why is this treaty so terrific? For starters, it closely follows the Chafee Amendment, which is the copyright exception that has made Bookshare possible in the United States. And once the United States Senate ratifies the treaty, it will be possible for libraries like Bookshare to get more content for Americans from sources outside of the United States and in more languages. It will also be possible for Bookshare to deliver our entire library—instead of only the titles we have permissions from publishers to share—directly to people with print disabilities living in other countries using our individual membership system (it works just like your own library card). The treaty also allows us to work around digital rights management and associated technological protection measures to ensure access for our users.

Me delivering Benetech's closing
statement to the conference.
We still have more work ahead of us—in fact, it could take up to a year, maybe much longer, for the United States to ratify the treaty—but we are all very excited by the progress that’s been made here. Benetech and Bookshare will continue working with coalition partners, like the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, to determine the best path forward to ratification here in the United States.

I will admit that the prospect of getting this great of a treaty, one that would have a real impact and wasn’t poisoned by private interests with their own agendas, was looking grim leading up to the diplomatic conference.  We were worried that a bad treaty might even negatively affect our ability to serve our users in the United States.  It was thanks to the petition signing, the phone calls, emails and the public conversation generated by our Bookshare members, organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, and the American Foundation for the Blind, that the United States government stood up to those private interests and negotiated for a pro-consumer treaty. To everyone involved—so many names it is impossible to list everyone—a sincere “Thank You” for helping to get us here. Your support and action helped us to achieve a historic treaty that will change the lives of millions around the world.

More to come as we work to ratify—and eventually implement—the treaty, and bring an end to the global accessible book famine!

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

On the Future of Braille: Thoughts by Radical Braille Advocates

Guest Beneblog by Betsy Beaumon, VP and General Manager, Benetech’s Global Literacy Program.

A woman wearing a name tag sitting behind a desk during a panel at a conference.
Betsy Beaumon
I recently had the honor to speak at the first-ever Braille Summit, hosted on June 19-21, 2013 by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and Perkins School for the Blind. With the goal of promoting braille literacy, this landmark meeting brought together braille experts from around the world to Perkins’ campus in Watertown, Massachusetts.

My biggest takeaway from the summit: the time could not be more urgent, and more hopeful, for the future of braille and the prospects of those who need it. That’s why braille is an important focus for us in Benetech’s Global Literacy Program — we know that we must keep braille relevant and make it more available.

One of the biggest reasons is that among people who are blind, braille literacy has been linked with higher education levels, higher likelihood of employment and higher income. Accordingly, U.S. federal law supports braille instruction. In what is known as the “braille provision,” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 mandates that the teams who help write educational plans for students with disabilities presume that all blind and visually impaired children should be taught Braille unless it is determined to be inappropriate.

What’s alarming is that for decades the number of braille users has been on the decline. And today, braille is not being taught to most blind children. Data from the American Printing House for the Blind’s annual registry of legally blind students shows that in 2012 only 8.8% of legally blind children in public and residential schools used braille as their primary reading medium.

Many professionals argue that this decline in braille literacy has led to a literacy crisis in the American population of individuals who are blind. Community concerns have grown so strong that on June 19, the first day of the Braille Summit, the Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services issued new guidance to States and public agencies to reaffirm the importance of braille instruction and to clarify the circumstances and evaluation requirements under the law.

At Benetech, we agree that braille is an essential literacy tool and that every child who needs it has the right to be taught braille. We also know that braille materials must be far more available to braille readers of all ages in order to realize their full benefits. At the Braille Summit’s kick-off event, keynote speaker Peter Osborne, Chief Braille Officer for the Royal National Institute of Blind People, U.K., argued that we must shift from spending on the provision of hard copy braille to the provision of refreshable braille and the associated digital file formats to enable people to read so much more.

“As organizations,” Osborne said, “we must liberate spending to focus on the promotion, learning and innovation around braille,” and recognize that we ought to embrace today’s changing economics and technology so that braille can be part of an equation which delivers access to information for all, not just to those who can afford it.

We strongly support this position and believe the digital content revolution holds the best promise for the future of braille. The massive shifts in the fields of consumer technology, education, and publishing open the door to combating some of the major obstacles to braille availability – high cost and time to produce hard copy braille books, as well as difficulties in distributing and storing them due to their large size (for example, one Harry Potter book in printed braille stands about four feet high). We are confident that technology can continue to improve the quality of electronic braille such that a blind consumer can expect both immediate AND high quality braille on demand.

As we have explained in other Beneblog and Bookshare blog posts, these are exciting times for everyone who has been working to meet the imperative to provide people with print disabilities equal access to published information. The increasing focus on digital content, rather than its printed form, and the shift to electronic distribution of ebooks pave new avenues for removing the barriers to accessibility. At Benetech, we want to ensure that in this brave new world of digital content, braille is as available as any other ebook format to those who want it. In this sense, you could say that we are radical braille advocates.

With Bookshare, Benetech’s online library for people with print disabilities, our ebook-based approach to the accessibility challenge has already delivered on the promise of ending the famine of accessible books in the United States. Now, with the new Marrakech Treaty from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and our hundreds of direct publisher relationships, we are poised to help deliver on this promise worldwide.

Today Bookshare adds around 3,000 books per month to the collection, with our publisher and electronic distribution partners supplying most of these books, at the same time as they go to electronic retailers like Amazon. We also continue to add books from volunteers, staff and outsourcers through scanning and proofing, including student requests. Our commitment to braille literacy means that the entire Bookshare collection of over 198,000 titles (and counting) is available not only for use in text, audio or the combination, played with a wide variety of assistive technology tools, but also formatted for use on electronic braille displays.

Granted, due to the limitations of fully automated conversion, this is not perfect braille, and we continuously work with experts to improve the quality of our Braille Ready Files (in the BRF format). Creating a perfect digital braille book, particularly with subjects such as math, still requires a great deal of human preparation and is therefore very expensive. Our belief is that having hundreds of thousands of solid – if not perfect – braille books available to read as soon as they are available to everyone else is far better than getting them much later or not at all. The convergence of standards in digital publishing and major advancements in braille codes – such as the recent adoption of Unified English Braille (UEB) format by the Braille Authority of North America – are on our side. This allows a much broader group of experts to keep working on the problem. Imagine the day when we are ready for UEB launch: the entire Bookshare collection will be made available in UEB with a click of a button!

The road toward full access for braille readers has a number of other hurdles that must be overcome. One major roadblock is the affordability of braille reading tools. The cost of electronic braille displays remains prohibitively expensive for most blind people in the world. We believe that every reader should be able to have a braille display and we therefore support the efforts to bring this cost down, especially for those least able to afford it. We are now directly participating in the DAISY Consortium’s Transforming Braille project, which seeks to dramatically lower the cost of braille cell technology, the fundamental technical building block of a braille display. This is important here in the U.S., and critical for the inclusion and empowerment of people in developing countries.

Another major challenge involves the graphic content in ebooks, such as pictures, charts, and diagrams, formulas and special symbols. Images are currently omitted altogether in electronic braille formats and require extensive human intervention to produce in an accessible, tactile form. In response to the need to make accessible images cheaper, better, and more cost effective, we created the DIAGRAM Center with funding by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Special Education Programs (OSEP). Through this R&D Center, we are working to revolutionize the availability of accessible images and tactile graphics by targeting standards and developing open source tools that help close the gap between what technology can do automatically and what requires expert human work.

A three-dimensional graphic of a circuit diagram extruded on a braille paper.
A 3D graphic test on paper substrate of a circuit diagram.
Image by the National Braille Press, a DIAGRAM subcontract. 
We are addressing key questions such as: When is a tactile required? How can we make tactiles easier to produce, use and share? And how will changing technology impact tactile design, production and use? Against each of these questions we are targeting projects on which we collaborate with some of the leading experts in the field. DIAGRAM projects include automating a tactile graphic decision tree to target the efforts of experts; multiple projects around 3D printing as an inexpensive, emerging output format for tactile objects; our Poet tool for crowd sourcing image descriptions and MathML; tools to read QR codes as labels on tactile graphics to increase available information; and work in whole new haptic graphical models for fully electronic tactile experiences. We are also actively pursuing legal approaches to allow sharing of image descriptions and tactile graphics files to reduce costly re-work by underfunded schools and nonprofit organizations/NGO’s.

We are developing many of these free tools with publishers and content creators in mind and in consideration of the online platforms more and more people use to author and publish information. As the entire industry is changing the ways in which content is produced and as digital content becomes increasingly media rich, we want to ensure that all content that is born digital is also born accessible. Through intense collaboration, we are advancing open tools and standards so that accessibility is built into mainstream products.

The future of braille, empowered by innovations in technology, is bright. And while the advancement of technology presents new types of challenges for accessibility, we at Benetech see them as tremendous opportunities for making content truly and universally accessible. New technology will allow breakthroughs that will continue moving people who have vision impairments toward a better tomorrow. With cooperative and coordinated efforts across many communities, we can achieve a future in which new technologies improve braille proficiency and life outcomes for braille readers.

Please join us in realizing this “radical” future!

Bookshare is participating at the National Federation of the Blind’s National Convention in Orlando, Florida on July 1-6, 2013 and at the American Council of the Blind’s 52nd Annual National Conference & Convention in Columbus, Ohio on July 4-12, 2013. We’d love to meet you there!