Wednesday, November 27, 2013

President’s Update: Fall 2013

You may already know that I plan in earnest to provide my personal President’s Updates as quarterly informal reports, but that all too often I fall behind on this well-intended schedule—as is the case with the update you’re reading now!

Don’t get me wrong: I love writing my updates. However, technology is transforming innovation at its core and our team at Benetech does quite well in leveraging this “innovation at warp speed” for social good. In fact, we’re doing so well in that respect that I get to engage more and more in new opportunities to advance our nonprofit mission—but less in writing my updates.

In all seriousness, 2013 has been an incredibly busy and productive year for us. I’m excited to share highlights from our work and its significance for the multitudes we serve. Highlights of this Update:
Global Literacy

Bookshare celebrated a double milestone this summer, reaching over 200,000 available titles in our collection and serving over 250,000 members with disabilities! While the majority of our members are U.S. students, we also serve adults, seniors, veterans, and international subscribers in over 40 countries.

We know, however, that we’ve only scratched the surface of meeting the global need for access to books and information. The sad truth is that millions of people with print disabilities around the world continue to be left behind.

Photo of Benetech's CEO Jim Fruchterman speaking at the WIPO negotiations on the Marrakesh Treaty.
Delivering Benetech's statement to the
WIPO diplomatic conference
That’s why I’ve been actively advocating for a global copyright exception modeled after the great exception in the United States that made Bookshare possible. In June, with the help of Stevie Wonder, we got a treaty that did just that: the Treaty of Marrakesh. It was exciting to be an active player in global diplomacy: Bookshare was the most-cited model of what other countries hope to have, both in terms of accessing our 200,000+ books and having their own national version of Bookshare. The Treaty was signed on the spot by over 50 countries.

We’re going to demonstrate what this could look like by piloting Bookshare International at scale in India. We just announced a Commitment to Action at the Clinton Global Initiative, to increase our impact in India by an order of magnitude. Through this project and the Treaty, we’re looking forward to realizing the potential of Bookshare International to eventually help millions of other people globally live fuller lives.

We’re also expanding our efforts to help more people in the U.S., especially veterans with disabilities. We just dedicated our first crowd-funding campaign, Bookshare for Veterans—part of the Skoll Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurs Challenge on CrowdRise—to this goal and are enhancing our outreach to veterans who need access to books and information. If giving disabled vets the gift of accessible reading resonates with you, I would definitely appreciate anything you can do to support our cause.

Human Rights

Photo of Enrique Piracés, Benetech's VP of Human Rights.
Enrique Piracés
Major milestones are the norm this year for our Human Rights team. Our flagship Martus software project marks its tenth anniversary of bringing strong crypto to human rights activists. On February 1st, two people on the team spun out to become an independent nonprofit—the Human Rights Data Analysis Group—to focus on the statistical and analytical side of our human rights work. We’ve just hired Enrique Piracés, most recently with Human Rights Watch, as the new Vice President of our rapidly growing Human Rights Program. His job is to explore new frontiers of technology for secure fact-finding by human rights groups and journalists.

We also received our largest-ever award for human rights, a two-year, $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). This grant will allow us to deliver a set of major enhancements and new language translations for Martus, as well as expanded development and broad deployment of Mobile Martus, our brand new Android-based mobile documentation app.

Benetech Labs

Photo of Gerardo Capiel, Benetech's VP of Engineering, speaking to participants at a conference and showing them a presentation on a laptop.
Gerardo Capiel, our VP of Engineering,
representing Benetech Labs at a
Fundación Avina conference
One of our biggest milestones this year is the launch of Benetech Labs. Technology for social change is needed more and more. Unfortunately, because many of these solutions won’t make money for the developers, the market will fail to address most of what’s needed. Benetech Labs is a place where we can conduct our brand of rapid and iterative innovation without fear of failure. We’ll embrace failure as part of the learning process and as a metric of a true "labs" atmosphere. You see, we want to be able to fail often and well, so we can ultimately launch successful tools that help millions of people. And, by sharing the process openly, we hope to assist many other social innovators on their paths to set up successful social enterprises.

We’re also pulling our Silicon Valley brain trust into these new Labs projects by creating a new kind of nonprofit advisory board, the Benetech Labs Partners. We believe that there’s no better way to engage brilliant leaders from tech, business, and finance than in a brainstorm about early stage tech venture ideas. Not only does it raise risk capital for Benetech, but we also actually want the advice!

We already have many exciting ideas flow into the Labs. From helping clean water and sanitation groups in Latin America, assisting American farmers reduce greenhouse gases, helping labor rights groups track debt bondage or child labor, or conceiving innovative extensions to Benetech’s existing projects, we’re exploring ways that software can make lasting social impact.

Building a Strong Culture of Communications

This summer, we rolled out the updated Benetech brand identity and a new narrative platform, which are featured on our redesigned website. It’s part of our larger effort to build a strong, organization-wide culture of communications. We recognize that becoming effective communicators and storytellers is necessary in order to maximize our impact in the service of our beneficiaries, and we’re committed to improving in this area. To keep abreast of what’s new at Benetech, please regularly visit Benetech’s Blog that features voices from across our organization or sign up for our monthly updates.


Benetech continues to live up to its founding promise to be a different kind of tech company—a nonprofit with a pure focus on developing technology for the social good. As a result, my job as an engineer for good is a blast. I get to hang out with terrific people who all dream about technology making a bigger and better impact on the world. I hope you share our goal of seeing that technology actually benefits all of humanity, not just the richest and most able 5%!

Jim Fruchterman
President and CEO, Benetech

Monday, November 25, 2013

Doing the Right Stuff Right for Human Rights

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post

In December 1981 soldiers of the Salvadoran Army’s Atlacatl Battalion entered the village of El Mozote, where they murdered hundreds of men, women and children. Although reports of the massacre appeared in the United States, Salvadoran army and government leaders denied them and, all too soon, El Mozote was forgotten.

It wasn’t until 1993, when a reconstruction of these events by American journalist Mark Danner first appeared in The New Yorker, that the full story of the El Mozote massacre was brought to light and sent shock waves through the international community. I was aghast that it could take a dozen years for the world to believe the massacre had happened. The tough question that ran through my mind was: How can we as technologists in Silicon Valley help prevent this kind of atrocity?

Photo of Benetech's CEO Jim Fruchterman addressing attendees at a panel celebrating Martus' 10th Anniversary, Nov 6, 2013, Palo Alto, CA.
Delivering my opening remarks at the Martus' 10th Anniversary
A decade later, in 2003, Benetech—the nonprofit tech company I founded and lead—launched our Human Rights Program to address this very question. The human rights technology we eventually built and that anchors our Program—Martus—has since played a crucial role in strengthening the human rights community. A free, open source software application that allows users anywhere in the world to securely gather and organize information about human rights violations, Martus enables human rights defenders on the front lines of fighting abuse to stay safe and protects the identities of those who would face violence and repression for telling their stories.

Earlier this month, on November 6th, jointly with Human Rights Watch and WITNESS, we celebrated Martus’ 10th Anniversary—ten years of secure human rights documentation by the Martus user community. The Martus story that has unfolded during that time is a tale of hard-won success and focused efforts to bridge human rights and technological innovation. To help you understand it better, let me pick it up where I left off, back in 1993.

On a hike in the hills above Stanford that year, my friend Dave Ross and I brainstormed what could be done to ensure that no human rights abuse would go unnoticed. Being geeks, we thought of ways to address this challenge with technology. We realized that the most effective tool to fight human rights abuse was the truth. If we could get the stories of abuse to the right people, quickly and reliably, we would help human rights defenders fight impunity and advance justice. We called this idea Witness and, geeks that we were, immediately grabbed the domain name.

Photo of panelists Enrique Piracés (Benetech), Iain Levine (Human Rights Watch) and Sam Gregory (WITNESS) at a panel on the future of human rights celebrating Martus 10th Anniversary, Nov 6, 2013, Palo Alto, CA.
From left to right: panelists Enrique Piracés, Iain Levine
and Sam Gregory
As I went around talking to human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, however, I learned there already was a Witness project in the human rights field. Dave suggested we rename our idea Martus, the Greek word for “witness.” We did just that and handed the domain over to what is now WITNESS.

Our breakthrough in the conception of Martus came in 2000, when I was looking to expand Benetech to new frontiers of social good beyond our origins—helping disabled people access books in what is now our Global Literacy program. Early that year I met Dr. Patrick Ball—then of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—one of the world’s leading human rights statisticians. Patrick provided me with a profound analysis of the human rights sector that formed the basis for what would turn into the Martus initiative. He went on to become Benetech’s Vice President of Human Rights and led our human rights work for nine years. He is now the Executive Director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which earlier this year spun off from Benetech to become its own independent organization.

Through Patrick’s analysis and our conversations with human rights groups around the world, we learned that the human rights sector—albeit being an information processing industry—used information technology nowhere near full potential and that human rights fieldworkers were the least served with information technology. Patrick described the field as a pyramid, with grassroots groups on the front lines at the base, gathering the stories of abuses first and second-hand, with larger and larger groups going up until you reached the top of the pyramid with the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Beyond those top organizations, almost no groups had good technology designed for human rights documentation. Front-line human rights defenders needed a way to securely gather, protect and comprehend first-hand accounts of violations in their communities.

Here, we realized, was an opportunity to create real, lasting social impact. If we could create a human rights information management tool to address the needs of a community that didn’t have a technology solution at all—now that was worth doing! Martus, we decided, would be that tool.

Photo of audience at a panel discussion on the future of human rights technology celebrating Martus' 10th Anniversary, Nov 6, 2013, Palo Alto, CA.
Our audience at the panel on the future of human rights
technology celebrating Martus' 10th Anniversary
From the outset, we were determined to make strong security Martus’ signature feature. Other features and benefits might have been easier to build and market, but we decided to focus on doing the right thing where we could maximize impact at the service of the human rights community. Our inside joke is that we seem to be the Silicon Valley company that hasn’t yet been knowingly cracked or coopted by the NSA. Luckily, we seem to be too small, and our human rights activist users don’t seem to be a top priority for them! But, we still have to protect our users from attacks from many repressive governments around the world.

We learned some tough lessons along the way: for example, that technology alone is no panacea for human rights abuse, or that we had to support the deployment of our technology with global trainings on Martus as well as with human rights documentation and capacity-building trainings.

Ten years later, our strategy has proven its worth and Martus is an initiative that captures the essence of Benetech’s focus on creating positive social change through technology and on doing the right stuff right—two of the Seven Benetech Truths.

Having pioneered the idea of making strong security accessible to human rights practitioners, we helped dramatically change the way in which human rights work is done. You can read more about Martus and about our theory of change, but here’s the gist: with Martus, there’s no more reason to collect, transmit or store sensitive information about violations in vulnerable forms such as paper files and unencrypted hard drives. No more reason why we would lose invaluable human rights information to accident, confiscation, misuse or simply to natural elements.

Over the past ten years, members of the Martus user community have collectively stored hundreds of thousands of records of abuse and secured them with Martus’ properly implemented strong encryption. Our Martus Field Team has trained hundreds of human rights groups and individuals, in over 40 countries, on Martus use and human rights documentation best practices. In many cases, Martus also helped users turn those first-hand accounts into evidence of abuse in order to advance their causes. You can read more about the many faces of the Martus user community and the impact that Martus has had on human rights groups, from Africa to Burma to Guatemala.

Photo of panelists Enrique Piracés (Benetech), Iain Levine (Human Rights Watch) and Sam Gregory (WITNESS) with moderator Stephan Sonnenberg (Sanford Law School) at a panel celebrating Martus 10th Anniversary, Nov 6, 2013, Palo Alto, CA.
From left to right: panelists Enrique Piracés, Iain Levine and
Sam Gregory with moderator Stephan Sonnenberg
Martus’ 10th Anniversary provides us with an opportunity to take stock and think forward. To that end, we co-hosted a panel discussion on the future of human rights technology jointly with Human Rights Watch and WITNESS. Our panel featured Enrique Piracés, Benetech Vice President of Human Rights, Iain Levine, Human Rights Watch Deputy Executive Director, and Sam Gregory, WITNESS Program Director. The moderator was Stephan Sonnenberg, Clinical Supervising Attorney and Lecturer in Law at the Stanford Law School. We see this panel as the beginning of an ongoing conversation about the challenges and opportunities for human rights technology.

I’d like to thank our panelists and moderator, everyone who has participated at the event (on site or remotely by sending questions and comments), and our users, partners and supporters throughout the years who have made Martus possible. As our panelists pointed out, technology offers great opportunities for the human rights movement but also creates enormous challenges. With more and more people participating in human rights documentation, it’s critical to get the tools and skills in their hands to do it safely, ethically and effectively. At Benetech, we’re expanding our commitment to human rights practitioners and moving forward with our multi-year project of building the next generation of the Martus technology with new funding and enhanced tools, including a mobile application. I invite you to check back on our website for ongoing updates about our work.

Photo credits: Rom Srinivasan and Patrick Ball.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mobilizing Impact at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting

“Mobilizing for Impact.” That was the theme of the ninth Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting that President Bill Clinton, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton recently convened in New York City last month. At CGI Annual Meetings, leaders from across sectors do more than just developing new ideas or getting inspired: they come together to take real action to address pressing global challenges. I had the honor of attending CGI 2013 where I announced Benetech’s latest Commitment to Action.

I’ve just had the chance to reflect on how cool CGI 2013 and some of the ideas I’m still processing!

Photo of President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama discussing health care at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative.
President Obama and President Clinton discussing health care reform
From the opening “Mobilizing for Impact” panel moderated by President Clinton and featuring Bono, Khalida Brohi, Christine Lagarde, Mo Ibrahim and Sheryl Sandberg (including Bono’s hilarious “Clinton” impersonation, as well as Ibrahim accusing most of corporate attendees of exploiting Africa); to a 1:1 conversation with President Obama and President Clinton about the benefits and future of health care reform in America and access to quality health care around the globe; to a panel on “big bets” in philanthropy, featuring Bill Gates and others; to a session moderated by Judy Heumann, Special Advisor for International Disability Rights, U.S. Department of State, about empowering the world’s billion people with disabilities; or to talking with my peer Skoll Award winners about writing software for development, social justice and human rights needs—CGI 2013 was a nonstop flow of sessions and exchanges with partners on ways to leverage resources towards each organization’s mission.

Photo of Judy Heumann and panelists discussing "empowering the world's billion people with disabilities" at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative.
Judy Heumann (left) moderating the panel on empowering the
world's billion people with disabilities 
On the second day of the CGI Annual Meeting, I announced Benetech’s Commitment to Action: Leveraging Technology to Bring Books to the Blind in India. Our Commitment is to increase service and expand the number of accessible books for blind people in India via our Bookshare International initiative. Through this three-year project—made possible with support from the Lavelle Fund for the Blind as well as India’s adoption of a new copyright exception for people with print disabilities—we will pilot Bookshare International at scale in India. We expect to significantly improve access to books that blind people in India need for their education, employment and inclusion in society.

You can read more about how this project will create lasting impact in India in a blog post by Betsy Beaumon, VP and General Manager of our Global Literacy Program. With this project and the recently adopted Treaty of Marrakesh on making copyright exceptions for people with disabilities a global norm, we’re looking forward to realizing the potential of Bookshare International to eventually help millions of other people globally live fuller lives.

Even while the sessions were inspiring, and the Benetech team is busy executing on our latest commitment (you don’t get invited back to CGI if you don’t follow through), one of the best parts of the event was talking to my peer social entrepreneurs. The Skoll Foundation convened an event the day before CGI where at least thirty Skoll Award winners got together, and our conversations continued throughout the event. Three of my peers had really great ideas for software for solving significant problems in their work, and I’m still excited about these possibilities for collaboration. Just have to find some time and money to tackle them!

Finally, CGI invited me to represent Benetech’s Commitment to Action in a Video Announcement feature at the Annual Meeting, which you can watch below. Our commitment was selected as an exemplary approach to addressing a global challenge. We hope it will inspire viewers like you to take action on this or another social problem, in whatever way you can.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Support Bookshare for Veterans

The U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimated earlier this year that about 3 million veterans, or 14 percent of the total veteran population, had a service-connected disability. For veterans with visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries or other disabilities, reading standard print is difficult, if not impossible. For them, Bookshare—Benetech’s Global Literacy initiative and the world’s largest accessible digital library for people with print disabilities—opens up a lifeline to reading.

Today through Friday, November 22nd, you can give disabled veterans the gift of reading via Bookshare by joining Benetech’s Bookshare for Veterans crowdfunding campaign.

Banner of Bookshare for Veterans fundraising campaign on the Skoll Social Entrepreneurs Challenge.This campaign is part of the Social Entrepreneurs Challenge, an effort launched by the Skoll Foundation in partnership with The Huffington Post and CrowdRise in order to support leading social enterprises. All the organizations participating in the Challenge are recipients of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. We’re honored to be included in this elite group of nonprofits known for their innovative approaches to tackling social problems.

Benetech’s Bookshare initiative was founded to improve the lives and learning of people with some of the biggest challenges—those with visual impairments, physical disabilities and/or learning disabilities that prevent them from reading books and information in most standard formats. We’re proud of our success bringing the benefits of Bookshare’s rapidly growing collection of accessible books to American students with print disabilities, but we’re nowhere near done.

Stock photo of a US female soldier in uniform leaning over a child who sits at a desk in front of an open laptop. The woman and the child are looking at the screen.
Here in the United States, we’re especially focusing on expanding our efforts to help more disabled veterans. We now offer a free, 30-day Bookshare membership trial to qualified veterans and are using our first-ever crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness of and support for Bookshare’s benefits for veterans. The funds contributed through our Bookshare for Veterans Challenge will be used to enable our Bookshare team to expand its services and outreach to veterans who need access to books and information.

I’d like to thank everyone who has joined us in the Challenge so far. For those of you who haven’t made a gift yet—the Challenge closes this Friday, November 22nd at 11:59:59am ET and many veterans still need your help. Please consider supporting our cause by donating to and sharing our fundraiser with your friends, family and colleagues. You can donate on my Challenge Fundraising Team Member page.

This campaign is a wonderful, easy way to share our work and leverage your support even further with the matching gifts that the Skoll Foundation is generously extending to the Challenge participants.

We would love your support for our campaign today through November 22nd. Donations of any amount make a real difference when giving the gift of reading to our veterans. Thank you!