Monday, December 30, 2013

From all of us at Benetech...

Dear Friends of Benetech,

As we wrap up another busy year, full of milestones and exciting accomplishments, we’d like to take a moment to simply say thank you. Whether you've volunteered your time, made a financial contribution, attended one of our events, or helped to spread the word about the work we’re doing – thank you! We couldn’t do it without your support.

We hope you’ll join us as we continue to explore the next big ideas and make 2014 an even more successful year!

Wishing you a happy holiday season,

Jim Fruchterman
Founder and CEO

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

UC Santa Cruz Students Volunteering for Impact with Bookshare

I’m delighted to share with you today a wonderful success story from our Volunteer Program. UC Santa Cruz students who participated in our volunteer pilot project—proofreading textbooks for our Bookshare collection—have done a fantastic job proofreading over a short period of time three entire textbooks! This means more than 2,300 pages of text and an amazing gift for the 250,000+ Bookshare student members we serve.

Our Volunteer Program Manager Brenda Hendricksen and Volunteer Program Coordinator Madeleine Linares have been working on this pilot project with UC Santa Cruz Professor of Computer Engineering Roberto Manduchi. Professor Manduchi, whose research focuses on assistive technology for persons with visual impairments, is an old friend of mine. Several months ago, he approached me and offered to involve his entire class in proofreading Bookshare textbooks. I’m delighted this idea has turned into a successful project with such a splendid outcome!

A group of over 40 of Roberto’s students worked in three teams, each focused on completing a different textbook. Student Team Captains were responsible for assigning specific chapters to each team member, fielding questions and driving project completion. It’s the first time we have engaged volunteers in this way, and our hope is to refine and replicate this pilot project.

Photo of an unbound ("chopped") book in a scanner next to a pile of additional books ready for scanning and whose spines have been removed.
Books are "chopped," scanned and
run through OCR software
Why and when is proofreading Bookshare titles necessary? It’s required whenever we make accessible versions of print books. Every year, we receive over 3,500 direct requests from students with print disabilities (like blindness or dyslexia) who do not have the textbooks they need in a form they can read and in time for the start of class. When digital files of those books aren’t available, we have to convert the physical print books into an accessible form, like braille, large print or synthetic speech output.

This means scanning each book into a computer, using equipment similar to a photocopy machine, and then running it through optical character recognition (OCR) software that converts the scanned images into a digital text file. Unfortunately, since even the best scanner and best OCR software make mistakes, proofreading is essential for quality assurance. It involves finding and fixing the OCR mistakes before the accessible versions of the books are added to the collection and made available to our members.

The time required for proofreading varies based on the length and type of book. To better understand the achievement of our UC Santa Cruz volunteers, it’s important to take into account that textbooks are longer and more complicated than the average literature book, and therefore require more proofreading time. Creating an accessible version of a single textbook can take us 90 days or longer and costs $600 or more.

The effort of Roberto’s students has a powerful multiplier effect, as the textbooks they proofed will be available to our Bookshare members all over the country for years to come. Since Roberto’s students saved us over a thousand dollars in proofreading costs through their volunteerism, we’ll also be able to create even more accessible books for other members (we always have more demand for books than we have funding for paid proofreaders). Moreover, the students’ feedback on this pilot project will be instrumental in helping us make an even bigger impact with future volunteers.

We’re grateful to Roberto and his students for their wonderful work. The idea of incorporating textbook proofing into classrooms as a service-learning opportunity is one that we only recently began exploring and we’re delighted to see it put into action so quickly and well.

Many thanks also to Brenda and Madeleine of our Volunteer Program and to our Collection Development staff, without whom none of this would have happened.

Congratulations on such great work and Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Nonprofit Advocacy Can Be a Force Multiplier for Social Change

This post originally appeared on Arabella Advisors' Greater Good blog as part of the series Impact 2014.

Logo of Arabella Advisors' Impact 2014 blog seres.
For many years, people frequently suggested that Benetech, the nonprofit tech company I founded and lead, get more involved in Washington, DC policy and legislative action. “Isn’t that where good ideas go to die?” I’d say, dodging the recommendations. Our longest-term donor, the Skoll Foundation, went so far as to introduce me to a DC-based advocacy firm. My reaction was that this kind of advocacy work was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

I was wrong.

You see, several months later, the federal Department of Education challenged us to compete against a well-respected national nonprofit 60 times our size in a bid to provide accessible educational materials for US students who are blind, dyslexic, or otherwise print disabled. Against all odds, we—a novice bidder with a less than $1 million-a-year program—won a five-year, $32.5 million contract to do just that. We were elated and eager to get to work.

It turned out, however, that we were too quick to rejoice. Multiple senators called the secretary of education asking for explanations of how earmarked funding ended up in the hands of “nobodies from California” who had never lobbied Congress. We were up against immense political pressure to rescind the award.

That’s when I called that advocacy firm, a “luxury” that soon became indispensable. I was surprised to find that advocacy wasn’t just about politics and pressure. I met key Congressional staffers who deeply cared about disability issues, and who had comprehensive knowledge of the issue. We didn’t have to convince them that students with disabilities had important needs. Instead, our biggest challenge was convincing them that our approach was the best approach for meeting those needs.

Photo of Jim Fruchterman delivering a congressional testimony statement before the House Committee on the Judiciary, August 1, 2013
Delivering my statement before the
House Committee on the Judiciary, August 2013
We’ve since learned many lessons about the multiplier effect of advocacy. For example, we recognized that Congressional staffers, elected officials, and political appointees across the spectrum with few exceptions are excited about innovative approaches that better solve a social challenge with the same (or less!) money than existing approaches. We’ve learned that there’s immense power in showing up in Washington with new ideas based on actual performance in the field—and that Washington is no less technical than Silicon Valley; the difference lies in what the famous scholar and activist Larry Lessig describes as “East Coast code” (laws) vs. “West Coast code” (software). Like many philanthropists and social entrepreneurs who are eager to make large-scale change, we found that redirecting government policy and funding to more effective approaches offers tremendous leverage for realizing national (and international) impact.

Fast-forward six years. Bookshare, our accessible online library, has reshaped the accessibility field and now serves over 250,000 members (the majority of whom are US students) with a collection of nearly 220,000 (and counting) accessible books—the world’s largest repository of its kind. When students with disabilities need a book for school or simply want to read the same book as their peers without disabilities, they are likely to find that title—in the format of their choice—in Bookshare, with Benetech delivering it for less than one-fifteenth of the cost of traditional approaches.

Bookshare today is part of a broader effort by Benetech’s Global Literacy Program to improve the lives and learning of students with the biggest challenges. Policymakers now recognize the quality and impact of our work, and our expertise is often tapped, to great success, in legislative and policy discussions of crucial topics in education, technology, human rights, diplomacy (including treaties), and innovation.

Benetech was founded to be a different kind of Silicon Valley tech company—a nonprofit dedicated to creating social change at scale. Advocacy, we’ve recognized, is essential for realizing our vision of a world where the benefits of technology reach all of humanity, not just the richest five percent.