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Showing posts from 2014

CEO’s Update: Fall 2014

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My personal goal is to channel the aspirations of the technology community to do more social good. More and more of my time is spent around both raising money and raising awareness of how much more could be done with technology to increase social impact. In this update, I’m delighted to be able to share Benetech’s latest efforts to do both. First, I’ll cover our biggest fundraising effort of the year: individual philanthropy is crucial to us; it’s the portion that makes 10X impact possible! Then I’ll share the latest stories on the impact of our tech volunteerism and human rights tech efforts as well our new tech leadership.

Highlights of this Update:
Join Benetech in Making the World Better for AllSocialCoding4Good and New Tech LeadershipHuman-Oriented Tech for Human RightsJoin Benetech in Making the World Better for All
At Benetech, we touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals in often-difficult situations. From people in Latin America who face severe water scarcity to …

Ethics and Responsibility in Technology-for-Good: A Human-Centered Approach

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Our networked world has advanced to a point where information technology is touching all aspects of society. The cost of prototyping and deploying new technology tools is now extremely low and data has the potential to accelerate social progress in areas ranging from poverty to human rights, education, health, and the environment. However, we have yet to come to grips with what is ethical and what the laws should be in relation to rapidly changing technologies.

At Benetech, we regularly grapple with questions related to this issue. For instance, we ask, how can we harness the power of technology for positive social impact; and how can we mitigate the risks to privacy and civil rights posed by the age of big data? As engineers who want to do the right thing, we follow four general guidelines: first, when it comes to data and technology in the social sector, apply a human-centered approach; second, treat the people you want to help with respect; third, when working to protect vulnerabl…

Accessible eBooks for Equal Opportunity

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Kevin Leong was in kindergarten when he experienced an organic brain injury that forced him to relearn everything from walking to using the bathroom. For several years, he struggled in school because his vision was blurry and reading normal size print was grueling. He could no longer keep up with his peers in the classroom.

In the United States, there are all too many students like Kevin, who are denied equal opportunity to engage in the same curriculum as their peers without disabilities. One of their main challenges is that they do not have adequate access to educational materials that are necessary to learn and succeed in school.

In 2004, the United States passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, requiring schools to provide special education services to eligible students. However, despite such efforts to implement programmes that level the educational playing field, a profound achievement gap persists between expected and actual performance of students with disabil…

The Gift of Reading, a Circle of Life

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“Frank” (who anonymously shared his story with us) has always been an avid reader, but the progression of his neuromuscular disease to his arms made reading difficult. Eventually he had to ask others to turn pages for him. It became a burden to his family and caregivers to constantly drop what they were doing to turn a page, so he began seeking out ebooks. Few were available, and he had trouble with the ones that were: they’d often be in a format that didn’t work well with his voice recognition software.

This reality changed when Frank found out about Benetech’s Bookshare accessible digital library for people with print disabilities. “Suddenly I had thousands upon thousands of books available to me,” he says, “at a price I could afford, in a format I could read independently. And the best part? I could request books not already in the collection, and sometimes my wish would be granted. I began a reading binge. Many of the books were ones I already had on my shelves, gathering dust be…

Welcome, Mark Roberts!

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After an intensive search period, I’m delighted to share that Benetech recently appointed seasoned executive Mark Roberts as our Vice President of Engineering. Mark is former Senior Vice President of Engineering, Consumer Products, and Operations at TiVo Inc. He’s leading the development, testing, and deployment of Benetech’s tools and services across all its program areas.

We’re thrilled to have Mark join us in this leadership role. With his proven execution in scaling business systems and infrastructures that shaped the growth of award-winning service products for multiple high profile Silicon Valley technology companies, he has the perfect pedigree to spearhead engineering at Benetech as we continue to innovate in the technology-for-good space.

Until 2011, Mark spent twelve years growing and developing TiVo. Under his leadership, TiVo’s engineering team received many awards for technical innovation, including an Emmy and several CES Best of Show, and the company was in the top 1% …

Join Benetech in the Skoll Foundation’s 2014 Social Entrepreneurs Challenge!

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Zach Bryant loves reading non-fiction. This wasn’t always the case, though. Zach has Cerebral Palsy, which causes movement and coordination problems, and which keeps him from speaking and walking. To communicate his thoughts, he uses an alternative augmentative communication device. Tasks like turning a printed page are difficult for him, which makes reading standard print discouraging. According to his mom, this experience is common to children with Cerebral Palsy. “They get frustrated and don’t want to read,” she says, “but access to digital books and reading technologies changed all that for Zach.”

The change happened when Zach was in high school and his Assistive Technology teacher introduced him to Benetech’s Bookshare library. With Bookshare’s accessible ebooks and reading tools, Zach made a successful transition to college. When our team last caught up with him, he was a busy student at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, rejoicing in his ability to read independently and…

Team-Up for Textbooks: Volunteer to Help Students with Disabilities

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The new school year is in full swing, yet across the U.S., all too many students with print disabilities might not have the textbooks they need for class. To meet that need, the Benetech Volunteer Program is piloting a new initiative—and we’re inviting you to join us!

When a Bookshare student member with a print disability needs a book for school that is not yet in the Bookshare collection, the member submits a request and Bookshare creates an accessible digital version of that book. However, students often don’t know what books they need until the first days of school—a hectic time when Bookshare receives thousands of book requests. During this time, the process of making a textbook accessible can take from 8-12 weeks, with proofreading being the most time-intensive and costly component. Meanwhile, students with print disabilities risk falling behind in school as they wait for the books they need.

Volunteers can now help fulfill students’ book requests faster during periods of peak d…

Advancing Reading Equality with Bookshare’s Exponential Growth

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At Benetech, we always ask ourselves how our existing successful programs can reach more people who need our services and how we can apply technology in new ways to enrich and improve more lives. I’m thrilled to share with you some of the recent amazing impact of Bookshare, a Benetech Global Literacy initiative and the largest accessible online library of copyrighted content for people with print disabilities.

Recently Bookshare has reached two major milestones in its efforts to bring reading equality to disadvantaged populations around the world. First, Bookshare’s collection has surpassed a quarter of a million titles and, in fact, is growing so rapidly that at the time of writing this post it is almost at 300,000 titles! Thousands of ebooks are pouring into the collection each month thanks to the dedication of our volunteers around the world and partnerships with more than 500 socially responsible publishers who donate their digital files. Bookshare titles range from vocational to…

Open Source and the Promise of Sustainable Nutrition Security

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Recently I had the opportunity to get introduced to Gerald Nelson, senior climate change researcher and Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Jerry and I had a great conversation about open sourcing of agricultural scientific models, such as those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their climate change reports.

An expert on agricultural economics and spatial analysis, Jerry most recently served as a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, where he led major projects on food security and climate change issues. He was also the principal author of a recent report you may have heard of: “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate,” which was released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in May 2014, calling on the United States government to integrate climate change adaptation into its global food security strategy.

Jerry is involved in collective eff…

Unlocking Technology-for-Good Innovation

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At Benetech, we advance technology applications that empower and protect underprivileged populations, and that also have the potential to become financially self-sustaining enterprises. This keeps us focused on projects that offer the greatest social impact for the resources invested. Benetech Labs is where the Benetech team and our social impact partners incubate new software-for-good applications. Within the arena of startup incubators, however, Benetech’s social enterprise business model and Benetech Labs’ approach are unique. Let me explain how this is so.

The typical incubator model works well where a team has formed around a technology innovation and is looking to graduate a for-profit company. The entrepreneurial team explains how its product can be monetized, and angel and venture capital funders then invest in the hottest teams coming out of the top incubators. What happens, however, with technology applications that could provide great social benefit but that won’t generate…

Master Class on Creating Startup Tech Social Enterprises

I'm looking forward to teaching a Master Class at San Francisco's Presidio Graduate School on September 18th. Current Presidio MBA student and Benetech team member Julie Noblitt wrote a generous blog post about the master class last week.  Julie is not our only connection to Presidio: alum Kristina Pappas runs International Bookshare for Benetech.  Should be exciting to interact with more Presidio students!

My goal is to give attendees (in addition to Presidio students and alums, this class is also open to the public) an inside look at how Benetech analyzes new tech social enterprises.  Julie and Aaron Firestone, our Director of Business Development, will be helping take attendees through key questions about a new tech social enterprise.  We'll be using one of the projects in our current Benetech Labs pipeline, or perhaps a project proposed by one of the students (the deadline to suggest something is this Friday, September 5th).

I've been thinking about this class for…

Exploring Data for Impact

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The world is undergoing a data revolution, and the social sector is no exception. Mobile devices are breaking down the barriers to direct connections to staff, volunteers, clients, partners, communities, and the general public. Social enterprises are collecting more and more data: data about social problems; data about intervention outcomes; data for collective impact; data for learning; data for dashboards to better operate their enterprises; data for funders; and the list goes on. Yet, social enterprises aren’t typically made up of data geeks. They desperately need to use data better and multiply its impact, but they rarely have the skills or infrastructure to do so effectively.

A significant, but neglected, issue is the ethics of data collection and storage. As data collection becomes easier and more widespread, we must remember that so much of the important humanitarian information collected by social enterprises is sensitive. Information about corruption, human rights violations…

How Open Source Sparks Innovation and Advances Social Good

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Adopting an open source philosophy has proven to be quite effective for us at Benetech in our work furthering technology-for-good. I recently had the opportunity to give an interview for Red Hat’s online magazine, Opensource.com, and discuss Benetech’s culture of “open.”

I describe the open source tools Benetech builds; clarify why it is important that cybersecurity tools in particular are open; explain how Benetech’s culture of “open” shapes its product development as well as broadly serves its social mission; and reflect on the reasons why the open source ethos is well suited for creating social impact.

Ultimately, we believe that open source is more about transparency and innovation than about releasing software. Being transparent leads to the best possible outcomes from our work and helps us further our mission goals. The open source methodology also helps stimulate innovation. It allows us to build and improve upon the knowledge of predecessors, as well as to make knowledge avai…

Thank You, Gerardo!

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The Benetech team has just bid goodbye to VP of Engineering Gerardo Capiel, who is moving on to his next adventure. A passionate technology-for-good advocate, Gerardo has made major contributions to Benetech’s social mission since he joined us over four years ago. As we are getting ready to welcome a new VP of Engineering, I’d like to acknowledge and thank Gerardo for his many contributions and their lasting impact on the lives of the people we serve.

Gerardo helped Benetech dramatically increase our capacity to benefit larger populations by scaling our services, revamping our innovation process, and establishing a thriving network of industry partners and volunteers. He oversaw the development of numerous products and services that allow us to drive social empowerment through technology across all our programs. He also championed an open source ethos so that our work can be broadly shared (you can view all our open source projects on GitHub). Gerardo’s contributions related to the …

The Road to Accessibility without Borders: Celebrating the One-Year Anniversary of the Marrakesh Treaty

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One year ago, on June 28, 2013, at a diplomatic conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) agreed on a historic international copyright exception for people with print disabilities. Hailed as “the Miracle in Marrakesh,” the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled paves the way to expanding access to books for people with print disabilities and provides the necessary legal framework for authorized organizations, like Benetech and our Bookshare initiative, to deliver those books across international borders.

As a long-time advocate for a global copyright exception and the founder of Benetech—which I started twenty-five years ago in order to make technology tools to address the needs of people with print disabilities—I was thrilled to become an active player in global diplomacy and witness the adoption and signing of this landmark Treaty. I have previously…

Martus 4.5: Lowering the Barrier to Better Information Security through Strong Crypto

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Last week, the Benetech Human Rights Program released version 4.5 of Martus—our free, open source, secure information collection and management software—which includes major updates and usability improvements. Our goal is to make it far easier for groups that work with vulnerable populations keep the sensitive information they collect confidential. Having long supported human rights activists, we know the importance of confidentiality when working with victims and witnesses.

The biggest highlight of this release is that Martus 4.5 can now be configured in less than 10 minutes by anyone with basic digital literacy skills, so that even less tech-savvy users can easily and quickly implement Martus’ secure documentation capabilities with distributed backup. Martus 4.5 features a new Configuration Wizard for account setup, offering fresh look-and-feel and greatly improved user experience. Additionally, major enhancements to its architecture simplify the secure backup, sharing, and distrib…

Reimagining the Power of One Billion Dollars

“What would you do with a billion dollars to combat economic inequality?” asked Chris Anderson, head of TED, at the closing session of this year’s conference. More specifically: “how would you audaciously reinvest that amount of money to best help the world’s 3.5 billion poorest people?” he probed. Having just heard the new director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito, present the Labs’ latest approach to innovation—“Deploy or Die”—I was inspired to answer the question.

Bottom-Up Innovation Joi’s new motto underscores the need for more than just tech demos to change the world. To make them truly count, we must put our technology innovations into the hands of real people and see what actually works. Technology has advanced to a point where it is easy to do so. Whether it’s software, hardware, or even biotech, the cost of prototyping and deploying new tools, then adapting them and iterating, is now extremely low. As I previously described in a Huffington Post op-ed, it was then that …