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Showing posts from 2016

Seeing Through Walls for Greater Independence!

Kent Presents 2016I just attended the second annual Kent Presents conference in Kent, Connecticut. It’s the brainchild of Donna and Ben Rosen, a New York power couple with connections to science, technology, politics, the arts and more. There were too many awesome talks to do them justice, but you are welcome to sample the session titles here.

The talk that especially blew my mind was by MIT professor Dina Katabi. She and one of her graduate students demonstrated their Emerald technology, and it was the first time I’d seen this capability. I’m sure you remember the “Help I’ve Fallen and Can’t Get Up” TV commercial of late night fame. Dina’s question was: why doesn’t this work most of the time? The answer is that it’s hard to get people to wear something.

The Emerald approach is to do away with the thing you wear. They place a low-power (far less than a wifi router) wireless beacon in your apartment, and it can track the exact location (including altitude) of up to five people. Even th…

Geek Heresy

I just finished reading Kentaro Toyama’s new book, Geek Heresy, tackling the cult of technology as a cure-all for society’s ills. He’s a geek (former Microsoft Research guy) who is making the case that technology doesn’t make the kind of social impact it claims to deliver.

There’s often more value to me in reading iconoclastic books than feel-good affirmations of popular icons! For example, I extracted many insights about the international development field reading books like Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts or Maren’s Road to Hell. Toyama offers up strong criticisms as well as constructive advice about how to best apply technology to social problems. At the same time, there are some flaws in his arguments that are worth pointing out.

Smashing Icons Toyama’s central thesis is that we tend to overstate the benefits of technology as a magic bullet. He’s countering the world view that the technology just needs to get in the hands of the poor and miracles will happen. He broadens this to ta…

From Money to Meaning

Big complex social problems. Your skills and experiences. Benetech. Combining those three potent ingredients is how we change the world. If you’ve been burning to use your considerable talents to make a difference, rather than make a lot of money, it’s time you considered joining our growing team.

We are looking for more than a dozen motivated individuals to make the leap to positive social impact. From executives to summer interns, from engineers and product managers, to communications and outreach professionals, we have a wide range of opportunities.

From children with disabilities to African human rights activists, you will have direct exposure to how Benetech’s products and services change lives for the better. Our benefits are great, and our pay is excellent by nonprofit standards! Flexibility is one of our core values. It’s just one of the reasons that Benetech is the rare software company that is majority women (also true of our managers). We believe in wildcards: if you have…

Ratify Marrakesh!

The United States Senate has a terrific opportunity to expand opportunity The United States Senate has just been presented with the ratification package for the Marrakesh Treaty. We are joining with our peers in the disability and library community in a joint statement to strongly encourage the Senate to ratify the treaty and for Congress to implement the minor legislative changes recommended as part of the package.

We know a great deal about this Treaty, which is designed to help people who are blind or have other disabilities that interfere with reading, such as dyslexia. Our nonprofit organization operates Bookshare, the largest online library in the world that focuses on the needs of people with these disabilities. The creation of Bookshare was made possible because of an enlightened copyright law exception. And, that American copyright exception was the inspiration for the Marrakesh Treaty!

Because the Marrakesh Treaty was modeled after the Chafee Amendment, as the Section 121 …

Silicon Valley’s Developing Conscience: It’s Called Apple

Silicon Valley has a problem. In our quest to build better products and better meet the needs of the world for information, we built the most amazing system for effortless government surveillance as a byproduct. It is now incumbent on Silicon Valley to remedy this situation.

Forcing tech companies to weaken their products through compelling the creation of backdoors would be a massive step backwards.

Whatever the power of search engines or social networks, it’s really the smartphone that is the most incredible tool for tracking our every move and activity. With access to the information collected by a person’s smartphone, it’s probably straightforward to figure out everything important about that person. Who they love. What religion they profess. Their ethnicity. What drugs (legal or illegal) they consume. What content they read or watch. What laws they violate. Every secret.

And, without encryption of this information, the makers of smartphones had effectively handed those secre…

Understanding Income Inequality

Data is a bigger and bigger topic in social change. We need to do a better job of understanding social needs, both to improve our programs and measure their ultimate impact. I spend more and more of my time talking to leaders in the sector, helping advance the use of data for action and impact.

I encourage groups to begin collecting data as part of their basic program activities, and I make the claim that it will eventually allow them to connect their data to other, larger databases and maybe begin to take advantage of big data.

Imagine how my mind has been blown by learning about a huge international income database that has microdata on millions of households from more than 50 countries, all harmonized to make the same kinds of analyses possible across any of these countries! This database should be critically important for understanding poverty at a detailed level.

I just had the thrill of spending an hour with Janet Gornick, the Director of LIS, an international data archive th…

Mary Robinson

Thanks to being a Skoll Award winner, I am frequently blessed with the opportunity to hear from the world’s most inspiring leaders. Whether it’s local in California, or at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, there is a regular chance I will have my mind expanded.

The latest Skoll opportunity came along with the recent visit of Mary Robinson to Palo Alto. She hit the world stage most notably as Ireland’s first female president, and has continued to campaign for the world’s most vulnerable people, especially women.

Mary spoke privately to a small group of social sector leaders at the Skoll Foundation offices. I want to share just two insights from Mary that made a big impression on me.

First, she saw 2015 as having two watershed events. The first was the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. These goals commit all countries of the world to make progress on critical social objectives, such as ending poverty and hunger, improving access to clean water, educati…

Commercial Availability: The Poison Pill for Marrakesh Treaty Implementation

If you can buy a book, you can’t borrow it. 
That’s the lobbying position of some companies in the intellectual property field when implementing the new Marrakesh Copyright Treaty. Marrakesh is intended to end the book famine for people who can’t read regular books because of their disability. Libraries for people who are blind or dyslexic are the primary source of accessible books in audio, large print or braille. But, some companies want to empty the library shelves and insist that only books that can’t be purchased are allowed to be stocked in such libraries. Imagine what a regular library would look like if it couldn’t stock books that could be purchased by the general public! That would pretty much defeat the purpose of having a library.

As the founder of the largest library for people who are blind or who have other significant disabilities that prevent them from reading printed texts (such as dyslexia or brain injuries), I think this is a terrible idea. Since people with dis…

Benetech: the Equilibrium Change Machine

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I just read the new book from Sally Osberg, President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, and strategy guru Roger Martin, Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works. Even though I’m a Skoll Award winner, it really made me think about my organization, Benetech, and what we are trying to accomplish. The book is an expanded version of their seminal article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review from 2007, “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition.” I always refer aspiring social entrepreneurs to the article when they ask me how they can win a Skoll Award. But, it’s always useful to explore the framework of one’s work.  Sally and Roger's book challenged me to do just that.
Framework for Producing Transformative Change Two key concepts from the book really stuck with me. The first is their core concept of equilibrium change. Did the world move from one stable but unjust equilibrium to a new and better one? Of course, this is a familiar concept to me as someone wh…