Showing posts from 2008

Tracy Justesen visits Benetech

Just before the holidays, we had a great visit from Tracy R. Justesen, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services . Tracy's brief at the U.S. Department of Education includes overseeing OSEP, the people who are funding our Bookshare for Education project to serve every student with a print disability in the United States. Tracy's visit really gave our team a chance to shine. John Glass demonstrated the new version of Victor Reader Soft from HumanWare, one of our key access technology partners. John Crossman demonstrated the completely new version of the Bookshare on-line library, which is currently in the first round of beta tests. Paddy Sullivan, part of our membership team, volunteered to demonstrate the new version of Don Johnston's Read:OutLoud software, which will be available once we launch the new site. Carrie Karnos gave the demonstration to Tracy and Margaret Romer (also from Department of Ed) of the ever-popular book mangler, I mean,

China Social Entrepreneurs

On my recent visit to Hong Kong, I was able to see the amount of excitement and interest in social entrepreneurism. One had to assume there's a lot going on in China, too, but it's hard to connect with. I just received an update from KK Tse entitled The Most Inspiring Story from the Symposium on Social Entrepreneurship, talking about 1KG More, a social enterprise that implemented Voluntourism: combining backpacking with delivering books and other gifts for rural Chinese children. Their latest venture: Twin books are a pair of selected books for children. If one book is sold in cities, another book will be donated to rural children. The owners of these two books will become a “twin”. Through the twin code in the book, the children in cities can find contact information of rural children on Twin Book’s website and make communication through letters with rural children. The twin book project sold over 2000 fairy story books in 2007 and more than 1000 rural students benefited fro

Getting a Genset in Chennai

We have a partnership with the Worth Trust in Chennai, India, to do data entry for, funded by the Lavelle Fund. I blogged about it in May: Scanning in Tamil Nadu . Our international manager, Viji Dilip, recently wrote about making a change in what kind of capital equipment to get Worth Trust to help carry out their work: Strange as it may sound I grew up with hearing this often, "Everyone please save all your files now as the current will be going off in the next five minutes." OK, there were no computers when I was growing up in India but the current going "off" was very common. Sometimes for an hour or two and in summer for several hours at a stretch when the Electricity Board scheduled power cuts for every city . These power cuts could last from anywhere from an hour to three hours in the afternoon depending on when the supervisor at the EB came back from lunch. "There was no current" was our equivalent of "The dog a

I am Potential

Our team is delighted that we've just added I Am Potential, by Patrick Henry Hughes to the collection . Patrick's story is getting a lot of deserved attention nationally as a significantly disabled college student who hasn't let disabilities stop him from pursuing his dreams. What is even cooler is that Perseus Books, Patrick's publisher, reached out to us during the production process to make sure that the book was available to people with print disabilities. Even coolerer (I know that's not a word, but this is a blog so it's ok), is that is plugged on the copyright page of the print book with the phrase: Alternate editions for the visually impaired are available through Benetech at So, users are invited to check out Patrick's book, and everybody else who's interested should buy a copy! And, thank you to Perseus Books for going the extra mile in ensuring this book is availabl

Seeing the United Arab Emirates

I went to Dubai for the first ever Summit on the Global Agenda . The Summit pulled together experts on roughly seventy different topics to discuss the current and future state of major issue areas: areas as varied as water, mining, nanotechnology, governance, economic development, economic meltdown (kidding) and so on. Obviously, there was a lot of buzz about the financial meltdown, especially in a place like Dubai that has built itself up as a major international business center (Dubai as an emirate has relatively little oil compared to some of the other gulf emirates). I spent the day before the council driving around the United Arab Emirates and a bit in Oman. The UAE are in an incredible state of construction: I don't know of many places on earth (other than China) where so much has been built so fast. Out in the middle of the desert, you would encounter brand-new freeways, or towns that seemed to have been plopped down in the middle of nowhere. This one small town seemed t

To Dubai on an Emirates Airbus 380

My current business trip started by heading for Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I had been invited to attend the Global Agenda Council meeting organized by the World Economic Forum. It was easier to say yes than usual: I'd never been to Dubai or the region, and the government of Dubai and Emirates airline offered to fly me there business class! I was stunned when I found out in New York that the plane I was boarding was the new Airbus A380, the massive, double-decker airliner. The entire second floor is first and business class, and the first class (which I didn't get to see) is famous for having showers. The experience was wonderful, although I must admit I slept soundly for at least eight hours. When I got up, I hung out in the bar taking pictures (of course). I had slept through the night and into the late afternoon in the Middle East. We flew over snow-capped mountains in Turkey. I was surprised a little later to realize that we were flying over Iraq. It seemed ironic

The Bookshare Bulletin

We've just started up a new publication, The Bookshare Bulletin . It's amazing to me how much our team has gotten done over the last year! There are easily a dozen articles in this first issue about our new website, international work and many more. I'm quite excited about a new initiative which is the last article in the newsletter. We've now made it easy to report quality issues with Bookshare books, and we have a new wiki-style webpage where all of the reports are posted and updated as the issues are resolved. It's part of our campaign to upgrade the quality of all of our Bookshare content, and to let our users know exactly what we're doing. We think that making this completely transparent will be a big boost to our credibility, while engaging the entire Bookshare community in making our books the best they can be!

Print Access for All: Anna Reid in Chennai

This is a guest blog from Anna Reid, an Amherst student who interned with International this past summer. I received a copy of her reflections and asked if I could share it with more people. Thanks to Anna for saying yes, and for sharing her experiences! Reflections on an internship with in Chennai, India Made possible through support from the Amherst College Center for Community Engagement Anna Reid, religion major, class of 2010 Anna Reid with employees of Worth Trust, a South Indian organization that provides vocational training and employment for people with disabilities. Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that all people deserve "the right to seek, receive and impart information." Today, millions of people are denied this basic human right because they are not literate. A related, but slightly different and less recognized issue, is the fact that people with disabilities such as blindness often have

Colombia’s “False Positives”

Guest blog from Beatriz, one of Benetech's human rights team members in Colombia. We Colombians are a resilient breed, accustomed to waking up to all kinds of distressing news and still somehow managing to go about our daily business. But today’s mood in Colombia is more somber than usual. El Espectador, one of the two most important national daily newspapers, screams out in today’s editorial: "Shame!" After years of denying it and of accusing the human rights organizations that have been saying it for years of being guerrilla sympathizers, President Uribe finally admitted it: some members of the State security forces, primarily from the Army but some from the Police, may have been involved in "assassinations" of civilians, he said. The ugly truth is out, and it is being picked up by international media that can hardly be accused of cozying up to the guerrilla, such as the New York Times. And the truth is hard to take in: Under pressure from their commander i

Benetech covered by ABC-News (San Francisco)

Just spotted a nice video piece on the SoCap conference that features Benetech as one of the new crop of socially responsible businesses . The San Francisco ABC News reporter/anchor Teresa Garcia came out and interviewed Kevin Jones of GoodCap, Tim Freundlich of Calvert and yours truly. What was incredible about the Social Capital Markets conference was that a month before the conference, Kevin was worried about getting the 350 attendees he had planned for, since he had only 200-250 signed up. And then, Lehman Bros. collapsed and suddenly 650 people came! It was exciting to see the energy around applying business to society's needs, even in the face of desperate times. I also appreciated Kevin connecting Teresa Garcia with Benetech: it's great to get the word out about both SoCap and Benetech!

Great Coverage of our Bookshare India Announcement

We just announced the launching of in India, and the response from the Indian press was immediate. The Times of India wrote For print-disabled, reading bestsellers is just a click away. The Indian Express said inks pact with three organisations in India . And, the Hindustan Times also talked about our Online Library for the Blind . It's exciting to see these results from the dedication of Viji Dilip, our Bookshare International Program Manager, and our Indian partners. Bookshare is all about sharing the efforts to make books accessible, and we're delighted to have strong partners for both producing accessible books and providing support to Indian people with disabilities.

M-Pesa is our hippo!

Technology really is becoming an incredible tool for empowering the poor. Whenever I see a great example of this, I get excited. Vital Wave Consulting covers the opportunities in serving developing markets and one of their blog posts really grabbed me. In M-Pesa is our hippo! we get to hear the story of a cell phone banking service that gives the poor effective banking services in Kenya when the country's banks have declined to serve them. Other great comments from users of M-Pesa directed at traditional banks: You closed our accounts and chased us like dogs. Don’t bark at us. The sly person is in trouble when the fool gets smart. And, Kenya is not the only country to discover this opportunity. The Philippines has had cell phone banking for years. The common thread is prepaid cell service. You load up your phone with minutes with money. Why not trade your minutes for money back (for a small fee) or trade minutes with other people as payment for goods and services? These ne

President's Update: Summer 2008

As many folks know, I try to send out quarterly updates on what's new at Benetech. Well, I just got my first one out in 2008! Regular Beneblog readers will know most of this, but it's always handy to pull it together all in one place. Benetech Update: Summer 2008 I'm thrilled to be writing you this update, because this year is unusually exciting even by Benetech standards. I have incredible news: recently won a $32 million competition. You can imagine the impact of going from a $1 million per year enterprise in 2006 to over $7 million in 2008. This means new challenges ahead in scaling to serve every single student with a print disability in the U.S. We are poised to grow not only, but all of our projects. Here are the highlights of this update: for Education awarded $32 million over five years Miradi, our new project management software for the environment Human rights: the International Criminal Cour

Miradi and Conservation

I was just able to attend an exciting conference in Vancouver, ConEx, the Conservation Learning Exchange . It was organized by The Nature Conservancy, but had folks from many of the other leading groups. For me, it was a chance to meet practitioners using our Miradi conservation project management software. Right before I went to the conference I received a copy of the Proceedings of the Appalachian Salamander Conservation Workshop, held this past May. And sprinkled throughout the report were graphics clearly from our Miradi software! While at ConEx, I had the chance to talk about our approach to agile, user-centered development. Jim Patell of Stanford's Business School (and the there) gave his pitch for similar principles in his extreme design for affordability class: it was cool to see an academic approach so grounded in reality and making a difference! At the end of the day, I was part of a meeting of leading conservation techies talking about how to share infor

Tim O'Reilly's challenge

Great article on Tim O'Reilly in the Los Angeles Times . From the story: He is urging young entrepreneurs and engineers to stop making some of the sillier software that lets Facebook users throw virtual sheep at their friends or download virtual beer on iPhones, and instead start making a real difference in the world. He says it's not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. I think this is awesome. We need a movement to form that is much bigger than Gates/Omidyar/Skoll (and Benetech!). The creative brains in the Valley have a lot to offer when they are motivated. Tim is the kind of person that holds immense influence because of his track record for spotting new trends. We're huge O'Reilly fans: Tim has always been socially oriented and more than four years ago gave a license to distribute all of his books to disabled people around the world. By taking that leadership position (and not suffering any arrows in the back for helping us

Beijing School for the Blind

The Beijing School for the Blind dates back to the 19th century, back in the days where the colonial presence was strong. The facilities are impressive, more or less brand new. The principal of the school, proudly showed off plans to expand the campus over the next few years, with high quality architectural site drawings that would have looked perfectly in place in Chicago. Our team toured the school. Like many of the agencies we visited, China is also experiencing a significant increase in kids with multiple disabilities. So, in Hong Kong and in Beijing we saw sensory stimulation rooms for these children. These were quite familiar to folks like Frank Simpson of the Lavelle School in New York and Miki Jordan of the Junior Blind of America in Los Angeles. We visited the English language classroom. We enjoyed getting a chance to chat with a couple of the students who were impressively fluent. We were treated to a funny skit about Chinese tour guides for the Olympics. As we headed ou

China Braille Press

The China Braille Press was another impressive visit. Not only do they produce Braille in quantity, but the Press is also developing affordable technology for blind people such as screenreaders and talking ebook players. It's always a thrill to meet a new group that could be solely a traditional nonprofit, but is clearly thinking like a social enterprise! The facility was several buildings in a compound on the outskirts of Beijing. The Wanping area it is in is being preserved. Apparently, the Sino-Japanese war in the 1930s started nearby, at the Marco Polo Bridge. We visited a room full of Braille transcriptionists, mainly working on textbooks. The software they use was apparently written at the Press. You can see Braille visually on the PC screen appearing as they type. For high volume production, special metal plates are made. A programmed machine was punching the Braille into the plates. The Press has several Braille presses, including one they built themselves. We also g

Fuzhou to Beijing

After a wonderful final banquet with our Hadley China hosts, we got up early to head to Beijing. I was impressed in the airport by a Starbuck's knockoff (check out the color scheme and typefont of SPR Coffee). I ordered a latte and was surprised to find I had just bought a US $12 cup of coffee. Our flight from Fuzhou to Beijing was thankfully uneventful! In Beijing, we planned on combining visiting disability organizations along with a little bit of regular sightseeing. The first disability group we visited was the China Disabled Persons' Federation , which is the main national group. It was founded by Deng Pufang , the son of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. I was a bit surprised that CDPF was pretty dedicated to advancing the rights of people with disabilities, but seemed notably unenthusiastic about the idea of blind people going to university. We had noticed that there were no blind people at one of the big universities we had visited in Fuzhou. There is still a fee

Fuzhou School for the Blind

After celebrating the big Hadley birthday, we got down to visiting several nonprofit organizations that assist the blind. Our first stop was the Fuzhou School for the Blind. When we arrived the students were gathered to greet us. We started with musical numbers. We arrived in China just at the end of the Paralympics. So, paralympic athletes were a big deal. Turns out, three students of the school were on the silver-medal winning blind soccer team (the Paralympic site described it as Football 5-a-Side ). So, we were able to visit with them and congratulate them on their achievement. Hearing that Jimmy Young is a soccer player and coach, they invited us out to play! I vounteered to pair up with Jimmy. Soccer has always been my sport, and I even played collegiate soccer (ok, for Caltech, so that's not saying a huge amount)! First, we played sighted, but that's too much of an advantage. Normally, sighted people have blindfolds when they want to play. So, we closed our eye

Celebrating 20 Years of Hadley China!

We came to Fuzhou for a celebration. Celebrating 20 years is a big deal in China. As you might imagine, it's unusual for a U.S. nonprofit to have been in China for this length of time. The big celebration was held in our hotel, which I think is the nicest hotel in Fuzhou. Many top folks from around the country came for an all-morning event with more than a dozen speakers. They included representatives from different schools from around the country, the U.S. Counsel General, a Vice President from the Disabled Persons Federation and a delegation from Hong Kong. A lot of this was celebrating the achievements of Mr. Xia Rongqiang (Chester), the founder and principal of Hadley China. The main curriculum at Hadley China is around teaching English. One of my favorite speakers was a young Hadley student who was quite talented and appealing. As we went around the country, we kept running into former Hadley students and teachers. It's clear Hadley has had a great impact on the bl


My first stop in mainland China is Fuzhou - 福州 , the capital of Fujian Province. I had heard of the province, but was flabbergasted to not know the name of Fuzhou. Imagine overlooking a city of over 6 million people (described by a Fuzhou native as a "medium-sized Chinese city!"). That's the size of the entire San Francisco Bay Area. I was also surprised by the wealth of this city. My first afternoon in town, I wandered the central shopping district. The products and prices seemed similar to what I'd see in the United States. I mean, the Nike shop and the camera shop had the same products and same prices as I'd expect to pay at a mall in California. In addition to the products and brands I knew, there were quite a number of China-specific brands (like 361 degrees and Sept Wolves). The department stores reminded me a lot of Macy's. One of the key leaders I met described China as "Europe in the cities, Africa in the countryside." Since I didn&