CEO’s Update: Spring 2014By Jim Fruchterman, posted on June 19, 2014
10X: ten times the impact. That’s what’s been on my mind lately. How can our existing successful programs reach ten times more people? How can we use technology in a new way to improve people’s lives that is an order of magnitude better? Can we help stimulate the creation of far more technology-for-good ventures?
The Benetech team has already accomplished great things for our users, but there is so much more we can do. Technology currently serves privileged groups through tools that provide access to education, literacy, health, and justice. But what about everybody else? While it’s not a panacea, technology has been the engine of so many improvements in society.
The time has never been better to think 10X bigger! I have disruptive approaches to social innovation in mind, with an increasingly connected society where the cost of prototyping and deploying new products is extremely low, and where innovation is no longer the sole purview of well-funded for-profit corporations. We deliver philanthropic donors exciting returns on their investments (i.e., donations), but we focus exclusively on return to humanity.
At Benetech, we are harnessing these new rules of innovation. We want to help lead the charge into a future where the advantages of digital information touch the lives of all people, not just of the richest and most able five percent of humanity.
As always, I’m delighted to share the latest Benetech highlights as we work on these ambitious 10X dreams!
Highlights of this Update:
In the age of hyper-surveillance, it is clear that at-risk human rights defenders are no longer the only ones who need the know-how to protect sensitive information. This is especially true given that so many nonprofit and humanitarian groups are collecting private information that, even though intended to help, could inadvertently put the vulnerable populations they serve at risk of harm from repressive regimes, organized crime, and increasingly corporations.
Benetech is tackling these issues on two fronts, thanks to the leadership of Enrique Piracés, who joined us last year from Human Rights Watch. First, we are working to lower the barrier to the use of strong encryption to automatically protect the privacy of sensitive information. Second, we are stepping up our efforts to increase the awareness of this critical issue and practical actions that can be taken.
One major step to improving security of sensitive information was the recent development and release of Mobile Martus. Built on our Martus technology, Mobile Martus is designed to bring secure data collection, storage, and backup closer to activists working in the field. The application allows any user to send information—including photos, videos, audio, or text—simply and securely to a Martus account. The information can then be erased from the phone, to safeguard it from the phone’s possible loss or confiscation.
We are also doing far more to spread the word about technology for rights activists, often in close collaboration with major partners in the human rights field such as Human Rights Watch and WITNESS. Our team presented at multiple sessions at the recent RightsCon Silicon Valley conference, which brought together human rights defenders, security experts, and tech executives. Prior to the conference, Enrique Piracés and I authored a Huffington Post op-ed on human rights and the duty to protect sensitive data and our maxim: first, do no harm. Based on that message, at the following 30th TED conference in Vancouver, Canada, I delivered an onstage exhortation to fellow technologists to secure their customers’ sensitive information in response to Edward Snowden’s surprise virtual TED interview. Moreover, we recently held a two-day workshop in New York City, bringing together a wide range of activists and funders, developing a model we plan to replicate around the world.
With these tools, our goal is to make the defenders of human rights stronger in their fight against injustice and abuse. This year, it’s been especially worrisome to see the rising tide of violence against the lesbian and gay communities around the world. This is one reason why our Human Rights Field Team is supporting LGBTI rights groups from the Caribbean to the African regions with targeted Martus and capacity building trainings. For LGBTI individuals—like courageous Ugandan activist Richard Lusimbo, who was outed on the front page of a Ugandan tabloid—the availability of Martus and our in-field support is life changing. I encourage you to read his powerful story on our website.
Our Bookshare online library is continuing to multiply its impact. The Global Literacy team, led by VP & General Manager Betsy Beaumon, just celebrated our latest major milestones: serving 300,000 members, the majority of whom are American students with disabilities, and offering 250,000 accessible books on the virtual shelves of our library. This represents a 10x growth over the past 6 years, and a 20% and 25% growth, respectively, over less than a year: growth rates associated more with successful commercial services, and unheard of in our field. With Bookshare, our student members can access and read the books they need—in the classroom, at home, and on the go—and have a fair opportunity to succeed at school just like their peers without disabilities. And we do this at a per-book cost less than one-tenth of the traditional approaches!
The next 10X opportunity is to go global, by expanding Bookshare International to serve the millions of people with print disabilities worldwide. The Oak Foundation just awarded us a grant to provide accessible content to people with qualifying learning differences (like dyslexia) in Brazil, India, and the United Kingdom. Canadians with disabilities will now have access to Bookshare through their public libraries and the Canadian National Institute of the Blind. The Lavelle Foundation is supporting us to expand Bookshare in India, which will likely be our first full-scale replication of Bookshare outside the U.S. All of this work helps us support the international effort for full implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty—a global copyright exception model that provides the legal framework for greater sharing of accessible books across national borders.
What about yet another order of magnitude beyond that? We believe that all ebooks should be fully accessible, so that a person with a disability can effectively use the exact same ebook that somebody without a disability gets on their Kindle or iPad. Our Born Accessible and DIAGRAM Center initiatives are leading the way towards this transition to inclusive publishing, by engaging a broad community of industry and technology leaders. We recently won a Microsoft’s Solutions for Good award, which funds the development of MathML Cloud—a cloud-based app that can make math equations talk in any web browser or ebook. We want to see that students with disabilities have equal opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.
We even convinced schema.org—the standards setting body for the big search engines—to adopt a standard to make it easier to discover accessible materials online. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our Accessibility Metadata Project will make it possible for people with disabilities to find materials in the format that works best for them as they search for the information they need for education, employment, and greater inclusion in society.
Benetech Labs and Board of Directors
We kicked off 2014 in Benetech Labs with our inaugural Labs brainstorm meeting talking about 3D printing for education and software to help deliver clean water, with a great group of leaders from the technology, philanthropy, social innovation, and education sectors. These Labs supporters make it possible for us to explore many new Labs project ideas, looking for the next great social enterprise.
We are also excited that technologist and social entrepreneur Kushal Chakrabarti has joined us part-time as Senior Advisor while we are in the early stages of the Labs. Kushal is the founder and co-chairman of Vittana, an award-winning nonprofit that fights youth poverty in developing countries. His expertise in rapid product development coupled with his experience pioneering disruptive social services will provide a critical global perspective that will help us take Benetech Labs to the next level.
Finally, we are thrilled to have Christy Chin step into a new role of Chair of the Benetech Board of Directors. A Managing Director at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Christy has made invaluable contributions to Benetech since she joined our Board in 2009. I am especially excited, as I’ve been our Chair since our founding, and know that Christy’s leadership will be crucial in taking Benetech to that next factor of ten increase in impact.
This is a most exciting time for the technology-for-good movement and for Benetech. Information technology is touching all aspects of society, and every area—whether health, poverty, education, human rights, or the environment—can be improved with the right technology tools. I invite you to join us as we open new frontiers at the intersection of technology and social change.
My number one job these days is talking to bold philanthropists who share my excitement about helping so many more people through factor of ten improvements. These dramatic changes couldn’t be possible without people who are willing to bet on our team and their vision of technology making a better world. If you want to speak with me about this personally, or know someone who would (or should), I would love to get together with you!
Founder and CEO, Benetech