CEO's Update: Summer/Fall 2015By Jim Fruchterman, posted on November 3, 2015
This is a thrilling time to be in the technology-for-good business. The speed at which consumer and mobile technologies are evolving opens up so many opportunities to make greater social impact that touches more people faster. Our team has been thinking hard about Benetech’s next phase of growth and how we can best seize the tremendous opportunities available to us today to build a better tomorrow for all. My special passion recently has been thinking about using data for greater impact: watch for thought pieces from me on this topic in the coming months. I am delighted to share some of our latest news and exciting developments in our core programs.
Highlights of this Update:
New President, COO for Benetech
The Benetech board recently appointed Betsy Beaumon as President and Mark Roberts as Chief Operating Officer. Having already distinguished themselves as highly effective leaders at Benetech as the VP/GM of our Global Literacy Program and VP of Engineering respectively, Betsy and Mark are setting Benetech on a path to launch new social enterprises and scale up our existing ones. With their expanded responsibilities, my continuing role as CEO is getting a real boost as we forge ahead with the goal of growing Benetech’s impact by at least another factor of ten!
Betsy and Mark’s new officer roles carve out greater space for me to focus on finding the resources to fuel this growth, helping Benetech Labs expand (more on that below), and advocacy.
We are fortunate to have Betsy and Mark at the helm of this important juncture. Betsy—an engineer, technology executive, and social entrepreneur—spearheaded our Global Literacy Program as its general manager for the last six years, leading it through a tremendous expansion in both size and breadth of impact. Mark brings to his new role extensive experience as a senior engineering and operations executive with several high profile Silicon Valley companies. I’m excited about the three of us leading Benetech into the future.
But, there’s more!
I’ve been nurturing Benetech Labs with a small bit of time for over a year. But, if you want a new venture to succeed, you put a dynamic person in charge of it full time. And that dynamic leader is Anh Bui, the newly promoted vice president of our Labs. Anh has been the Director of Product Management for our Global Literacy Program, as well as the Director of our DIAGRAM Center R&D efforts on new frontiers of education technology for students with disabilities, including accessible digital images, 3D printing, and accessible math. Anh now oversees the Labs’ multi-pronged approach to prototype new social good technology applications, launch products with the largest impact and reach, and ignite cross-sector collaboration with the nonprofit, technology, and stakeholder communities.
We now have ten projects that we’re exploring in the Labs including:
- Poet: Makes it easier, cheaper, and faster to create accessible digital images by adding text descriptions to them, so that individuals with visual impairments can experience reading truly accessible ebooks.
- MathML Cloud: Automatically generates mathematical expressions in formats that can be spoken aloud or put into braille, so that students with disabilities can learn more advanced math and science.
- secureApp Generator: Enables nonprofit organizations to create their own custom mobile and desktop applications for secure data collection, using strong, open encryption based on our Martus technology, for advancing social justice and impact.
- 3D Printing for Education: Provides access to 3D educational models for all students, including those with visual disabilities, for improved learning of science, math, and art concepts.
- Secure, open technology for Human Rights: Explores the latest needs for technology with the human rights community and prototypes the next generation of apps for advancing social justice, with funding from Google.org.
Things move quickly with the Labs, so feel free to contact me if you’d like to learn more about these or any other Labs projects.
Bookshare continues to grow rapidly in the U.S. We now have over 350,000 users and 350,000 books available here. However, the need is more than ten times greater outside America for exactly what Bookshare offers. India is an area of special focus for us. We received two major awards this year including a highly competitive All Children Reading grant from USAID, World Vision, and the Australian government to bring accessible, local language books to blind primary school students in Maharashtra, India. As the first country to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty, India has updated their legal landscape to something similar to the U.S. and other developed countries, which supports expanded opportunities for Bookshare impact.
At the same time, we are working to make sure that new “born digital” content is also “born accessible,” meeting our long-term vision of equal access to information via the mass market. We are actively partnering with major publishers, such as Wiley, who are using our many tools, guidelines, and other resources to assist them in making this shift. One of our projects in this area involves leveraging the fast-growing consumer 3D printing industry to provide tactile educational objects to students with and without disabilities, putting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning within reach of more students. This summer we’re holding a national 3D Printing for Education Forum to explore how museums, libraries, educators, and industry leaders can collaborate on this important work.
Our Human Rights team is dedicated to helping activists capture stories and data about abuses. This information not only needs to be captured and kept safe, but used to advance the cause of justice and greater respect for human rights. As technology developers, we have to keep making our software better and easier to use, and keep up with the evolving needs of our users.
Since my last letter, we’ve completed a number of major upgrades to our Martus products. We released version 5 and version 5.1 of the Martus Desktop application, which feature a completely redesigned user interface, updated data reporting tools, and new visualization capabilities including image geotagging. We are also very excited about our mobile Martus Android app which has already had over 10,000 downloads in the past year. It has also generated a huge amount of interest from a wide variety of groups who want their own mobile data gathering apps built on top of the Martus infrastructure. This has inspired the work on the secureApp Generator project in Benetech Labs.
We continue to provide human rights defenders with trainings and ongoing support on using Martus and other secure information technologies. One example is our work with the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. The Alliance supports community organizations serving vulnerable populations affected by HIV or AIDS in developing countries. With our help, the Alliance recently released a comprehensive guide providing step-by-step instructions for building a community-based system for monitoring and responding to human rights-related barriers in accessing HIV and health services. We are very proud of the Alliance’s achievements!
This coming year we will celebrate our 15th anniversary as Benetech—no small feat, especially for a nonprofit! The principle we started with—that the benefits of technology must reach all of humanity—continues to inform our work, with global reach and impact. Yet, over the past fifteen years, much has changed. We are embracing the evolution of global needs and tech, and looking forward to developing more high-impact solutions that improve more lives. I invite you to join us on this journey!
Founder and CEO, Benetech