Today Benetech, with 20 employees, pulls in $4 million in “revenues.” It gets about a quarter of that $4 million from sales of its products, a quarter from individual philanthropists or their foundations, a quarter from government grants or contracts, and the rest from traditional foundations like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Oak Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. Last year, for the first time, technology entrepreneurs made up Benetech’s largest group of individual contributors.
High-tech companies kick in a lot of noncash support. Hewlett-Packard lets Benetech buy scanners for its Bookshare project at a wholesale rate. For a time, Benetech manufactured DECtalk cards to convert the digital information into speech under a discounted license. And Intel, over the years, has donated between one and two million dollars’ worth of chips to the company.
Eight of Benetech’s full-time workers do engineering development; another four or five support them on specific projects. The rest manage or market the different businesses. The company has eight additional full- or part-time contractors outside the United States. And Benetech is hiring as it adds projects.
Even Benetech’s payroll is an experiment in social innovation. Besides the full-time staff, Benetech has a revolving crew of temporary workers, or “fellows.” Fruchterman established this fellowship program after the dot-com bust, when many talented engineers suddenly found themselves unemployed. Fellows work from six to 12 months and get roughly $3000 a month—plus full health insurance. The program helped a dozen technology professionals ride out the worst of the slump, and some found their next jobs in nonprofits, foundations, or other businesses looking to help humanity. The company also has a few engineers who are going full out in their for-profit careers but donating a few days a year consulting on Benetech projects.
Benetech pays its engineers what Fruchterman describes as “second quartile” pay scales--that is, below average, but not egregiously so. An engineer who might make $90 000 a year at IBM or GE might command $120 000 at Google and about $80 000 or $85 000 at Benetech. But the benefits are generous, and the hours are flexible to the extreme. Fruchterman even chose the company’s location for its proximity to public transportation, restaurants, and other conveniences.
Says Janice Carter, a former Hasbro executive who is now the director of literacy programs for Benetech, “The fact that I’m personally making less money doesn’t matter. I cover my expenses. I’m old enough to know what my needs and expenses are; I don’t need to create as much wealth as possible.”
Patrick Ball, Benetech’s chief technology officer, says his compensation at Benetech is similar to what he would be making in academia, the only other career path he can imagine. And the opportunities to do interesting research—and to make a difference—are greater at Benetech, he says. “In academia, social science projects are small, because you don’t have that much time to devote to them and you don’t have the fund-raising reach to get the money to do them right,” Ball says. “And academics have a hard time getting out of the university and into the field for long periods of time. Here, we’re in the field constantly; I was on the road nine and a half months last year. So we get much better data.”
Ball came to Benetech to run the company’s human rights programs, including the Martus system—one tool Benetech is using to make a difference [see photo, “Higher Calling”].
The point of Martus, the Greek word for “witness,” is to collect and disseminate information about human rights abuses.
Fruchterman and Ross didn’t come up with the idea on their own. The voluble Fruchterman spent months talking about the possibilities of matching technology to human rights work. He visited people at Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other national and international organizations. He went to conferences. And people confided in him about their experiences, their hopes, and their fears.
What eventually emerged is both PC software and a distributed server network that enable human rights workers to track incidents in a way that is at once simple and secure. Martus software generates forms for the collection of data. The software automatically encrypts data entered, protecting the information—and its source—in case the computer is stolen or confiscated. Whenever the computer has Internet access, the Martus software automatically uploads the data to a network of servers around the world, in such diverse cities as Bogotá, Colombia; Bangkok; Nairobi, Kenya; and Seattle. The Martus system replicates the same data on each server, so that if one server is compromised, the same information can still be accessed on other servers. Benetech’s engineers assembled much of the product from open-source code but had to develop their own networking interface that could work reliably at the extremely low bandwidths common in remote areas.
Human rights workers are now using Martus to collect oral histories in Iraq and sort through the national police archives in Guatemala to document abuses during that country’s 36-year civil war. They also use it to share information about continuing murders and disappearances of political activists in the Philippines, and generally track abuses in some 70 other countries.
In a related project, Benetech has been using its Analyzer software system for projects of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, which provides data analysis services for investigative groups and does statistical analysis for human rights researchers. Analyzer development started in 1991, and Ball brought the project with him from the American Association for the Advancement of Science when he came to Benetech in 2003.
Once Fruchterman got the Martus project under way, he went back to thinking about how technology could help blind people. The inspiration for his latest endeavor in tools for the blind came from an unlikely place.
In 1999, Fruchterman lived near Eileen Richardson, then CEO of Napster. So Fruchterman knew all about Napster before most other people did; it struck him immediately as extremely brilliant and probably illegal. But it also occurred to him that he might be able to share files of books for the blind, as opposed to songs, legally. The 1996 Chafee Amendment to the U.S. copyright code allows nonprofit organizations to convert copyrighted materials that are not available for the print disabled (which includes the visually impaired, the learning disabled, and the movement impaired) into a form that can be distributed without obtaining a license or paying royalties.
Fruchterman spent a year talking to publishing groups and lawyers about the project and in 2002 launched Bookshare.org, a service to provide books in a structured digital form that can be easily and efficiently navigated with a braille reader or voice synthesizer. Bookshare charges $50 a year plus a $25 setup fee for unlimited access to its database of 30 000 books and several hundred periodicals, including 150 daily newspapers. The service now has 5000 subscribers, and Carter, who manages the project, expects it to begin breaking even at 10 000 subscribers within the next two years (the service is still partially funded by grant money). At that point, Carter hopes to roll the service out at a discounted rate to other countries.
Bookshare gets the bulk of its content from some 200 volunteers around the country who chop apart books and optically scan them into the Bookshare system. Thanks to those volunteers, Bookshare posted J.K. Rowling’s latest effort, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, on 16 July 2005 at 6 a.m.—6 hours after its release. By the end of that day, almost half of Bookshare’s subscribers had downloaded it. Increasingly, however, Bookshare is signing deals with publishers that commit to providing text that is already in electronic form. To prevent misuse of the files, Bookshare uses an electronic “fingerprint” system that digitally stamps each downloaded book with a code that identifies the registered user. If a copy of a book is redistributed unlawfully, Benetech can immediately tell which user redistributed that copy and will then shut down that person’s account.
People who can see—but not read—will benefit from Benetech’s new literacy project. In a cooperative effort with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Benetech is creating a Web-based system for teaching reading. Educators at the university are developing the content; Benetech is developing the authoring tools to let educators with little technical expertise do this content development. Benetech is also creating the business model and the subscription service. Called Route 66, the project finished beta testing in August and is to roll out to users by year-end.
As the system is envisioned, any literate adult who knows basic Web navigation can use Route 66 to teach someone to read. The user will download material—for example, a news story, a short piece of fiction, or a poem. Along with the text and illustrations on each electronic page, a teacher’s guide appears, telling the tutor exactly what to say and point out while encouraging the student to read the page aloud. Eventually, Fruchterman envisions Benetech developing a cellphone interface to adapt the reading material and accompanying tutorials for a cellphone’s tiny screen.