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The last social mile

Persistent readers of net.wars may remember that last February I spent a month working in an office. A couple of days ago, it was announced that Jim Fruchterman, the owner The Benetech Initiative, the office in question, has been given the MacArthur "Genius" award for his work as a "social entrepreneur".

The $500,000 award joins Fruchterman to a pretty elite and eclectic gang: Richard Stallman (free software pioneer), Pamela Samuelson (the first to blow the whistle on where copyright was going), and (the first time I ever heard of these awards) magician and paranormal investigator James Randi. The awards famously have no strings: you could take the half-mil and head for retirement. But the people MacArthur picks are the passionate, creative kind who are too driven to do anything but plough the money back into their work.

My corner of Benetech was the Human Rights Database Group which, under the leadership of Patrick Ball, uses relational databases to extract scientifically defensible statistics from testimony documenting human rights abuses, and also makes the Martus program to securely collect and manage unstructured information (such as testimony). But HRDAG is only one of several Benetech projects. Its other programs include Bookshare, an effort that (legally) scans in books to make them available to the vision-impaired, Route 66, a literacy program for adults and teenagers with learning disabilities, and a new tool for landmine detection and removal.

When I was there, Fruchterman, had just returned from his fourth visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he'd been hobnobbing with the sort of people who have to check their aircraft carriers at the door. No entourages and, sadly, not much in the way of direct quotables. Fruchterman's presence at Davos reflected five years of increasing interest in incorporating the social sector into what began as primarily a meeting between business and government (plus the occasional rock star). Religious leaders, Union leaders, non-government organisations, and Fruchterman's own category, social entrepreneurs, are all represented now, he said, and about half of the content of the conference is about social issues. Concerned at the beginning that their invitations might just be "social window dressing", there is now a general sense that they belong.

Enlightened self-interest," he said, in explaining why the welfare of the less fortunate is important to the Davos crowd. It's a quote from Tony Blair, but the point is clear: investing in the socially less fortunate is a matter of self-preservation. Global warming doesn't distinguish between rich and poor countries, just as incurable tuberculosis flitting through an aircraft's ventilation system doesn't discriminate between the rich person in first class and the relatively poor one sitting 30 rows back.

There's a clear line from the first company Fruchterman founded, Calera, an early (1982) optical character recognition company, to Benetech: Fruchterman started wanting to build a reading machine as long ago as his years studying pattern recognition as an undergraduate at Caltech. He didn't have the usual sort of reason; neither he nor a family member has a visual disability. Other than a short detour to start a rocket company ("the rocket blew up") making the world of text available to the visually impaired is a constant thread through his work life.

In 1989, he founded Arkenstone, a non-profit that used Calera's optical character recognition to develop and market such a machine for the blind. It was, he says, a technical breakthrough because the machine needed no training and did not need specific fonts. Arkenstone was eventually sold to Freedom Scientific, which shares Benetech's offices in Palo Alto.

"When you start a company," Fruchterman told me he'd come out of Davos this year thinking, "you imagine there's a gap that needs to be filled, that's why you're doing it. Sometimes you want to make a lot of money. Something you do it because you want to build something – like the average engineer. I came out realizing that there are a whole bunch of demands that people are beginning to put on technology and content. For example, they want better education, more literacy, more health, better economic opportunities for the poor, cleaner energy, to stop global warming."

We're now past the stage of a few years ago, when people were still trying to understand what the issues were. Now, we pretty much know: "It's not complicated, but we need to figure out ways." As a simple example: "Stop systematically screwing poor countries."

By now, he said, "We are transitioning from hype-filled discussions of, 'We have to fix the digital divide' to asking what that really means. People are experimenting." He sees two separate threads to those experiments. One: the PC thread. This includes Negroponte and his cheap laptops, Microsoft's starter edition, Linux and open source generally. The other: the mobile phone group, who are convinced that cellphones will be the platform for everything.

For what Fruchterman does, "I don't care which group wins. The fact that both support Web browsing means we could be delivering Route 66 content to teach people reading and digital textbooks on these platforms." As long as Benetech can build what Fruchterman calls the "last social mile" on the platform, Fruchterman is happy.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post comments here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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