Not for the first time, information technology is being touted as the answer to problems besetting developing countries, offering them, it has been thought, an opportunity to leapfrog poor infrastructure. The leapfrogging notion has been debunked among others by Abdelmalek Alouawi in Forbes magazine on 22 October 2014, and by Schumpeter in his 4 August 2016 column in The Economist. But “hope springs eternal”. Currently the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the flavour of the month in South Africa. Whilst I do not doubt that the advent of “cyber-physical systems” is likely to have massive impacts on societies and the world economy, embedding technology in society and even in human bodies (count me out, please), I fear that unrealistic expectations will again distract South Africa’s policy makers from the basic, nitty gritty chores we have to tackle. For example, ensuring that rural schools are accommodated in functional buildings with running water and electricity, and that kids are taught by competent and motivated teachers – and may I add, ensuring that schools are provided with appropriate learning resources, preferably made accessible in properly staffed school libraries.
That does not make me a technophobe. On the contrary, I believe that technology can make a huge difference to people’s lives. Here is a case in point.
On 25 September Benetech, a Silicon Valley-based non-profit organization that develops software for social good, celebrated the delivery of 15 million books to people with reading barriers through its Bookshare online library service and network, which Benetech describes as follows:
Benetech’s Bookshare initiative is an online library and platform that makes reading easier for people with disabilities. Fewer than 10% of all published books are in formats that people with reading barriers can access, and in developing countries, this falls to less than 1%. The lack of accessible content affects the over 250 million people around the world who have visual impairments, and hundreds of millions more who have disabilities like dyslexia and cerebral palsy, who need books in alternative formats to read and learn. Bookshare users can read in ways that work for them with ebooks in audio, large print, audio + highlighted text, braille, and other customizable options. Hundreds of thousands of people with reading barriers have read over 15 million books using the Bookshare platform. Bookshare operates in more than 80 countries, and has a growing collection of books [approaching 760,000 titles] in nearly 50 different languages, with local content added by volunteers around the world. Membership subscriptions are available on a sliding scale based on the World Bank designation of country income levels, and membership is free or subsidized for many people around the world thanks to partnerships with local governments, libraries, and other organizations. To learn more about Bookshare, visit www.bookshare.org.
Benetech was founded some thirty years ago by Jim Fruchterman to develop software and IT for social good, i.e. socially beneficial applications. Jim is an engineer who founded two successful for-profit companies and then decided to turn his entrepreneurial and tech talents to enterprises for social good, becoming a “social entrepreneur” who harnesses advanced information technology to address social problems worldwide. Jim advocates for social responsibility in the information technology industries, and served on the original drafting team for the Treaty of Marrakesh.
Bookshare is but one of Benetech’s products. Among other things, Benetech has developed software which enables activists to document human rights violations, so that their stories can be substantiated in support of their advocacy activities. Benetech has also developed open source software for environmental management and planning, which is particularly appropriate for the developing world.
Congratulations, Jim, and Benetech, on this milestone, and for demonstrating that information technology, creatively developed, can be applied for social good.