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The Katherine M. Swanson Equality Award
Emile G. McAnany
The judging panel for the Katherine M. Swanson Equality Award had useful discussions about the merits of different projects, with two major themes emerging from the process: the innovative aspect of the technology and the measurable contribution to a significant audience in need. In the end, neither aspect of the final projects dominated, but a consensus on the finalists was reached that seemed to represent the panel and the best projects among the applicants.
Choice System is a specialized software program that helps turn the Second Harvest distribution of food from a supply driven to a demand driven system. Put simply, most commercial food systems, like our local supermarkets, work on a demand system that tries to anticipate what customers want and make it available to them in the most convenient form for the cheapest price. But Second Harvest receives food donations from various sources and has in the past offered the food they had available to their members, who in turn distribute it to local agencies and thence to their customers. In short, the system “pushes out” the supply without focusing much on demand. Beginning in 2002 when the economic downturn created an increasing number of hungry people, the organization began to rethink its national distribution system and make it more like the demand model of commercial outlets. Second Harvest wanted their 200 members to tell them what they needed to better meet those demands. The process began by creating an Allocation Task Force and asking several people from the College of Business from the University of Chicago to help design a Web-based portal that would allow a more efficient and demand driven distribution system.
The goals for the new system were: increase total food distribution to members (this goal is being accomplished, with about a three percent increase in 2006); have all members participate in the new bidding system (100 percent of the 210 members had signed on by July 2005); improve nutritional mix of food (25 percent of members had made improvements by 2005); encourage each member to maximize and share local foods (20 percent of members have accomplished this goal). The system, in its entirety is to be implemented by 2010. Its long range goal is to reach all 38 million hungry people in the U.S.
More information on Second Harvest is available at: http://www.secondharvest.org and a password protected site for Choice System is: http://donorexpress.aidmatrix.org/ChoiceSystem/newlogin.asp.
Catalytic Communities, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Catalytic Communities wants to tap into the rich experience of local community organizations that have solved common problems. The goal of this endeavor is to share this experience widely with other local communities. The premise is that local knowledge can be shared via the Internet so that one community can learn from another anywhere in the world. The first question that arises is language: would English dominate the Web site as is often the case? The next question is localization: how the community experiences are organized so that the variety of local experiences can be generalized in some way that fits very different local contexts? The final question is: how to get the sharing started? Theresa Williamson, the founder of Catalytic Communities, in 2003 had answers for all of these questions. She started with Rio de Janeiro, a city with a great deal of local community activity and a long history of using computers and the Internet to integrate activities of community and even national organizations. She was able to create two levels of her fledgling organization: first, she began to build the database, Community Solutions Database, with the experiences of local community organizations in Rio, first in Portuguese and later in English and Spanish. At the same time, she helped to provide a structure for this information so that it shared a common set of categories. Most importantly, through her personal connections she began to get others to join the common pool of knowledge for the Web site, first in Brazil and later in other countries. Finally, she also helped create a physical location in Rio where people could come together and share their community building experiences face to face with others who came to learn and later to contribute their solutions for others to share.
What has been the success of this process? The notion of sharing experiences on a Web site is not new, and the question of how to scale such a proposition to a level where it will become self-sustaining is always a challenging one. Catalytic Communities, through careful planning and some marketing among the organizations it wants to include, has made a successful start in the past three years. Their Web site contains a number of testimonials as to the nature of the help that Catalytic Communities has provided: help in fund raising, finding forms of commerce that help sustainability of organizations, building connections among organizations, and providing a venue for making different organizations known to others. In addition to the numerous anecdotes, the organization provides quantitative indicators of impact: an increase from 7,000 to 22,000 Web site visitors per month from 2005 to 2006; 113 projects in the database in three languages with 111 awaiting completion; seven other countries with databases: (the U.S., Canada, India, Israel, Nigeria, Sudan, and Togo); and a paid staff of seven in Brazil with numerous volunteers and collaborators. The issue of social benefit always is difficult to measure in a case like this because it is hard to say what impact a contact with the database or a visit to the center in Rio might yield. The testimonials are an attempt to begin to understand this issue. The scale or reach of Web site visitors and the number of cases posted on the Web site are other indicators of social benefit. Thus far the growth of the organization and the kinds of people it is reaching in the community organizations it has recruited to the Web site postings and the use of the center in Rio are indicators that Catalytic Communities is moving in the right direction.
You can follow it by checking at: http://www.catcomm.org.
Daniel K. Davies, AbleLink Technologies, Inc., Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.
AbleLink is a small company that has been a pioneer in harnessing information technologies for the needs of the cognitively impaired. This group includes not only the retarded and those with autism, but also those with Alzheimer’s disease, Down’s Syndrome, stroke victims, and those with memory problems. They number in the millions in the U.S. and in the tens of millions worldwide. AbleLink has developed, field tested, and brought to market a suite of 14 products for the cognitively disabled that allows them to be more independent and function more freely in daily life. The leader in this effort and founder of AbleLink is Dan Davies. Since 1991 he has worked to bring computer software to bear on such everyday tasks of this disabled group as scheduling and appointments, keeping a checkbook, using the Internet and learning how to take a new bus route.
Most of us take for granted these everyday skills that we pick up easily and forget that for millions of people these tasks represent a huge challenge. Dan Davies has worked for the last fifteen years to make sure that different forms of software in different devices from PCs to cell phones, make it possible for the cognitively disabled to experience some freedom and independence. The task is not just creating software and hardware to help people accomplish these tasks, but it is to persuade this community and their professional groups and caregivers to adopt the assistive technologies that are now available. It has been a slow process, but it appears that more caregivers and disabled people themselves are recognizing the benefits of technology and are overcoming the hesitation of trying something new. Caregivers are finding the technologies useful as well as some older people who find the ease of use an attractive feature of these technologies.
More information can be found at: http://www.ablelinktech.com.
K-NFB Reading Technology, Inc., Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, U.S.
Ray Kurzweil has worked for over thirty years to develop assistive technologies for the blind and visually impaired. In the 1970s he developed software for optical recognition and a flatbed scanner to translate print to a computer hard drive; he then developed a speech synthesizer that made the translation of the scanned print into speech for the blind. These three technologies were the first and best of a series of other technologies that were developed to help the blind access texts such as books and newspapers from their desktop computers. Kurzweil’s technologies have been market leaders for three decades. As the desktop computer began to be loosened from its moorings with laptops and handheld computers and PDAs and cell phones, Kurzweil and his collaborator, The National Federation of the Blind, began to search for ways that the blind too could benefit from mobile technologies.
The challenge was to take his optical character recognition software and his text-to-speech software and to squeeze it into a PDA device. As well, he and his team had to attach a digital camera and write intelligent image processing software that would be able to correct the highly distorted images of various texts that are found in everyday life: menus, titles of books or CD’s in stores, street signs, clothing labels, or ATM screens. The challenge was met through the close collaboration of Kurzweil and the members of the National Federation of the Blind, which helped assure that the design was appropriate to the needs of the blind. Responses from the first blind users (the first 200 units were shipped in March, 2006) have been overwhelmingly positive. Two thousand units should be shipped by the end of 2006. This innovative technology developed for a large disabled population in the U.S. (The National Federation for the Blind alone has 50,000 members and there are an estimated 10 million blind and visually impaired in the U.S. alone) is very promising. The question of scale remains to be answered for the technology since it has just been introduced to the market. From all indications, the blind and visually impaired will find it a very useful aid to independent living. But there is also the issue of cost (each unit currently sells for $3,495) and whether it will come down as more units are sold and whether there will be subsidies provided by agencies that serve this population. There are many among the millions of blind in this country who would find the cost prohibitive. This is an issue, however, that will be answered over time.
More information is available at: http://www.kurzweiltech.com.
Video Volunteers, New York, New York, U.S.
Video Volunteers is a newly formed organization that has broad ambitions to change the world with video. If this seems like something you have heard before, wait before you stop reading. Video Volunteers has developed a unique model that overcomes a number of key weaknesses of previous experiences. The model contains four elements that are carefully articulated. The first is a partnership with a strong, local, non-government organization (NGO) that has a mission for social change and an established track record in that work. What this does is create a venue where trained video units can be incorporated into a social organization rather than operating as a stand- alone professional group trying to serve many organizations. Second, Video Volunteers provides an intense training program with four to ten local people to form a Community Video Unit (CVU) within the NGO. Even if there is some leakage by people who have been trained leaving the NGO for other jobs, the unit would have more than one or two people to carry on the work. Third, the need for sustainability (who pays for the videos to be made on a regular basis) is part of the model and becomes part of the planning. In some cases, members of the CVU do wedding videos to make a living so that they can also work with the NGO; in other cases, the NGO finds funding for them. But the bottom line is that they need to figure out how they can be self-sustaining. Fourth, production of a monthly news video from the NGO must be distributed to at least 10,000 people through wide screen projectors in villages, local cable television or DVDs. The emphasis on widespread distribution of regularly produced content means that the CVU will function more on a television than a film model, which has hampered use of community video in the past. Greatly improved video equipment and its widespread use by people suggest that the time is right for video as a technology to be incorporated into the work of social change.
What has been the record of Video Volunteers to date? It began with volunteers serving as trainers for some of the 16 CVUs. Currently, the organization is working with a local video collective in India that will provide trainers for new CVUs. In turn people already trained and operating in CVUs can become trainers of others. The challenges for Video Volunteers are: scaling, assuring that all elements of the model remain in place for CVUs, and finally, evaluation. The first challenge of scaling is for the New York based central organization to expand to other countries and to identify worthy NGO partners in new locations. The technology must be used within the parameters of the model developed by Video Volunteers or else it will fail. Finally, the work of creating social change through video depends on continuing evaluation of the results. This is the future challenge of the organization and its funders: how to ascertain that social change is really taking place.
For more information please go to: http://videovolunteers.org,
This year, the applications for the Katherine M. Swanson Equality Award were as exciting in their aspirations as ever. There are many groups in our world who suffer from unequal opportunity to live a normal life. Often we do not pause to think about this unless there is some crisis. Otherwise we forget that disadvantaged groups such as the blind, the cognitively disabled, and the poor all face daily challenges that can be helped, if not permanently changed, by the innovative use of technology. Our Laureates and, indeed, all of the applications for the Katherine M. Swanson Equality Award, are examples of people trying to make life more equitable for the disadvantaged. Their projects make the work of the judging panel not so much mere labor as a chance to be inspired. One hopes that there is an accumulation of knowledge here that can be handed on to others for inspiration and imitation.
Emile McAnany, Chair, Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University
Mark Aschheim, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, Santa Clara University
Jeffrey Baerwald, S.J., Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology, Santa Clara University
Stuart Gannes, Director, Digital Vision Fellowship Program, Stanford University
Brad Mattson, Chairman, Tegal Corporation
Paul Meissner, Executive Vice President, Global Business Operations, Coherent, Inc.
John Woldrich, Former COO, Fair, Isaac & Co.