Designing for the Disadvantaged: -- Technology Serving the Rest of Humanity

Jim Fruchterman, President, The Benetech Initiative

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University May 24, 2002

Benetech creates technology tools for the disadvantaged, those whom the technology industry can't afford to serve. Our users include people with disabilities, individuals who can't read, human rights and social justice activists and humanitarian deminers. Our product design group comes from typical Silicon Valley backgrounds, and they quickly learn about designing solutions for customers who simply are not like them.

The saw that technology needs to adapt to people, rather than the reverse, has deep meaning in serving disadvantaged populations. The truck driver who has just lost his vision and his job and the widow in her 80s who has never touched a computer in her life are simply not interested in becoming computer technology experts in order to read or maintain their independence. The human rights activist who has seen friends and family murdered and daily risks her life to denounce injustice, doesn't have time or the skills to master Pretty Good Privacy and send secure emails, so she sends emails in the clear through a military-controlled ISP and lives with even more risk. Technology tools offer these communities the power to overcome barriers they face, but only if the tools are usable. This seminar will discuss the real-world challenges and needs of some representative groups in using computer technology to access information for daily living, literacy, education, employment and justice.

Jim Fruchterman is the founder and CEO of the Benetech Initiative, a Palo Alto nonprofit technology developer. His career path ranges from two degrees at Caltech, brief stints as a Stanford Ph.D. candidate and private rocket engineer (the rocket blew up on the launch pad, but Jim says it wasn't his fault) and founding two successful optical character recognition companies during the 1980s before becoming a social entrepreneur. His first nonprofit venture, Arkenstone, became the world's leading maker of reading machines for the blind before being sold to a for-profit company in 2000. His current nonprofit venture, Benetech, is using the proceeds from that sale to launch a handful of social enterprises, bridging the gap between what's possible and what's profitable with technology. Examples include, a peer-to-peer inspired Web-based digital book library for the disabled and the Martus Project, delivering IT tools, cryptography, secure backup and web publishing to grassroots social justice groups.


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