Monday, June 18, 2007

Fruchterman: Silicon Valley nonprofit uses technology for social causes

Silicon Valley nonprofit uses technology for social causes
  Jun 17, 2007 Sacramento Bee  

By Maria Henson

"Part of life's journey is figuring out what you're good at," Jim Fruchterman told our group of journalists last month at his Benetech office in Palo Alto. "I'm very good at getting things done."

The former rocket scientist developed and sold a nonprofit company that made reading machines for the blind in June 2000, then launched his next venture.

Service is "what motivates me," said the electrical engineer with degrees from the California Institute of Technology.

Benetech is a nonprofit whose mission is to use technology to serve social causes. It operates on a venture capital model that uses "high-tech discipline" while emphasizing social over financial returns, Fruchterman told Fast Company magazine.

One of its initiatives is, touted as the world's largest digital library for scanned material for people with reading and vision disabilities. Another provides technology to human rights groups to help them collect and analyze stories of individual and human suffering. The United Nations Commission for Historical Clarification relied on Benetech technology, for example, to help prove that genocide had been committed against the indigenous people of Guatemala.

The technologist's service didn't go unnoticed. Without his knowledge someone nominated him for one of the country's most prestigious honors. Last year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Fruchterman one of its "genius grants" -- $500,000 over 5 years -- "to individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future."

Fruchterman writes today for Bee readers with another leading light in the field of technology, Gregg Vanderheiden, director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He, too, is trying to make the Web more accessible to people with disabilities.

"There are some that say that accessibility and usability are two completely separate topics. They say that accessibility is for people with disabilities and usability has to do with everybody else," Vanderheiden told the Wisconsin State Journal in September. "The first problem with that is there is no difference between people with disabilities and everybody else. It's just a continuum."

One of the heralded inventions he and his team created are StickyKeys, which allow users to perform computer keyboard tasks with one hand that typically require two.

As the population ages, watch for the work of Fruchterman and Vanderheiden to gain more accolades. They will most certainly be in the news.

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