Open source product development most effective when social

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Benetech started out in the 90s without even understanding the meaning of the term open source. They just "needed an easy way to interface with different voice synthesizers" to develop readers for people who are blind and "shared the code to be helpful."


Sound familiar? started covering stories like in 2010 and they recur more often than you might think. Stories of people sharing the code to help others—but sharing code to get help developing better code. When code is open, a community has the opportunity to form around it.

Read this interview about what Benetech CEO Jim Fruchterman learned by adopting open source philosophy and furthering technology-for-good.

How did Benetech get involved in open source?

Benetech’s initial project back in the early 1990s was building affordable reading systems for people who are blind: a technology tool that enabled them to scan their own printed books and then have a voice synthesizer read the text aloud. We thought of it as being very similar to printer drivers, where we would send text out of our program to be spoken aloud. We needed an easy way to interface with different voice synthesizers. As a nonprofit technology company, our goal was to help as many people as possible while breaking even financially.

We stumbled onto open source without even knowing the meaning of the term! We created something called the Speech Synthesizer Interface Library and shared the source code openly with the field of developers of talking applications for people with disabilities. We didn’t know about free or open source licensing, we just shared the code to be helpful (and to get help in the form of speech drivers built by others).

In the late 90s, some of our Silicon Valley partners introduced us to free software and we learned how a free software license like the GNU General Public License (GPL) works. When we started building software for human rights groups in 2000, we decided to license our first full product under a free software license.

Arkenstone was sold to Freedom Scientific in 2000. Its technology served as a basis for Freedom Scientific's OpenBook scanning and reading software.

Why is it important that your cybersecurity tools for stakeholders are open?

In a world with cyber attacks and hyper-surveillance, it is only natural for rights defenders, journalists, and social justice workers at large to not trust software developers. But the code of secure tools that are open source is published and freely available to review. This commitment to transparency means that stakeholders don’t have to trust the developers. They or their experts can verify that they have the "real" software and that there are no "back doors"—the software does exactly what it claims to do. Contrast this with, say, a proprietary software tool that uses encryption. Being proprietary means its source code—and therefore its security—cannot be reviewed and verified.

Our open source approach also makes it easier for us to incorporate important innovations developed by other people. We didn’t reimplement cryptography libraries, as we used a strong open source one (Bouncy Castle). We don’t need to reinvent circumvention tools, as we integrated Tor into our human rights technology applications. That way, our users benefit from an entire community working on supporting their work with better digital security tools.

What other open source tools does Benetech develop?

Within our Global Literacy Program, we offer Go Read, a free, accessible Android eBook reader optimized for people with vision impairments. It allows users to read accessible eBooks, which we make available via our Bookshare library, on a variety of Android tablets and phones. Open source volunteers based Go Read on the open source FBReader project, and then our staff completed the production version. We’ve also adapted the Readium open source web-based eBook reader and built it right into the Bookshare webpages so that our users can start reading a book right away in their browser without having to download the entire book.

Poet is a web-based tool for crowdsourcing descriptions for images in existing DAISY eBooks (DAISY being the technical standard for digital audio books). Image descriptions enable a person who is blind to understand important information contained in hitherto inaccessible images. Poet reduces both the cost of producing image descriptions for content creators as well as the delivery time of described image for end-users.

For environmental conservationists, we developed Miradi, an open source, adaptive management software that enables users to implement best practices in conservation project planning, monitoring, adaptation, and reporting.

Our goal is to do a lot more in the field of open source software-for-good through our recently launched Benetech Labs, where the Benetech team and partners prototype, iterate, and test new tech applications. We’re exploring in the Labs a full spectrum of projects, from strengthening the capacity of clean water organizations with data platforms, to providing access to 3D educational models for students with visual impairments, to helping labor rights groups fight child labor, human trafficking, and other abuses. Our plan is conduct our Labs efforts openly by developing software under free and open source licenses, and by making information about our projects available under open content licenses on the web.

Benetech supports the Humanitarian Free and Open Source (HFOSS) community. Why is open source product development well-suited for creating social impact?

HFOSS organizations address humanitarian issues by building, deploying, and maintaining open source software as their core service. Some examples of HFOSS organizations beyond Benetech include Mozilla, Ushahidi, Wikimedia Foundation, Mifos, or Medic Mobile. So much of nonprofit and humanitarian work revolves around information, whether it’s education, health promotion, economic development, or social justice. Ironically, the people who most need tech tools are often those least able to afford them!

Nonprofit organizations dedicated to creating social good are philosophically aligned with the ideals of open source development. It enables us to stretch limited resources and work together with our peers to develop tools that help humanitarian work be more effective. We also operate in a wide range of environments, needing far more languages than just English. Open source development allows for collaboration around the world, lowering the barriers to adaptation and translation as well as making some tools possible that would never get developed if they were proprietary, because of limited market size.

New product development is most effective when it’s social. We are used to the concept of hundreds of developers working remotely, yet in real-time, to build or improve software code. Imagine the social impact possible if hundreds of developers are working on open source for social good. We could speed the development of innovative tools to protect human rights workers, increase civic engagement, improve the delivery of clean water to the world’s poorest communities, and address many other social problems!

We’ve started in this direction by creating our SocialCoding4Good initiative, which connects developers from tech companies and open source communities with open source, social good-focused HFOSS projects.

"Open over proprietary" is one of Benetech's core values. How is it manifested in company culture beyond product development?

We believe that our social mission is best served by openness. Benetech’s social mission goal is to help as many people as possible while finding some way to break even financially. Since we are combating market failure, where typical companies can’t figure out a way to make enough profits, we think that making our tools open is a great statement of our commitment. We often ask our users with more financial capacity to pitch in to support us (most of our budget is covered by revenue), but having the software available for free on a financial basis means that we won’t be turning away a potential user because of licensing costs.

Furthermore, we share information internally with our team members, presuming that the more that each team member knows, the better they will be able to serve our users and advance our social mission. We actively look for ways to share what we’ve learned with others who care about the work we do and the communities we serve. We publish actively our lessons learned. Not only our software, but also the content we produce are almost always available under Creative Commons licenses. We’re also exploring open source hardware solutions, like sharing educational models for 3D printing for students.

The information we treat as proprietary is primarily other people’s information. With Bookshare, like any library, we respect the privacy rights of our patrons by keeping their reading choices confidential. And of course our human rights work is all about ensuring that sensitive information about human rights abuses doesn’t leak out and do harm to victims and witnesses.

Ultimately, we believe that open source is more about transparency and innovation than about releasing software. Being transparent leads to the best possible outcomes from our work and helps us further our mission goals. The open source methodology also helps stimulate innovation. It allows us to build and improve upon the knowledge of predecessors, as well as to make knowledge available for future users and developers. We always ask ourselves how we can apply technology in new ways to improve people’s lives, and we believe that the open source model helps spark creativity and more technology-for-good ventures.

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Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.


I am a visually impaired user of Bookshare and I was so thrilled to read this excellent interview. Btw, I'm wondering if has ever had an article about the open source NVDA screen reader for Windows, which has been a real game changer for blind people, making Windows computers accessible to individuals who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford the expensive cost of other screen readers. If it hasn't been written, I'd be happy to assist if anyone is interested.

Thanks so much for your comment, David. It's great to hear about your experience. It looks like NVDA is free or available for donation, but any idea if it is open source?

Hi, Jen.
Oh yes. I can assure you that NVDA is open source. The source code is available at
It's an amazing screen reader and has been translated into over 40 languages.

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