The good folks at the Center for Global Development – a research center my late mentor Dick Sabot helped found – are running their annual Commitment to Development Award. Designed to honor a person who’s had a major influence in the field of international development, the award has two components – a selection made by a panel of judges, and a people’s choice award, which you can vote for.
Jai Singh at Foreign Policy Passport tells us he’s voting for “nobody” – officially listed as one of twelve candidates – noting that “Nobody had quite a year last year, and against great odds, Nobody is really chugging toward an agreement on the Doha Round of trade talks this year.” While this is certainly true, I’d like to be slightly less cynical (which also means not voting for William Easterly, author of a book highly critical of the international development field.)
My vote’s for Jim Fruchterman, a good friend and someone who’s been a major inspiration to my work. Jim started his career as a software developer, working in computer vision, and switched focus when he realized he didn’t want to work on research to improve bomb targeting. He started a career focused on building software that offers good – not perfect – solutions to real-world problems at reasonable costs. His first major project was a book reading system – not quite as good as Ray Kurzweil’s, but vastly more afforable – which has helped millions of visually impaired people around the world. He’s currently working on a fascinating set of ideas about ways camera-enabled cellphones could be used to help visually impaired people read signs as they navigate in the real world.
I had an excellent reminder of the importance of Jim’s work when I was in Manila last week. Talking about the challenges of data protection for human rights NGOs, Nart advocated for the use of Martus, a package of encryption software that Jim’s firm, Benetech, designed for human rights groups. We were thrilled to discover that several Filipino HR organizations had adopted Martus and offered trainings to other groups on using the tool to securely store their records.
Jim believes that software can make the world a better place. He doesn’t mean this in an indirect, software-will-make-you-free, FOSS sort of way, but in a practical, this software will keep you out of prison, or let your read a book or a roadsign sort of way. I believe this, too, and this belief has shaped a great deal of what I’ve done over the past decade.
This is not to say that the other worthies on the list don’t deserve praise. But do Bono, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton really need a higher global profile? Jim deserves to be better known that he is – please think about giving him your vote.