Photo credit: Nate Johnson
Photo credit: Nate Johnson

Nicole Comforto '04 is fighting the social injustice that is illiteracy by procuring hundreds (soon to be thousands) of books that will be uploaded to a cloud-based library which children from the developing world can then download to cheap tablets, phones or a school's PC.

Reducing illiteracy literally saves lives. According to a United Nations report on education, a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five.

clouds of books - students in classroom with tabletsUnfortunately, 250 million children worldwide are not learning basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills from their mothers, fathers or teachers.

Nicole Comforto ’04 is chipping away at this illiteracy epidemic. From a shared workspace near Times Square, the former French language and literature major is creating a repository of e-books for kindergarten through 12th grade students to download onto a tablet, smartphone or PC.

As the director of educational resources for the innovative nonprofit Library For All, Comforto is building a library in the cloud.

“Literacy and a quality education lead to higher income, longer lives and healthier families,” said Comforto, who prior to joining Library For All worked as a consultant with UNESCO in Paris.

Dedicated to improving access to education worldwide, she joined the nonprofit, now active in Haiti, because it was working on a scalable idea that would help solve illiteracy.

“Education ties in to all development goals, like health, poverty, access to water. I felt I needed to do something bigger to solve this problem, and I wanted to be part of that solution.”

Stacks of empty shelves

After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Library For All founder and CEO Rebecca McDonald traveled to the Caribbean island to help rebuild. She visited Haitian schools that had fewer than 30 books to share between hundreds of students.

Photo credit: Amanda Trujillo

“These books were so precious that they were kept under lock and key,” McDonald said.

Delivering boxes of books to an island nation whose roads and infrastructure had been brutalized by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 and displaced more than 1.5 million Haitians, seemed unrealistic. Even as Haitians began rebuilding their communities, shipping educational supplies was costly and unsustainable.

E-books take up no physical space. Thus, the idea for Library For All: cheaply deliverable educational materials transferred over an ever-growing web of mobile networks.

A Kickstarter campaign raised $110,000 to launch a pilot program in Haiti in October 2013. Currently, there are two Haitian schools using Library For All, one a 530-student school called Respire Haiti, located on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Comforto said that some of these students were former “restaveks,” which means child slaves.

Providing e-books for poor children to read on tablets and smartphones sounds like a terrific idea, but how will impoverished kids get their hands on expensive electronics? While Library For All has managed to drum up a collection of donated tablets, the ultimate solution rests in Haitian hands.

“So far we’ve just gotten off the ground, but we’re testing tablets from a brand new Haitian company called Surtab,” Comforto said.

"I believe in the power of education and the power of books; reading is not a privilege, but a human right, and Library For All recognizes that right," said Stephanie Laing, producer on the HBO show "Veep."

The first PC manufacturer in Haiti, Surtab specializes in producing inexpensive and durable Android tablets. This upstart manufacturer wants to help answer some of the biggest challenges faced by Haitian society, including illiteracy and education, so allying with Library For All made perfect sense.

“We feel this partnership is a textbook case of organizations with different expertise joining forces to leverage each other with the aim of achieving greater goals than we could have individually,” said Patrick Sagna, head of business development at Surtab.

“For Surtab, it means that we will soon be able to offer – at very low cost – not only a great tablet PC for kids attending school, but also, thanks to Library For All’s app, support material enhancing the educational experience beyond the classroom.”

Having visited Surtab’s factory floor, Comforto said the founder eventually plans to load these $50-tablets with Library For All’s curriculum straight off the assembly line. So imminently, the stacks of empty shelves will transform into tablets loaded with thousands of books, limited only by the device’s memory.

“The biggest challenge for me is working with our major publishers to provide books. We have publishers that will give us books but it’s a slow process. It sounds easy but it’s filled with complications,” Comforto said.

Photo credit: Amanda Trujillo

One complication is ensuring publishers that tech bandits don’t steal the free content publishers provide to the participating schools. To combat these bandits, Library For All takes steps to encrypt the content at every stage of the process, from donation to storage in a database, upload into the cloud, and the final download onto a student’s tablet.

“We want to protect publishers’ intellectual property. We don’t want their books to become like all those cheap, pirated DVDs sold on street corners,” Comforto said.

In its infancy, the nonprofit has a limited selection of books – about 600 – of which half are in Haitian Creole, a large swath in French, while a small selection in English and Spanish round off the collection.

Comforto said that their stacks of e-books include everything from early readers such as “The Jungle Book” to classic literature that she read in high school, “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” They also have textbooks.

“Textbooks are a big part of what we’re trying to do. We have met with Haiti’s ministry of education to develop a section in our library that makes it easy for students to find textbooks based on Haiti’s curriculum.”

Six degrees of separation

Library For All wants to become the nexus between publishers and the schools educating underprivileged students.

Photo credit: Library For All“We want to get books into schools and get kids learning,” Comforto said.

To achieve this goal, they have undertaken an inventive program to find willing partners on the ground who can help the nonprofit give millions of children access to its digital library. Called Six Degrees of Education, the campaign aims to establish connections to 17 philanthropists the nonprofit has identified as advocates for education. These so-called “Keylisters” include patrons of education such as Queen Rania of Jordan, George Lucas and Laura Bush.

Leveraging social media, Library For All hopes its followers will talk about the campaign with their friends who might know someone who knows someone who knows a Keylister. The campaign is based on the popular notion that any two people on Earth are only separated by six degrees, in this case, six degrees from an elite, well-moneyed philanthropist.

The campaign experienced a jump-start when Stephanie Laing, producer on the HBO show “Veep,” brought her production crew down to the Library For All offices on a Saturday morning and produced the Six Degrees of Education campaign video.

“I believe in the power of education and the power of books; reading is not a privilege, but a human right, and Library For All recognizes that right,” Laing said, explaining why as a mother of three children and a busy producer she became involved with the nonprofit.

“I’m deeply committed to supporting Library For All and helping them to unlock knowledge all over the world. Our time is as valuable as what we choose to do with it, and Library For All gives us all the chance to inspire children to dream, learn and achieve,” Laing said.

An education is about more than reading Harry Potter

After having established itself in Haiti, Library For All plans to expand into Africa, starting with either Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Every country where the World Bank reports that the average person lives in poverty, we eventually want to be there,” Comforto said.

Photo credit: Amanda TrujilloThis might seem like an unrealistic goal. Not every underdeveloped country will have a Surtab factory producing inexpensive Android tablets. Plus, Library For All can only find a finite number of partners on the ground willing to donate electronic reading devices.

These challenges won’t dissuade Comforto and her colleagues from uploading more books to the cloud because of one simple device – the mobile phone, ubiquitous even in developing countries. The World Bank and African Development Bank calculate that there are 650 million mobile users in Africa, surpassing the number in the U.S. or Europe.

“In some African countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to clean water, a bank account or electricity,” Comforto said.

By putting a growing supply of books literally in the hands of mobile phone users, Comforto says Library For All can spread around the globe, fighting what she calls the social injustice triggered by a lack of access to information.

“Being unable to access information is a social injustice when you look at the impact illiteracy has on the children we’re trying to help. An education is not just whether or not you can enjoy the Harry Potter series. Literacy is about participation in a democracy,” Comforto said.