Doing the right thing

HANS: Founder of Be My Eyes on language barriers, taking our health into our own hands, and the importance of just getting things done. "Today we are the biggest community of blind people in the world. I didn't expect that to happen."

Q: I must tell you, I'm a very, very big fan of Be My Eyes. You showed me what can be done coming from bottom up, not waiting for the system to solve everything for us but rather, take our health and our life into our own hands. Why did you start this? How did the spark happen?

Well, I'm blind, almost blind myself. And so, I was working for the Danish Blind Association and I knew a lot of blind people. I also had a smartphone and I knew that some of my blind colleagues were using their smartphones to make a video call when they needed assistance. And then one of them said "but I always have to call someone." And then I think, oh, we could connect a group of people. And little did I know about how complicated it is to make that happen! But I was lucky to find a team, and Christian, who is the CEO of Be My Eyes, was with us from day one.

Q: What did you expect after you started, and how did the reality diverge from your expectations?

I came up with this idea in 2012 and at that time there were not that many apps for blind people... I knew it was possible to do it and I was also sure that we could find volunteers, but when it turned out that we were flooded with volunteers... We have over five million volunteers right now in the world, for a solution from Denmark, a country of 5.8 million people. I was really surprised and happy that somebody wanted to step up and do the right thing and help other people. And today we are the biggest community of blind people in the world. I did not expect that to happen.

Q: For anyone that wants to be involved in this, and as a volunteer myself,what can we do to try to reach as many visually impaired people as possible to try to even out this disproportion?

Yes, our main challenge is exactly to reach the blind people. We connect people with 185 different languages. There are so many places where we need to reach out to the blind people. So, we simply need volunteers to help us. Whenever you see a blind person, please go over, and ask them if they know about Be Me Eyes. Of course, we try to reach out to blind organizations in the countries, but the language barrier is an issue for us. We hope that volunteers like you will help us in their language. And you are not selling anything, because Be My Eyes is a free app. And it is free because when we looked at the numbers, we could see that 90% of the blind people in this world live in India, Africa, and China, and they might have a smartphone, but we cannot charge 10 dollars a month for our services. So, we decided that it needed to be a free app - also because it is the volunteers doing the actual job.

Q: This is the challenge: how to help these solutions reach as many people as possible, to have the impact that they are meant to have... Based on your learnings, experience, and your reflections, I suppose there is room for improvement in other fields as well?

Yes! I am vision impaired, but I also have hearing aids, and I am super proud that Denmark is the provider of, I think, 30 or 40% of all the hearing aids in the entire world. That is amazing. But I also feel that those companies, those giant companies, they are sleeping. The Danish hearing aid industry should step up and be more aware, because I feel like Apple will come with a smart hearing aid that everybody wants. And if you look at a hearing aid, that is a super expensive high-tech device that you wear 18 hours a day. And we could easily use that to monitor our elderly population - if they want it themselves, of course. But we could put all kinds of sensors into hearing aids, to keep an eye on their heart rate and how much they drink and how much they eat. And that could give us a tremendous field of useful data. And so, I... Perhaps I just don't know about it, but I have this sense that nothing is happening in that industry. They are developing way too slowly, and I really think they should up their game because other people will be taking over if they are too sleepy.

Q: This is a call to arms, right? And in the end, it is for the benefit of the end users. I think it matters that we reach that point, not who gets to that point first, and this is something that the industry players need to understand themselves, would you agree?

Maybe they will say, OK, yeah, but those sensors would take up too much electricity or something like that. But one thing I learned from Be My Eyes is that the thing you are developing now might take two years before you are done. And within two years, suddenly it is possible. And then you are ready to implement that technology in your device.

Q: There's always a long list of why things cannot happen or will not work. But we need to start somewhere, and we need to encourage the companies that do have the resources. Would you be willing to sacrifice battery life, for example to get a sensor for fall prevention?

Absolutely! I mean, I have some of the most high-end hearing aids and I change my battery every four to five days. I could do that every morning and it would be no problem at all.

So it's just a question of getting it done.

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