Ken Banks on empowering grassroots movements using mobile technology

Ken Banks, the founder of, spoke about the importance of technology solutions that meet the needs of those working in the developing world and his own work in this area through FrontlineSMS.

While current excitement in the technology world may be focused on increasing centralization through cloud computing, this means little to people working in the developing world where internet connectivity is unavailable or unreliable.  Too little investment is going into building tools that will genuinely assist the work many non-profits are doing now.

Ken developed FrontlineSMS to tap into the potential of mobile phones, which are now widely available and used in the developing world. This is a two way communication system that can be used anywhere where there is a mobile phone signal.  FrontlineSMS is available as a free download and Ken's approach has been not to dictate implementation but rather to allow people to use this very general tool in whatever ways meet their particular needs. This has resulted in diverse applications, for example:

  • Monitoring election practices in Nigeria in 2007
  • Sending security alerts to humanitarian workers in conflict areas of Afghanistan
  • Encouraging young people to take part in elections in Azerbaijan
  • Updating local people on the location of speeches during President Obama's visit to Ghana

There is also great potential to combine FrontlineSMS with traditional media, such as radio, that is already widespread throughout Africa, to make this much more interactive.

Ken offered a number of points of guidance for those thinking about designing technology with social applications:

  • Work with the equipment that people already have at their disposal
  • Make equipment easy to assemble and intuitive
  • Price it at a level people can afford
  • Think about how use can be replicated - how will other NGOs find out about it?
  • Assume a situation of no internet connectivity
  • Where possible, give users an ability to connect with others - for example through a forum (this has been particularly successful at FrontlineSMS, with a third of those who download the software joining the online community)
  • Don't let a social science approach dominate - it is much better to think in a multi-disciplinary way
  • Use technology that is appropriate to the context - don't bring in tools that require knowledge and equipment not already held in the community
  • Collaborate, don't compete. Sometimes NGOs can rush to do the same things; examples of genuine cooperation are hard to find

Looking ahead, Ken will be developing functionality for FrontlineSMS that makes use of internet connectivity where this is available. He is also working on finding additional funding to help organizations pay for text messages.