From FrontlineSMS Founder, Ken Banks
For the past six-and-a-half years, FrontlineSMS has been something of a labour of love for me. Initially inspired by a decade of work with grassroots non-profits across the African continent, FrontlineSMS spoke directly to how I felt development should be done. Three years at university, dozens of field trips and countless discussions with development professionals convinced me that the future was bottom up, yet many of the mobile tools I came across in the early years of the discipline were quite the opposite. Tools, I believed, needed to be simple, appropriate, give control to the user and be built with those non-profit users in mind, and up until then little was. In 2003, when I started my career in mobile, it was clear that the technology held huge potential for the grassroots NGO community. As I approach my ten year anniversary that potential has largely been proved, but we’re still some way off reaching our full potential. It’s been an honour to be part of the growth, and an honour to have helped – in some small way – the work of countless dedicated NGOs as they battle to use mobile in their work.
Although the idea for FrontlineSMS came about after a series of conservation trips to South Africa and Mozambique, I had a hunch that conservation NGOs in other places faced the same communication challenges. I also felt that other disciplines – health, agriculture, education and human rights among them – were no different, so FrontlineSMS did not seek to solve a particular problem in a particular place, but sought to be an all-purpose tool, and be all things to all people. Today those hunches bear out, with FrontlineSMS in use in over eighty countries in over 20 sectors of development. It’s been an incredible few years, and over that time it’s become clear that FrontlineSMS has much greater potential than I ever imagined.
I’ve always maintained that it’s just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and as FrontlineSMS grew its way out of my one bedroom flat in Cambridge and my VW Camper home at Stanford University, it became clear to me that the project needed a whole new set of skills to take it to the next level. In one of my favourite blog posts – ” The Rolling Stones School of Innovation Management” – I wrote about how the Rolling Stones needed three different managers over the course of their careers, each of who had entirely different skills needed at different times in their growth. Funnily enough, FrontlineSMS follows a similar trajectory with different needs at the technological, business and organisational levels. As I wrote:
“As The Stones example demonstrates, each phase requires a very different skill set, and it would take an extraordinary individual to be able to manage and deliver successfully on each. While I may have been the right person – in the right place at the right time at the very least – to successfully deliver on Phase One, that doesn’t mean I’m the right person for Phase Two, or Three. A large part of building a successful organisation is assembling a talented, diverse team with complementary skill sets. Identifying gaps and being honest about our own strengths and weaknesses is a large part of the process”.
Since the middle of 2011 I’ve been working closely with a new Senior Management Team at FrontlineSMS, working towards the announcement we’re making today. Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald have worked tirelessly helping prepare FrontlineSMS to meet new challenges and prepare us for our next stage of growth. They and the team have welcomed new, talented staff, released in-depth user guides, case studies and resources, published two academic articles, started a consultancy, brought in new funds, released Beta versions of exciting new FrontlineSMS products, future-proofed the software with a new, extendable, browser-based version, established a new UK entity, opened US and Kenyan offices, and recruited two Boards of Directors. It’s been a busy 18 months, and we’re in great shape as we enter a new and exciting phase in the history of FrontlineSMS, with Sean and Laura at the helm. Going forward, Laura will be CEO of the kiwanja Foundation, which houses our free, open-source software and user support. Sean is CEO of the kiwanja Community Interest Company, which supports users with program design advice, houses our sector-specific projects, and manages custom extensions to the platform. You’ll hear more about our plans for the future from them in the coming days.
As for me, I’ll continue my association with FrontlineSMS as before, and will continue to support it enthusiastically in person at conferences, through my blog, through book chapters and wider writing, and in my role of Chair of the Board. As to what I’ll do with some of my new-found free time, I’m also planning to get stuck into a number of new project ideas which have been bubbling away for the past two to three years, ideas which I’ve been unable to do anything with due to my full-time commitment to FrontlineSMS. Further details on these new projects will be announced on my blog over the summer, so watch this space!
It’s an incredible time to be working in the field of technology-for-social-change, and I’m excited about the future for FrontlineSMS, its users and the team behind it. For some people, passing the baton on such a personal project would be something of a challenge. Knowing that the project is in safe hands has made the decision much easier for me. FrontlineSMS was always going to be bigger than one person. With a fantastic team behind it, it now has the chance to step up and meet the potential it clearly has.
Wishing you all the very best,
Ken Banks, FrontlineSMS Founder