Ken Banks has never monitored elections in Africa, run a rural healthcare network in India, stocked pharmacies with malaria medication, or brought crucial pricing information to farmers in El Salvador. Yet the computer software program he created does all that and more.
While involved in conservation work in Africa, Banks saw a huge unmet need for technology that could send information between groups in remote areas with no Internet access. Such a tool could save hours of time and transform effectiveness for resource-stretched groups.
Banks returned from the field with this knowledge: Grassroots nonprofit organizations lack money, technical savvy, expensive hardware, reliable electricity, and Internet access. What do they have? Cell phones that can be used virtually anywhere.
Understanding these realities, Banks created FrontlineSMS. “I wrote the software in five weeks at a kitchen table,” he says. “I made it a generic communications platform that could be used for almost anything, and I made it free.”
Deploying FrontlineSMS requires simply a laptop computer and a cell phone (even a fairly old or recycled one), and a cable. “After downloading the free software online, you never need the Internet again," he explains. "Attach a mobile phone to the computer with a cable, type your message on the computer keyboard, select the people you want to send it to from a contact list the software lets you create, and hit ‘send.’ Since it can run off of an inexpensive laptop, it works for any organization that wants to use text messaging, even in remote locations with unreliable electricity.”
Today FrontlineSMS delivers vital information in more than 50 nations. Activists in countries with dictatorial regimes are now able to set up two-way messaging without openly going through local operators. One week after the software hit the Web, Zimbabwean groups used it to inform citizens in disconnected rural areas about political upheaval. It was similarly effective during the state of emergency in Pakistan. Nigerians used it to monitor their own 2007 election, with 10,000 texts sent about what went wrong, and right, at the polls.
A doctor in the Philippines can now communicate in advance with rural villages to determine what critical medical supplies to bring on his visits. Citizens throughout East Africa report shortages of essential medicines, forcing action by governments who had denied there were problems. The efficiency of a rural healthcare network serving 250,000 people in Malawi was revolutionized when a college student arrived with a hundred recycled phones and a laptop loaded with the software—saving a thousand hours of doctor time, thousands of dollars in fuel costs, and doubling the number of tuberculosis patients cared for within six months.