Software in the Public Interest: FrontlineSMS Founder wins Pizzigati Prize

As the founder of FrontlineSMS, Ken Banks has been widely recognised for his work in giving grassroots groups the world over the capacity to interact, cheaply and simply, with constituents in remote communities. As a result of his impressive work Ken has recently become the fifth annual winner of the Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest.

The $10,000 Pizzigati Prize honors software developers who, in the spirit of open source computing, are fashioning exceptional applications for aid activists and nonprofits. Tides — a partner to philanthropists, foundations, activists, and organisations worldwide — hosts the prize selection process.

Ken created FrontlineSMS because it speaks directly to a global communications reality: Millions of people in remote areas have no access whatsoever to the Internet. But many of these millions do have simple mobile phones. FrontlineSMS enables grassroots groups to reach these millions, using only a laptop computer, a USB cable, and a basic mobile phone or modem device. And the constituents of these groups can use their own mobile phones to communicate back.

Since Ken developed FrontlineSMS in 2005, nonprofits have downloaded the totally free — and easy to use — software almost 13,000 times, for use in a strikingly varied assortment of projects across the globe. The first independent news agency in Iraq, for instance, is using the software to text message updates to readers in eight different countries.

Other users have a more targeted focus. Some groups are using FrontlineSMS to share fair market prices with local farmers, information that can help these farmers spot — and avoid — commodity traders out to cheat them.

In Azerbaijan, FrontlineSMS has helped mobilize the youth vote in national elections. In Zimbabwe, the software is enabling groups to monitor human rights violations. One group serving overseas Filipino workers is using FrontlineSMS as an emergency help line. (See our case studies section for further examples of how FrontlineSMS is used across the world).

Ken has based the entire FrontlineSMS effort on basic open source principles. This allows any organisation working on grassroots social change to have "the ability to build on and take advantage of the code we've developed."

This devotion to the open source ethos goes beyond just working with software programmers. "We're committed," says Ken, "to involving even non-developers among our users in the ongoing improvement of FrontlineSMS."

Ken, an anthropologist by training, has lived and worked all around Africa since the early 1990s. A long-time computer coder, he first started thinking about connecting computers and mobile phones while working on a conservation project in South Africa.

In 2005, Ken raised a small amount of money, bought some equipment and cables, and sat down, over five summer weeks, to write the first FrontlineSMS software. That October, Ken released his new code over the Web.

"What's happened since," he says, "has been pretty amazing."

A number of groups and organisations, ranging from National Geographic to the MacArthur Foundation, have noted the wide and positive impact that has been made FrontlineSMS. Ken himself is hoping that his work will have an equally positive impact on the next generation of software developers.

"Stories like mine — developing FrontlineSMS with very limited resources over a five week period — can inspire younger developers," he points out. "They prove that anyone with an idea can make a real difference if they stick with it."

Ken is currently in Washington, D.C to receive this year's Pizzigati Prize in a presentation during the National Technology Network's 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference.

This year's Pizzigati Prize judging panel included three previous winners of the prize — Darius Jazayeri, Yaw Anokwa, and Barry Warsaw — and two veteran professionals who have each earned wide respect within the nonprofit computing world, Joseph Mouzon and Erika Bjune.

About The Pizzigati Prize

The Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest goes annually to an open source software developer who is adding significant value to the nonprofit sector and movements for social change.

The prize honors the brief life of Tony Pizzigati, an early advocate of open source computing. Born in 1971, Tony spent his college years at MIT, where he worked at the world-famous MIT Media Lab. Tony died in 1995, in an auto accident on his way to work in Silicon Valley.

To learn more about the prize and its judging criteria, visit

About Tides

Tides, the Pizzigati Prize selection process host, partners with philanthropists, foundations, activists, and organizations across the United States and around the globe to promote economic justice, robust democratic processes, and the opportunity to live in a healthy and sustainable environment where human rights are preserved and protected.

A nonprofit founded in 1976, Tides provides an array of services that amplify the efforts of forward-thinking individuals and organizations. For more information, visit