Ken Banks

FrontlineSMS at 7: Nigerian Mobile Election Monitors, 2007, from our Founder, Ken Banks

In the second of our seven blog posts celebrating the month that FrontlineSMS turns seven, our Founder Ken Banks reflects on one of the first users of our free, award-winning platform and the example that put us in the headlines for the first time. See a slideshow of our users showing off their work here.

Nigerian Mobile Election Monitors

Nigerian Mobile Election Monitors

"I'm often asked what my favourite FrontlineSMS deployment is.

"I don't really have a personal favourite - they're all interesting and inspiring in their own way. But if you asked me what I thought was organisationally one of the most important FrontlineSMS deployments, I'd have to say its use in the 2007 Nigerian Presidential Elections.

"I was at Stanford University on a Fellowship at that time and, although FrontlineSMS was ticking over quite nicely it wasn't having the kind of impact I was hoping for. I was even considering shutting it down - what a mistake that would have been.

"Suddenly, one weekend in April 2007, the mainstream media got hold of a story that an ad-hoc coalition of Nigerian NGOs, under the banner of NMEM (Nigerian Mobile Election Monitors), had monitored their elections using FrontlineSMS. As Clay Shirky has pointed out since, this was groundbreaking, and it was being done by grassroots NGOs on their own terms. This is exactly what FrontlineSMS was designed to do. As media interest picked up, downloads went up and donors began paying increasing amounts of attention. That summer the MacArthur Foundation stepped in with the first FrontlineSMS grant - $200,000 for a software rewrite.

"Without NMEM this would never have happened, and we wouldn't be where we are today. For that reason I'd have to choose it as one of my all-time favourite deployments. Thanks again, guys. What you did has indirectly helped thousands more dedicated, grassroots NGOs like yours, all over the world".

Starting today, we’re collecting photos of our users telling the world how they use FrontlineSMS. If you want to get in on the act, take a photo of yourself or your team holding a piece of paper or a whiteboard telling the world what you do with FrontlineSMS. For example: ‘I monitor elections’, ‘I safeguard children’ or ‘I make art’. You can see a slideshow of the photos we’ve had so far on our Flickr page.

It doesn’t matter what language it’s in as long as it’s legible and if possible you should be able to see from the photo where it was taken, so, if you can, get out of the office!

You can: - post to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #FrontlineSMSat7 - email the picture and we’ll post them - post the picture on our Ning network and we’ll post them - post them on Flickr or any other web service and let us know where they are

Ericsson Business Review: "Lessons on Learning"

FrontlineSMS Founder Ken Banks was interviewed by The Ericsson Business Review last year, and this interview has now been made available online. The interview focuses on how we often define innovation too narrowly, and why “development issues such as education require us to start with the problem, not the technology”.  A summary is available on the Ericsson “Networked Society Blog” here, and the full interview is available in pdf format here. You can find an extract of the interview below:

What role can mobile technology play in development?

Mobile networks open up the possibility of reaching communities that would otherwise miss out on any meaningful connection with the rest of the world, and allow them to engage, make themselves heard and to be empowered by information.

You have been involved in many fruitful mobile-centered development initiatives. What separates the successful projects from the unsuccessful ones?

The single most important thing is starting with the problem and not the technology. It is quite common for people to grab the latest smartphone or iPad or whatever happens to be hot at the moment and try to figure out how it could be used in a development context. This approach can work, but most of the time it is destined to fail. If you go in with technology as your main objective, you will end up shoehorning it into contexts where it will not always work. The solution to a development question could be pencils or paper – it does not necessarily need to have anything to do with ict. I think that the correct sequence should instead be problem-people-technology. By “people” I mean the individuals at the grassroots who usually understand the problem better than anybody else.

To read the full interview, please click here.

At the Forefront of Development: A Look at the Potential of FrontlineSMS in India

FrontlineSMS featured in an Indian newspaper named The Financial Chronicle this week, in an article entitled At the Forefront of Development. You can read the article below, or view the print version of this article here [pdf]. By Brij Kothari, The Financial Chronicle

The hardware is rudimentary. An ordinary mobile phone connected to a laptop with a cable. But who would have thought that this simple set up could actually be turned into a central communication hub, and in the hands of civil society, become a powerful communication tool for people’s empowerment? Ken Banks’ FrontlineSMS, a free and open-source software, is allowing groups at the frontline of development to do some extraordinary things. And yet, all that FrontlineSMS does, is that it “enables users to send and receive text messages with groups of people through mobile phones”. Perhaps, the power of FrontlineSMS can be grasped best by the stories of its use in the hands of others.

A woman in rural India gets an SMS on her mobile Asurakshit din or “Unprotected day”. She is, thus, informed that she is likely to be fertile that day. The information is specifically intended to empower her to make a reproductive choice. Similar reminder SMSs ping through days eight-19 of her reproductive cycle, fertile days as per the Standard Days Method (SDM) of family planning, based on awareness of the menstrual cycle. How does CycleTel, an SMS-based system put in place by Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH), keep track of her cycle? The woman herself keeps CycleTel regularly informed of the onset of her cycle, simply by sending an SMS from her mobile to a dedicated number. FrontlineSMS provided the basic architecture upon which a more customised system is being developed through field trials.

HarassMap is a group in Egypt, started by two women who themselves faced harassment quite routinely on their way to and from work, that uses FrontlineSMS to capture the location and gravity of incidents of sexual harassment. The key idea is to get women to report harassment episodes in real time by sending an SMS to a dedicated number. Place and time information is then mapped with another amazing software, Ushahidi, to draw patterns from what would otherwise have been left as isolated data points. Hot spots are then targeted with community activism, awareness campaigns and tools to empower and support women individually and collectively.

In Nigeria, voters who also registered themselves as volunteers for the Network of Mobile Election Monitors (NMEM), took it upon themselves to SMS instantaneously into a FrontlineSMS central hub, any untoward incident of tampering or rigging they might observe. Human Em­ancipation Lead Project (H­ELP), a Nigerian NGO helped set up this citizen monitoring system, independent of the official monitoring groups and European Union observers. Observations by two or more volunteers in an area were verified, and if necessary, shared with the official monitoring agencies. Banks ter­med the Nigerian case a “breakthrough deployment” of FrontlineSMS.

FrontlineSMS was made available online as recently as 2005, and made open source two years later. In 2009, Banks hired his first employee. The spread of FrontlineSMS to more than 80 countries is, thus, nothing if not astonishing. A variety of uses by country popup on a world map at With a strong presence in Africa, the top countries of deployment are Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Banks offered three reasons, the last using a popular acronym of the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) community: “This is likely down to: a) Me having historically focused my blog and attention on Africa; b) FrontlineSMS being closely associated with the continent (the concept came out of field work in South Africa); and finally, c) There being a growing developer and ICT4D community on the continent (through innovation hubs, among others) keen to build on top of tools like ours.”

India, it would seem, is an ideal adoption ground for solutions like FrontlineSMS. Of the 1.2 billion population, only around 100 million have access to the internet, although, this is projected to grow to 300 million over the next three years. The mobile growth story is far ahead. The total subscriber base at the beginning of 2012 was 894 million, with an active subscriber base of 647 million. Wireless teledensity, the number of subscriptions per 100 people, was 161 in urban and 37 in rural areas. Several estimates put the number of smartphones in India at no more than 30 million, and one could safely assume, mostly in urban areas. The majority of active mobile handsets are, therefore, very basic but well-suited for voice and SMS. For civil society organisations working with low-income groups, in rural and urban areas alike, a platform like FrontlineSMS presents exciting communication possibilities.

As compared with African countries, the uptake of FrontlineSMS in India is still nascent. Lack of awareness may be the key issue. What would Banks like to see happen? “We’ve recently had user-organised meet ups in Haiti and Uganda, with others springing up around the world. It would be great to see this happening in India — our ethos and focus is that users should drive deployment of FrontlineSMS, and user-organised meetups are a large part of this.”

If you are using, or interested in using FrontlineSMS in India, then we'd love to hear from you! Please contact us to share your own questions and experiences.

FrontlineSMS Listed at Number 47 in the Global Journal's "Top 100 Best NGOs"

FrontlineSMS is excited and honoured to be featured in The Global Journal's list of Top 100 Best NGOs, which was announced earlier this week. It is fantastic to receive this acknowledgement for the important role FrontlineSMS is playing in leveraging mobile technology to support social change across the world.  We have lots planned for 2012, and so this announcement is a great start to what is going to be a big year!  For more information on this announcement please see below or you can visit the Global Journal webpage, too. Here is how the Global Journal announced their 'Top 100 Best NGOs' list:

"The Global Journal  is proud to announce the release of its inaugural ‘Top 100 Best NGOs’ list. The first international ranking of its kind, this exclusive in-depth feature will no doubt stimulate debate, while providing academics, diplomats, policymakers, international organizations and the private sector an insight into the ever changing dynamics and innovative approaches of  the non-profit world and its 100 leading actors.

Recognizing the significant role of NGOs as influential agents of change on a global scale, The Global Journal has sought to move beyond outdated clichés and narrow conceptions about what an NGO is and does. From humanitarian relief to the environment, public health to education, microfinance to intellectual property, NGOs are increasingly at the forefront of developments shaping the lives of millions of people around the world."

This is what they said of FrontlineSMS, and the reason why we are in the list:

"In 2005, Ken Banks [FrontlineSMS Founder] was working to help authorities engage and communicate with the public on wildlife conservation efforts in South Africa without relying on the Internet. Realizing he needed a system that could send, receive, and organize SMS text messages through a mobile device and laptop, the original concept of FrontlineSMS was born.

For remote areas in developing countries where individuals can at best access a mobile phone signal, the simplicity of FrontlineSMS is central to its appeal. A free, open-source software platform that works without an Internet connection by connecting a device such as a cell phone or GSM modem with a local phone number, FrontlineSMS has been downloaded 20,000 times and is being used in 70 countries worldwide. From facilitating the real-time dissemination of market data to coffee farmers in Aceh, to supporting Iraq’s first independent news agency and being used to monitor elections and prevent vote rigging in the Philippines, Afghanistan and Nigeria, users have driven the development of new features to support positive social change in over 20 sectors.

As the FrontlineSMS community has expanded, so too has the ‘family’ of sector specific projects the organization has, which are adapting and extending the software for specialized use in finance, education delivery, healthcare, community radio and legal services."

You can read more about this announcement on the Global Journal website here.

Mobile technology: Developing Africa?

By Kike Oyenuga, FrontlineSMS Project Assistant

The ICT4D community has often turned its head towards the potential role of mobile in African development.  But a challenge posed by the Royal African Society at an event at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies last week was: “Are the claims that mobiles are aiding development as clear as they seem?”

FrontlineSMS Founder, Ken Banks, participated in the debate titled, “Mobile technology: Developing Africa?” which set out to offer fresh perspectives to this increasingly analyzed sector. Ken was joined on a panel by Marieme Jamme, CEO of SpotOne Solutions and co-founder of Africa Gathering and Nick Short, a lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College who is working in mobile disease surveillance in East Africa.

The panel discussed the ways in which mobile technology is helping both to improve the flow of information both within development organizations and also providing increased access to information in Africa more generally. The discussion covered a range of topics; the role of innovation, the many potential uses of mobile for development, and the role of corporate responsibility of mobile phone operators and manufacturers.

The presenters gave accounts from their personal experiences working with mobile technology in their respective fields, and explained why it is such a valuable tool with broad application potential. Also discussed were the challenges of applying mobile technology effectively in rural or remote settings and the importance of scaling down technology to fit the capacity of the people using it the most.

Drawing on his experience of combining his role as a veterinarian with technology, Nick Short spoke of using mobile mapping and geo-spatial tools in his work in documenting and tracking livestock diseases and possible epidemics and said that the technology could be used in many types of crisis mapping. He gave the current East Africa food security issue and real-time aid donation as prime examples.

Adding to a point emphasized in Marieme’s presentation - on the importance of mobile technology to maintain connectivity to vulnerable communities - Ken then focused  on the macro view of how mobile technology can transform engagement of development and aid work. He noted the challenge that people with various skill sets are often located far from the people they are helping, and it is by connecting these groups that stakeholders can benefit from each other.

Technology allows more people to be involved in the process of development, by strengthening capacity and simultaneously allowing those that benefit to have agency in how technology is applied in their respective communities. Citing multiple examples of this, Ken elaborated on the use of FrontlineSMS technology in the poll monitoring process by Nigerians during the recent presidential elections, as an example where people were empowered to conduct election monitoring on their own terms.

Questions for the panel underscored the continued debates around mobile’s role in African development.  One audience member questioned whether mobile phone companies were being socially responsible enough in giving back to the communities that they profit from. This was underlined by her assertion that companies provide a vital service to people in developing nations yet set the cost of phone credit at a price prohibitive to most. This audience member also wondered at the irony of it costing less to call Africa from the UK than someone in Africa calling her. Ken’s response was that we needed to a look at the broader picture. He highlighted the fact that much of the mobile infrastructure that we see across Africa today was built by private sector investment, and that if rolling out telecommunications across the continent had been an international aid project we’d likely not be anywhere near where we are today.

An overarching message embodied by the discussion was that the development community musn’t be mesmerized by technology, rather it should focus on the context in which it will be used and allow for appropriate solutions to evolve while bearing that in mind.

@twitter meets @frontlinesms

@jack - inventor, Founder and Chairman of Twitter - meets up with @kiwanja - developer of FrontlineSMS - at the "Symposium on Technologies for Social Action" (e-STAS) conference in Malaga last week, where they both spoke about elements of citizen empowerment. Twitter and FrontlineSMS

In their quest for globally-available, affordable (free!) text messaging, the Twitter folk are not alone, but unlike their non-profit counterparts Twitter are beginning to win the battle of nerves with the operators (expect to see free messaging slowly come back over the coming year). NGOs the world over can only dream of having this kind of clout, although it was interesting comparing the Twitter experience with that faced by FrontlineSMS users and the wider NGO community.

It'll be interesting to see where the Twitter Foundation might go with this, if and when we ever see one.