ExplorersBio

Ken Banks

Mobile Technology Innovator

Emerging Explorer, National Geographic Blackstone Innovation Challenge Grantee

At the Masai chief's council, Papa King never turns off his cell phone, which may interrupt the meeting.

Photograph by Patrick Adverturier, Getty Images

Photo: Ken Banks

Photograph by Karola Riegler

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.

For the first time, farmers in Indonesia, Cambodia, Niger, and El Salvador receive up-to-date market prices for crops and fish via text message, allowing them to be more economically competitive, even in the wake of natural disasters. Microfinance organizations use the system to send and receive loan payments, saving people in developing countries days of arduous travel.

“You don’t have to be a multinational organization,” Banks stresses. “Anyone can use this tool to solve a problem they see in the place where they live. One man in the U.S. created a help line allowing Oklahoma women to report domestic violence. Within three months 4,000 text messages were received, some of which helped prosecute offenders.”

By expanding the reach of mobile technology, Banks hopes to close the gap between big well-funded nonprofits and small groups or individuals working on the margins. “What these low-cost high-impact operations lack in tools, resources, and funds they more than make up for with a deep understanding of the local landscape, language, culture, and daily challenges of real people. Alone, they may not solve national problems, but how about hundreds of them, or thousands?”

The key, Banks believes, is a hands-off approach. While his website provides free support and connects participants worldwide, users themselves decide how to put the software into action. “FrontlineSMS gives them tools to create their own projects and make a difference,” Banks notes. “It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to reach their full potential through their own ingenuity. That’s why it’s so motivating, exciting, and effective.”

Banks is also launching a website through which concerned people in the developed world can donate text messages. “We’re giving people with resources a chance to select projects and help fund messages that will affect real social, health, environmental, and human rights change.”

“We need to help people realize that if you care enough you can do meaningful things without piles of money or expensive hardware. All I had was an idea. Today anyone with a software development kit, cheap mobile phone, and the reach of the Internet can write something that could save or improve lives. Innovation isn’t about infrastructure, it’s about someone standing in a rural village somewhere and suddenly realizing, ‘If I did this … that could happen.’”

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Some of the smallest, most under-resourced nonprofit organizations can make the biggest difference. This technology gives them a tool that works, despite all their limitations.

—Ken Banks

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