FrontlineSMS at Google Zeitgeist

“The power to make a positive difference in society lies in all our hands – businesses, governments and individuals. How have advances in technology and social media altered the balance of power between the state and individuals in driving change? What can business and government leaders learn from inspiring individuals who persevere against all odds to bring about lasting improvement?”

These were just a few questions being asked at Google Zeitgeist 2010, an invitation-only event held earlier this month in a country retreat outside London. The Panel consisted of:

Howard Schultz (Chairman, President & CEO, Starbucks)
Ken Banks (Founder, and FrontlineSMS)
Minouche Shafik (Permanent Secretary, DFID UK)
Jessica Jackley (Co-Founder, Kiva)

The session was moderated by Chrystia Freeland, the Global Editor-at-Large for Reuters.

Further videos are available from the Google Zeitgeist Channel on YouTube.

Three objects that define

House moves are always fun, particularly the things that re-emerge from old boxes years after they’ve been buried away. While most of it turns out to be useless, unwanted junk, sometimes you stumble across something which ended up having a bigger impact on your life than you ever imagined. Here are three objects, recently unearthed, which have done that for me.


I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when my mother bought me an old, ridiculously heavy Olympus typewriter from the “Under £10″ section of our local newspaper . It was my first ever typewriter – I later ‘upgraded’ to a new model from Boots once I’d saved up enough money from my paper round – and I don’t remember much of any conversation we had before she bought it. But what I do know is that it unleashed my passion for writing. Homework was never the same again, and I must have written the majority of my poems on it, something I did a lot of in my younger years.

In 1978, the Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the Channel Islands, and for several months I took an unusually strong interest in the subject of oil – how it was found, where it came from, how much was left, how often spills happened, and so on. The culmination of this fascination was a ‘research project’ bound in a small A5 folder, imaginatively entitled “Oil: By Kenneth Banks”, which I still have to this day.

Today, writing remains a passion and is an important expressive outlet for me and my work. I’d never have imagined back in those days that I would end up writing for the BBC website, or PC World. I have a lot to thank that Olympus for. And my Mum, of course.


There was never really much to do on the estate where I was brought up, so the opening of a local club by Mr. Cooper was a main outlet for many of the children. It was a big estate, however, and the club had a waiting list. When I did eventually get the nod to join, Mr. Cooper had been using Commodore PET computers for some time in his other job – helping children with learning difficulties. During club hours we were allowed to play games on the PET, and were allocated around ten minutes each because of the high demand.

These amazing machines were powered by cassette players, and we quickly learnt the two commands we needed to use them. “LOAD” loaded the game, and when that was complete, “RUN” would execute it. I knew there had to be more to it than that, so during my short spells at the screen I’d try and figure out what else I could do. “LIST” was a revelation – a command to display the code. I soon realised that if I changed anything here, if it didn’t break the program it made it do something else. A programming career was born.

After a short while I was writing my own teaching programs for Mr. Cooper and earning extra pocket money from it. I have a lot to thank him for. Computers were hugely expensive in those days, and he gave me the opportunity to learn something which was only just starting to be taught in schools. Without this, a central pillar of my work today would never have been formed, and it’s highly unlikely I’d ever have been able to talk my way into an IT career, which I later did.


By 1993 I was out of school and – thanks to Mr. Cooper and a few other lucky breaks – working in the local IT industry. I’d already decided that a career in finance wasn’t for me. By a few twists of fate (described later on this page of my website) I found myself on a Jersey Overseas Aid project that summer, helping build teaching accommodation in Northern Zambia. It was a life-changing experience, and took my life and career into a totally new and unexpected direction. An interest and fascination – and later, career – in development was born over those few short weeks, and I’m still as engaged in it as ever, 17 years on.

Since that first trip I’ve had the pleasure and honour to live and work in a number of other African countries – Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya among them – and have made some incredible friends and even more incredible friendships along the way.

By September 1993, the month I returned from Zambia, the impact that trip was to have on my life was still largely unknown. Which makes it even more remarkable – perhaps strange – is that I kept a pair of socks from that first visit wrapped in a sheet of newspaper. These socks resurfaced during my recent house move. Some of my very first steps on the African continent are bound up in that marvellous red dust.

So there you have it. Three objects and three meanings that have helped define a life. Funny when you look at it like that.

What three objects define you?

Celebrating the ecosystem approach

It was a cold evening last October when I heard from National Geographic that we’d won an Emerging Explorer Award for our work in mobile. Seven months is a long time to keep a secret, but now news is out it will hopefully be the ideal platform to help us spur further development of FrontlineSMS, and increase interest in wider circles around the potential for simple, appropriate mobile technologies to solve some of the more pressing problems people face in the world today.

Although it’s wonderful to get this kind of recognition, it also makes it a good time to clarify a few key points about the work we’re doing.


First, I believe National Geographic took a bold step picking a mobile project as one of their Awardees. Explorers are usually associated with more physical, tangible acts such as climbing, diving, flying, discovering and so on. Trying to come up with a new approach to applying mobile technology to a problem is a different way of thinking about “exploring”, and I think it raises a number of very interesting questions. Something for a future blog post, no doubt.


Second, first and foremost I believe the Award is recognition of our approach. Over the past five years – yes, it’s almost been that long – we’ve developed a clear methodology based on “handing over our technology and stepping back” (as one conference delegate once put it to me). The National Geographic article summed it up perfectly:

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”

If we look at what’s happening today – with very little of it controlled by us – we’re seeing something of an ecosystem developing around FrontlineSMS. Sure, the software isn’t perfect and it’s constantly improving and evolving, but people are being drawn to it because it allows them to do what they do, better. It’s something they can build on top of, something they know of and to a large degree trust, and something which allows them to immediately tap into a wider community of users, donors and supporters.

It can act as a springboard for their own ideas and visions in a way other solutions aren’t. And only a few of these people are technical, and that is key. “Focus on the users and all else will follow” is something we seem to come back to again and again, but without it – and without users – all we have left is a bunch of code and a Big Idea.

The FrontlineSMS ecosystem is witnessing the creation of increasing numbers of plug-ins – medical modules, microfinance modules, mapping tools, reminders and analytical tools among them, and we’re hearing more and more from established, well-known entrepreneurial organisations who have chosen to implement and integrate FrontlineSMS as one element of their work. Laura, our new Project Manager, is just beginning to reach out and make sense of this activity, much of which we currently know very little about. Allowing users to take your platform and just run with it is empowering for them, but creates a unique set of challenges for us.


Third, and finally, are the recipients of the Award. I may have been fortunate enough to have got the fledgling FrontlineSMS concept off the ground way back in the summer of 2005, but it’s been a truly monumental, global effort getting it to where it is today, recognising – of course – that we still have a long way to go. From bloggers to donors, from developers to journalists, from testing partners to users, people have stuck with us and supported us in ways I would never have imagined.

Sure, the software can do some pretty neat things, and thanks to Alex and Morgan (our two developers) it continues to improve. But what really draws the majority of people to our work is the approach. For five years we’ve remained 100% focussed on the end user, and have not been distracted by newer, sexier emerging technologies. People really seem to get that. We’ve also concentrated on building, and on remaining positive. There is much wrong in the world, but that should never stop anyone making a contribution, however small.

So, a big thank you to National Geographic for putting their faith in our work; to Laura, Alex, Morgan and Josh, our dedicated core team; to the MacArthur Foundation for taking a gamble on a guy living in a van in 2007, and to the Hewlett Foundation, Open Society Institute, HIVOS, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Omidyar Network for helping us continue to develop and grow.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has supported us, spoken about us, written about us, promoted us and helped us, and thanks to the users for taking our software and doing some truly inspirational things with it. We owe all of this to you.