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Category — Conservation

2013: The end of sustainability?

One of the most interesting comments I’ve read for while came in this article by Andrew Zolli for the New York Times, written in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy late last year:

Today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organisations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: How to help vulnerable people, organisations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

Having spent a large part of my career working in and around environmentalism and conservation (see an earlier post on lessons learnt in primate conservation), a reality-check of ‘sustainability’ is something I’ve had on my mind for a while. With its arch enemy – population growth – driving ever-upward, I’ve often wondered whether we’re just stalling for time or delaying the inevitable. The problem with this school of thought, of course, is that it’s considered by many to be defeatist, particularly by those in the actual business of conservation and environmental protection.

Technology allows us to stretch the limits of what’s possible – grow significantly more food per acre, or live in climates we were never meant to live in – all activities which make us feel comfortable about the world and the places we live within it. Much of this technology has become invisible. We no longer think about the innovations that allow us to grow more, or healthier, food. Or those that get electricity to our homes, or the satellites that help get cars and planes from A to B. It’s only when we don’t have access to these things that we suddenly realise how exposed and dependent we are on them. Surviving technological meltdown is the subject of a wide number of books, including the aptly-titled “When Technology Fails” by Matthew Stein.

The environmental movement (which is to all intents and purposes linked to sustainability) is around forty years old. Its birth is widely linked to the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“, her seminal book which argued against the increasing use of pesticides in farming. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t hugely popular within the ranks of the chemical industry, but it did spur the birth of grassroots environmentalism which in turn lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If pesticide use continued, Carson argued, Springs of the future would be void of bird life, amongst others (hence the title).

In another of my favourite books, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed“, Jared Diamond graphically illustrates what happens to communities and civilisations which live beyond their means. We can learn a lot from history, but today not enough of us are listening. Our world population of over seven billion is already two to three times higher than what’s sustainable and, according to the World Population Balance website, recent studies have shown that the Earth’s resources are enough to sustain only about two billion people at most European’s current standard of living. In short, we’re in trouble.

During a recent talk at Pop!Tech I highlighted two things that I thought needed to change. First, we need to get people to listen and take interest, but not in the way the wider non-profit movement has historically tried to get us to (i.e. guilt-based education). Second, we need to rethink our relationships with local business, local resources, and each other. You can watch that ten minute talk below, and find out more of what we’ll be up to on the soon-to-launch Means of Exchange website.

As I admit at the start of my talk, I have more questions than answers right now. But I do know that, with the current economic climate, conditions are better than they’ve ever been to get people to rethink their relationship with money, resources and each other. These may not directly impact the environmental or sustainability agenda, but the secondary benefit of people making better use of the human, social, financial and environmental capital around them almost certainly will.

January 7, 2013   18 Comments

In numbers: A decade of mobile

January 2013 will be my ten year anniversary in “mobiles for development”. To say a lot has changed is something of an understatement. Back in those early pre-m4d-community days I would often get asked “Do they have mobile phone networks in Africa?”, or “How do people in Africa afford phones?”, or “Why are you wasting your time looking at the use of mobile phones in development?”.

Silly questions today, but not so silly back then, perhaps. Mobile phone ownership and penetration were largely in their infancy, and I only began looking at the conservation and development potential of this ‘emerging’ technology thanks to the incredible vision of a team at Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge, UK. A year after we started work we’d not only developed a groundbreaking project – wildlive! – but pulled together what was likely the first comprehensive report on the development potential of mobile phones. With so little actual data to go on, most of our research was based on anecdotal evidence. Ironically, solid data – even ten years on – is still a little tricky to come by.

(The full report is available in the kiwanja Mobile Database here).

Over the past nine years the conversation – and the technology – have moved on considerably, and today few people would argue that mobiles have had a transformative effect in the developing world. Quite where things are headed is a little unclear, but infographics such as this two-pager from the World Bank can help remind us how far we’ve come, and how exciting this sector is to work in.

Click for a larger (readable) version of page one here and page two here.

I would say “Here’s to the next ten years”, but with the pace of change we’ve seen so far we’re probably best not looking that far ahead.

July 30, 2012   128 Comments

Back at National Geographic

I was no different to many other children my age, taking every opportunity to get my hands on a National Geographic magazine and flicking through each colourful page in wonder and amazement. I’d get most of mine cheap from jumble sales back then – I can afford to buy them full price these days – but that sense of fascination remains.

Thirty years on and I find myself back in Washington DC attending my second National Geographic Explorers Symposium. I’ve packed quite a lot in over those thirty years – school building in Zambia, hospital building in Uganda, a degree in Social Anthropology, carrying out biodiversity surveys in Uganda, running a primate sanctuary in Nigeria, various trips and visits to a host of other countries, most on the African continent and, of course, the development of FrontlineSMS.

It was 2003 that my career took its most significant turn when I started working in mobile, and until very recently FrontlineSMS took up most of my time. It was that work which caught the eye of the panel at the National Geographic Society, culminating in my Award in 2010. I’m back again this year to moderate a panel, help mentor the 2012 Class of Emerging Explorers, and share news of my growing relationship with the Society.

It’s not every day that you find yourself randomly sharing a lift with people behind some of the most famous discoveries of our time. This is a very special place, and it’s always a huge honour to be here. If you’d told me thirty years ago that I’d be walking these corridors today, I’d never have believed you.

June 11, 2012   9 Comments

Primates and people: Understanding local needs

Driven by a curiosity and a strong interest in primate conservation, late one night back in December 2001 I arrived in Nigeria to take up my post as Project Manager at a sanctuary in Calabar, Cross River State. The year I spent there – starting exactly ten years ago this month – turned out to be fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Crucially, combined with my previous experiences working on the continent, it also helped shape my understanding of the needs of local people and local NGOs, a focus which remains a central pillar of my wider technology work today.

Chimp rescue, Lagos 2001

I wasn’t the only arrival that December day. A small baby chimpanzee had been confiscated (pictured) from a local market and was waiting to be collected from Lekki, a conservation and education centre in Lagos run by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. Primate rescue was to be a theme of my time in Nigeria, as was a sense that a large part of the ‘conservation effort’ was really damage limitation and control. Rehabilitating orphaned primates was often the easier part – even though it was hugely challenging and distressing. Changing perceptions, overcoming local politics and trying to shift cultural mindsets turns out to be much harder. Not only that, it takes considerably longer, time that increasing numbers of species simply don’t have.

Primate conservation, bush meat hunting and deforestation are all inextricably linked. Tackling one without trying to address the others simply doesn’t work. In its simplest form, the whole thing goes something like this.

Loggers enter the forest and either blanket cut or selectively cut trees. To help get the logs out, paths and roads are opened up into areas which were previously difficult or impossible to access. Loggers need to eat, and many actively hunt for bush meat while working in the forest. Local hunters join in. As more trees are cut and more roads laid, hunters are able to penetrate deeper into the forest, reducing wildlife populations – primates included – yet further

If I were to summarise what I learnt about these complex issues from my time in southern Nigeria, I would break it down into the following categories.

The practical

Logging

Although large-scale logging is a significant problem – often carried out by larger (almost always foreign) companies – many poor local people are ‘recruited’ to help in the destruction. Equipped with chainsaws supplied by their employers, they enter community forests and national parks and selectively cut high-worth trees. Roads and paths are cut to remove the logs, which are sometimes cut into large planks before being shipped off. Forestry officials, many of whom haven’t been paid for months, stamp the trees as coming from a legitimate source. I will never forget the haunting sound of distant chainsaws as I walked through those forests.

The cultural

orphanSpeaking with the locals in Calabar, many find it inconceivable that people would ever eat primates. In many communities it’s simply taboo, but sadly the same can’t be said for killing them. As outsiders come in search of work, and as main roads open up alongside the fringes of rainforest, hunters from these communities will go in, track down wildlife – primates included – and sell them at the side of the the road. Bush meat is in great demand, and it’s a brisk trade. If a mother is killed then the infant will be sold as a pet – a double bounty for the hunter. Some of these orphans are incredibly young, and barely alive if they are lucky enough to be rescued, as this picture distressingly shows.

The perception

The many Nigerians I met believed that bush meat was much better for you than ‘farmed’ meat, and given the choice they’d rather eat something from the forest than a farm. This is a major challenge for conservation groups trying to ween people off bush meat and more towards livestock of various descriptions. As a case in point, some Nigerians living in London appear to be willing to pay significant amounts of money for illegally imported bush meat, despite the availability of almost any other kind of meat from legal, local sources such as London supermarkets (see this interesting story reported by the International Primate Protection League).

The response

Conservation groups on the ground spend huge amounts of time on education and alternative livelihoods and farming programmes. In the 1990′s there was considerable focus on the potential for “grasscutters” – a widely-distributed cane rat found in West and Central Africa – and how farming and breeding these could help reduce or replace reliance on bush meat for protein. I’m not sure how many of these projects were successful, although some research has been carried out and there has been some success by individuals in Ghana. From my own observations, keeping livestock of any kind (other than chickens or turkeys, which need little looking after) turned out to be a foreign concept to many people, and efforts to promote it largely failed.

The reality

Dead guenonSpeak with the hunters in almost any rural community and there is almost universal recognition that the wildlife is on the decline. Many fondly speak of overnight hunting expeditions with their fathers, and how they’d return the next morning with a healthy ‘catch’. Evidence of distant permanent overnight camps highlight today’s reality – longer trips, days in length, but ones which still don’t guarantee a single kill. Urban dwellers rarely see this reality. Ask them about conservation and wildlife, and their reaction is one of “the monkeys will never finish” (Nigerians often use the term “finish” to describe extinction). Nigerians clearly have much to learn from each other.

It would have been great to have ended my time in Nigeria with a solution to some of these problems, and even better to be able to outline a few of them in this post. But I didn’t, and I don’t.

What I can contribute, though, is this…

Things you can do

Firstly, take a little time to try and understand the problems – plural. It frustrates me to read blanket condemnation in the western media of local people in African countries cutting down forests and daring to kill cute chimpanzees. Yes, it’s sad and its destructive. I’ve seen at first hand the pain and distress of an orphaned primate who’s had to have an arm broken to release its grip on its dead mother, or the look in the eyes of exhausted villagers struggling to put a decent meal on the table for their children. The problems are complex, but they’re human and animal.

Secondly, join a local organisation working with local communities on the ground. If you’re interested in African primates in particular, a good place to start out is the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), an organisation committed to the conservation and care of African primates through the support of in-situ sanctuaries.

Thirdly, if you’re the volunteering kind, check out the University of Wisconsin’s Primate Info Net, but bear in mind that volunteering is really only productive if the local organisation can’t find, or afford, a local version of you among the communities in which they work. If that’s the case, be sure you have a transferrable skill so you can train a local person to replace you when you leave. Sustainability isn’t always financial – it also has a human element to it, too.

Fourthly, find out about alternative conservation/human strategies such as direct conservation payments – different models do exist. Just as primate species are different, conservation strategies also need to be. One size rarely fits all, and this is true whether you’re an elephant, a forest, a primate or a local villager.

Finally, stay positive. Problems are many and working solutions are few. Something good will happen if enough people commit to conservation in Africa. Many people already have.

December 12, 2011   10 Comments

Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature

“Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life”

Nam June Paik, Artist (1932 – 2006)

There’s a saying in the technology world which asks “What would Google do?”. When I’m confronted with a problem, I’d rather ask “What would nature do?”. Why? Well, if you believe Google have the answer then you’re immediately assuming that modern technology – in some shape or form – is the solution. More often than not that’s the wrong place to start.

I recently sat on a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum which focused on the use of social media in the environmental movement. (You can watch the video here, or read my summary of whole the event here). Many people had already made their minds up that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on were ‘the’ answer, before really thinking through what they were really trying to do, what their message was, or who the different audiences would be. That’s also the wrong place to start.

Asking what nature might do immediately pulls us away from looking for a modern, high-tech solution and more towards a simpler, low-tech (and potentially more appropriate and sustainable) one. It also encourages us to think entirely out-of-the-box.

So, if you were to ask “What might nature do?”, what kind of solutions might you come up with which you otherwise might not have?

1. Elephants

Some of my earliest mobile work back in 2003 was in Southern Africa where I was asked to help understand and apply modern communications technology to local conservation efforts. One of the bigger problems people were trying to tackle back then was human-elephant conflict – elephants ‘encroaching’ on farmland and destroying livelihoods literally overnight. In response, some farmers resorted to poisoning or shooting elephants. Not a good conservation outcome.

All kinds of modern technology solutions were proposed, and many trialled, to try and solve the problem. Electric fences, RFID tagging, sensors and live-GSM-tracking among them. Few proved as successful as hoped, or particularly replicable or affordable.

So, what might nature do?

It turns out that elephants run a mile when they encounter bees. According to this BBC article, early research in Kenya indicates hives can be a very effective barrier, so much so that 97% of attempted elephant raids were aborted. Where satellites, RFID tags and mobile phones failed, humble honey bees might just be the answer.

2. Pigeons

Each summer, as tennis players battle it out on the lawn courts at Wimbledon, the authorities do battle trying to stop pigeons interfering with play. All manner of modern technology is available to deter birds – lasers and radio controlled aircraft to gas guns and ultrasound emitters. Again, each have varying degrees of success and many can be expensive.

What would nature do?

Wimbledon’s answer doesn’t involve anything more high-tech than a bird of prey. A few laps by Rufus around the tennis courts are enough to scare the hardiest of pigeons away. No batteries – or lasers, or sound emitters – required. Simple, sustainable and replicable.

3. Wasps

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the grandly-named “Waspinator” was a little black box with wires, buttons and flashing lights. No doubt there have been attempts to develop high-tech wasp deterrents in the past, but the Waspinator isn’t one of them. In fact, if you saw one you’d likely be a little disappointed. This particular solution looks like nothing more than a brown paper bag. But don’t be fooled – nature has very much influenced its development.

According to the website:

The Waspinator is a fake wasps nest. Wasps are very territorial and will aggressively defend their nest against wasps from another colony. When a foraging wasp sees another wasps nest it will rapidly leave the area for fear of being attacked by the nest’s defenders.

Wasps have a very long range of vision and when they see a Waspinator they think it’s an enemy wasps nest and quickly leave the area for somewhere safer, leaving the area around the Waspinator completely free of wasps

It couldn’t be simpler. And no moving parts (if you exclude the wasps).

So, drawing on these examples, what five lessons does nature teach us?

1. Understand the context of your target audience/user.
2. Use locally available materials wherever possible.
3. Low-tech is not poor-tech.
4. Keep it simple.
5. The answer is likely already out there.

Next time we look to develop a technology solution to a problem, we might be best asking what nature might do before turning to the likes of Google, or any high-tech solution provider for that matter. Mother Nature usually knows best.

August 18, 2011   48 Comments

The Environmental Network

Date: Thursday 2nd June, 2011
Venue: Aspen Environment Forum, Aspen, Colorado
Chair: Ned Breslin
Speakers: Ken Banks, William Powers, Courtney Hight, Charles Porch

The Environmental Network

“Recent social movements in North Africa and the Middle East have shown the power of social media and mobile devices to accelerate change at the grassroots level. What lessons does that experience hold for the environmental movement? Can Facebook and Twitter somehow catalyze an environmental revolution as well – and is it happening already?”

Ken Banks is Founder of kiwanja.net/FrontlineSMS

William Powers is a prize-winning writer and author of the New York Times best-seller “Hamlets BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age”

Courtney Hight is the Co-Director of Energy Action Coalition and Power Shift

Charles Porch heads up Facebook’s efforts to help non-profits utilise the platform

Ned Breslin is CEO of Water for the People

The 2011 Aspen Environment Forum is presented by the Aspen Institute in partnership with National Geographic, and provides a critical framework for committed voices to address a significant milestone:  A global population of 7 billion and how to reconcile Earth’s finite resources with its ability to sustain our expanding human needs.

June 14, 2011   9 Comments

The Aspen Environment Forum. In tweets.

Last week I was fortunate to attend the three-day Aspen Environment Forum (#AEF2011) in Aspen, Colorado. It gave me the perfect opportunity to “leave the tech behind” and immerse myself in some of the bigger environmental issues and challenges facing the planet today.

The event boasted a fantastic line-up not only of speakers, but also delegates. Some of the smartest people in their field were there to discuss, debate, challenge and collaborate. One of the highlights was getting the chance to meet some of the people who featured heavily in my anthropology dissertation way back in 1999, which looked at the role – or lack of – anthropologists in the creation of national parks.

So, in the spirit of my “Tim Smit. In tweets” post last year, here’s a few highlights of the Forum in 140 character chunks.

Context: Talk of a crowded planet are often over-exaggerated. As this statement demonstrates, in reality it’s more an issue of resources, not a lack of space (even though seven billion is a big number).

Context: It’s not just the scientists and politicians we need to get onside in the climate change debate. There’s a general apathy among the general public, too. Engaging the man and woman on the street emerged as one of the key challenges at the Forum.

Context: Some people are willing to make lifestyle changes when they recognise a problem, but they’ve got to be simple, affordable and as least disruptive to their daily lives as possible.

Context: It’s easy to make demands if you’re never expected to deliver. As the green energy message gets louder, the day of judgement looms.

Context: Switzerland is the first country to pass a law encouraging the use of “living roofs” (also known as “green roofs“) on new buildings. Proven benefits are spiritual and social, as well as environmental.

Context: Dispelling a popular myth that cutting down trees is the only way of unlocking a forest’s value.

Context: Great quote on how we need to think more holistically about the value of our forests.

Context: Over consumption is a bad thing, regardless of what you eat.

Context: Conservation organisations need to start putting people back in nature. Some are – I was fortunate to work at Fauna & Flora International earlier in my career.

Context: One of the bigger surprises for me at the Forum was the increasing importance of urban agriculture. Growing food? In cities?

Context: Farmers don’t just grow food. They have a wider responsibility, something we – and they – need to recognise.

Context: Size is relative. A small farm in the US is not the same as a small farm in East Africa.

Context: If you thought food was expensive now, you’re in for a shock.

Context: Good friend Jerry Glover highlights the folly of littering the soil with fertiliser when most of the action happens much further down. More on Jerry’s work promoting more sustainable agriculture is available here.

Context: Farmers shouldn’t be paid for what governments want them to grow. Consumers – voting with their wallets – should be the ones to tell them.

Context: A sharp reminder that we’re heading down a rocky road with our mono-culture farming practices. Diversity isn’t just king. It’s common sense.

Context: One of the more eye-opening statements of the week. Taking into account the chemicals, machinery, storage, packaging and transport, large “high-tech” American farms aren’t much more productive than their smaller “low-tech” African counterparts.

Context: As Christian Aid once put it, “We believe in life before death”. Ultimately, feeding people should be more about quality than quantity.

Context: Factoring in drinking, cooking, showers, toilet breaks and the amount of water needed to produce the food they eat, average water consumption in America is staggering. Unsustainable on a global level? You bet.

Context: Busting the myth that a clean, tidy environment is something you only aspire to when you’re wealthy.

Context: Poverty – the root cause of much evil.

Context: Only one percent of our oceans are protected in any meaningful way. Amazing.

Context: The challenges may seem unsurmountable, but that’s not an excuse to do nothing.

Context: We need to reframe the renewable energy debate.

Context: If living within our means is a measure of development then we have much to learn from the ‘developing’ world. Let’s not kid ourselves that ‘we’ have all the answers.

More on the Aspen Environment Forum can be found on the Forum website, including videos of many of the Panels. A few photos from outside the Forum are available on my Flickr pages here.

June 6, 2011   28 Comments

National Geographic: Interview

The following interview“Solving eco challenges with grassroots messaging” - was given to the National Geographic website last autumn. It’s republished here after it turned out to be one of the most comprehensive to date – covering everything from the role of anthropology in mobiles-for-development, the environmental impact of mobile phones and the thinking behind FrontlineSMS. If you’re after a general overview of kiwanja’s work and work ethic, this is the best place to start.

“National Geographic Emerging Explorer Ken Banks is an anthropologist, conservationist, and mobile technology innovator who built a communications platform to empower grassroots organizations throughout the developing world. FrontlineSMS solves critical communication problems by enabling cell phone users to exchange mass message information without access to the internet – or even constant electricity.

His kiwanja.net organization strives to provide nonprofits around the globe with the mobile technology tools to enact meaningful change.

Ken Banks Interviewed by Brian Handwerk

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

You’ve written about the environmental impact of four billion phones in “The Mobile Revolution’s Hidden Cost“. On the positive side, how can mobile technology help us find solutions to the world’s eco problems or help make our use of the world more sustainable?

Interestingly enough I started out my career in mobile working for a conservation organization -Fauna & Flora International – back in 2003. A couple of far-sighted individuals there were beginning to ask these very questions.

Mobile technology is proving increasingly useful to conservationists and environmentalists around the world. In addition to bringing down the cost of traditionally expensive animal tracking initiatives (which relied largely on satellite technology), mobile phones are also being used to provide alerts to communities living on the edges of national parks, helping mitigate against human/wildlife conflict. Phones and PDAs can be used in the field as data collection tools, replacing note pads and allowing teams of researchers to gather and share data simultaneously. Photos can be taken of incidences of poaching and transmitted to the Internet, or evidence of chemical or oil spills recorded with a specific location and then uploaded to a map.

On the consumer side of things, people can now check their carbon footprint or monitor their energy use via their mobile phone, or verify that products in shops are being produced sustainably. People can even look up details of a fish they’re about to order in a restaurant and check its conservation status. A project I worked on some years ago, called wildlive!, was designed to try to connect people with conservation projects through their phones, and provided images, animal sounds, conservation-themed games, and live news and field diaries to subscribers.

In short, mobile phones can have a positive impact both in the field in the hands of people doing the conservation work, or in the hands of the general public interested in keeping up-to-date and informed on environmental issues. But there’s a lot more we can do with the increasing numbers of always-on, always-connected mobile devices people are carrying around with them today.

What led to the birth of FrontlineSMS?

FrontlineSMS, which takes up the bulk of my time these days, was the first independent kiwanja.net initiative, and its roots are in conservation, funnily enough. I was working in Bushbuckridge, an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa, helping with a Fauna & Flora International project.

One element of the Kruger work was to try and identify a system which South African National Parks (SANParks) could use to send text messages to Bushbuckridge community members. The authorities wanted to re-engage people into the conservation effort, keep them updated on park matters, ask their opinions on decisions which would impact them, arrange meetings, send wildlife alerts, and so on. Part of my role was to identify a system they could use to do this. After a considerable search, though, I could only find mass messaging tools which worked off the Internet. Back in 2004, it wasn’t possible to just jump on the Internet around Kruger National Park, so all of these solutions proved totally inappropriate.


Photo of women queuing for water in Bushbuckridge. By Ken Banks

It wasn’t until a year later that the idea of creating a mass messaging system which ran off a laptop computer and attached mobile phone came to me. By sending and receiving the messages through the phone, the need for the Internet was removed. It really is very simple, but at the time nothing like this existed. I had a hunch that there were likely many organizations out there that wanted to send messages to people in places where there was no Internet, so I raised a small amount of money and bought a laptop, some manuals, some phones and modems and cables, and spent five weeks over the summer of 2005 writing a prototype of FrontlineSMS on a kitchen table in Finland. I built a website for it, and in October that year released it to the world. What’s happened since has been pretty amazing.


Photo of a typical FrontlineSMS set-up. By Ken Banks

You had thoughts about how people might use FrontlineSMS, but it’s designed as a tool for people to create their own applications. What cool things have people done that really surprised you?

When you consider its conservation roots, the number of different areas where NGOs have applied the software has been staggering.

In Aceh, UNDP and Mercy Corps have used FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq it is being used by the country’s first independent news agency – Aswat al Iraq – to disseminate news to eight countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe, the software has been used extensively by a number of human rights organizations including Kubatana.net, and in Nigeria and the Philippines it helped monitor national elections. In Malawi, FrontlineSMS has generated considerable interest in the m-health sector where a project started by Josh Nesbit, a Stanford University student, is helping run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. That project has since become an organization of its own, FrontlineSMS:Medic.

FrontlineSMS was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the recent Azerbaijani elections it helped mobilize the youth vote. It is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and is now running the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. It has also been deployed in the DRC as part of the Ushahidi platform to collect violence reports via SMS, and been used by Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda to communicate with the Village Phone network. Projects in Cambodia and El Salvador have used it to help create transparency in agricultural markets, and Survivors Connect is using it in a number of countries to run anti-trafficking reporting systems among vulnerable communities.

All of this activity is user-driven and user-dictated. FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity.

Why the focus on small grassroots organizations? They lack funds, staff, and technology, but what are their advantages?

The majority of my early conservation and development work, going back to 1993, was with small, local NGOs. It became very clear to me that many were punching well above their weight in terms of how much they delivered versus the resources and funding they had. At the same time, much of this work was going largely unnoticed. Why, for example, would you ever get to hear about some community project in Zambia working to empower women?

For the past 17 years, I’ve lived and worked in many African countries, and remain focused on the grassroots side of things to this day. It’s a place where much of the latest high-tech gadgetry we develop and promote has little chance of working due to a lack of the Internet, funding, technical expertise, and so on.

If you asked me to describe them in general terms, I’d say most grassroots organizations are generally small, extremely dedicated, run low-cost high-impact interventions, work on local issues with relatively modest numbers of local people, and are staffed by community members who have first-hand experience of the problems they’re trying to solve. What they lack in tools, resources, and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape – not just geographically, but also the language, culture, and daily challenges of the people. This is crucially important and is something often overlooked.

Is your ultimate vision one of providing the tools to let one person make a positive change in his or her own corner of the world?

Absolutely. We need to build tools which allow anyone with a passion to see it out, to promote it and share it and make a success of it. Let’s not forget, global environmental and social issues aren’t just the concern of large (or small) non-profits or activist groups – we’re all concerned about them. If someone watches a National Geographic program in their bedroom on seal hunting and feels compelled to campaign against it, for example, they should have access to all the tools necessary to campaign and help put a stop to it. For that, we need to make media tools easy to use, accessible, low-cost, and so on.

When we talk about sustainability, we need to also think about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success with some of the more pressing problems of our time, then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the field and give them all the support they need to keep them there. Empowerment isn’t just something we do in a distant land. There’s plenty we can be doing on our own doorstep. It’s a different kind of empowerment, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.”

Further information
Watch a 15 minute video of a presentation made at National Geographic in Washington DC (June 2010)

February 13, 2011   21 Comments

Spreading the “Mobile Message”

Over the past year or so, it’s become increasingly clear to us that we need to take the “mobile message” out of its technology silo and make it more available – and accessible – to a wider audience. This was the thinking behind our regular series on PC World, and is the thinking behind a new series we’re launching today in collaboration with National Geographic.

The “Mobile Message” is aimed at a broad audience, but most importantly people who would never likely visit a mobile-specific site. Recent talks at Communicate – aimed at conservationists – and Nat Geo Live! – aimed at the general public – have convinced us even more that we need to stop just talking among ourselves and take the message out to more mainstream, broader audiences.

According to the first “Mobile Message” posted today:

“Over the next few months we will delve into the human stories behind the growth of mobile technology in the developing world. We’ll take a closer look at the background and thinking behind FrontlineSMS, and hear from a number of users applying it to very real social and environmental problems in their communities. We will also hear thoughts and insights from other key mobile innovators in the field, from anthropologists to technologists to local innovators.”

You can read the rest of the introductory post on the National Geographic website here.

December 8, 2010   22 Comments

Keeping up the heat on climate change

As part of this years International Day of Climate Action on October 24th, 350.org – with support from Tactical Technology Collective – are planning a new and innovative text messaging campaign designed to mobilise citizens around the world

“Project MOBiLIZE” will use decentralised, country-specific FrontlineSMS servers to deliver targeted messaging blasts to 350.org supporters in over twenty countries. The project will also collect SMS reports after the October 24th main event and deliver them to world leaders via Twitter, web and projection at the UN Climate Talks due to take place in Copenhagen in December.

"Project MOBiLIZE"

This is how it works. To start things off, the 350.org central server sends out an SMS to each of the country nodes, taking into account timing, language and message. Cost is minimal – just 20 international messages, one per node. Once the message is received, the country nodes automatically blast it out to lists of in-country mobile numbers, sourced from 350.org and local partner organisations. Costs are approximately 5 cents per SMS. Cascading SMS this way reduces costs considerably, and allows better local control.

Country nodes can also collect new mobile numbers through the FrontlineSMS servers, using SMS keywords and by publicising country-specific phone numbers on the web and at events.

This is the first time FrontlineSMS has been used to ‘cascade’ messages to and from the local level through a chain of servers. It could also be a first for any grassroots global SMS campaign, and if it works could present an exciting new model for others to follow. Not only is the system cheaper to run but it presents the potential for considerably wider reach, and thanks to some neat work by Bobby - the brains behind it - the pre-configured software can be quickly adopted in any country.

If you are interested in taking part in this ground-breaking campaign, either as an in-country node or in any other capacity, post a comment here, check out Bobby’s post on the FrontlineSMS Community pages

NEWS UPDATE

The 350.org website has a post about the project
Tactical Tech also have a post here

ACCESS POINTS

New numbers are being added all the time. Here are the various local access points as at 12th October:

USA – 30644
Australia – 0411694094
Maldives – 9900350
Macedonia – 077594209
Philippines – 09088770350
Hong Kong – 85262757489
Panama – Coming Soon!
New Zealand – 0226070672
Israel Coming – Soon!
Malaysia – 0163050973
Cambodia – 081666120
Sweden – 0733185314
Germany – Coming Soon!
India – Coming Soon!
Lebanon – Coming Soon!

October 6, 2009   30 Comments