Category — News
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
Last week we made one of the most important announcements in the near-seven year history of FrontlineSMS. As I hinted in my “Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation” post last December, I only felt able to take the project to a certain level and that it required different people with a different set of skills to move it to the next. Last week, with that internal transition complete, we announced that I’d be stepping aside to concentrate on other things, and FrontlineSMS would move forward in fresh hands.
Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will now drive the project forward as CEO’s of our US Foundation and UK Community Interest Company respectively. You can read their thoughts on the transition, and what they have planned, in their follow-up post here.
Many wonderful messages of support flooded in in the form of Tweets, direct messages, blog comments, emails and – of course – text message. The transition announcement was amazingly well received and the response overwhelmingly positive. Many people commented that the move was “incredibly brave” and “must have been difficult” but as I mentioned in the announcement, I felt it was neither. As I said then, I’ve always maintained that it’s just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and stepping aside in these circumstances is the clearest indication I can give that I do.
There haven’t been many transitions like this in the m4d or ICT4D worlds that I know of, and if that’s the case it reinforces our commitment to not only be innovative with technology but innovative organisationally, and to also always act in the best interests of the project rather than ourselves. FrontlineSMS, as with many other ICT4D projects, is bigger than one person. I’m excited to see where FrontlineSMS goes from here, and I’ll follow and support it in my new capacity as Chairman of the Board with the same commitment and enthusiasm as I did from my one bedroom flat in Cambridge, or VW Camper at Stanford.
Alongside the congratulatory messages a few people wished me luck and said they hoped to still see me on the innovation, technology, mobile or African scene. Well, they will. I’m not retiring, just handing over the reins at FrontlineSMS. I’ll continue to write, blog and speak about technology, innovation and social change, and maintain a focus on Africa as I’ve done for the past twenty years.
As for what’s next, I’m excited that over the past few months I’ve been increasingly drawn into the wider world of innovation and entrepreneurship beyond my technology roots – speaking the other week at the Ashoka/Ben & Jerry’s ”Join Our Core” event, for example, and next month spending time with BMW executives in Munich.
My writing has also started to gain traction beyond the news sites and journals which dominate our discipline, with a short guest piece in Wired Magazine last month. I’m also planning my first book which will focus on “reluctant innovation“, due out later this year. And I’m doing an increasing amount of mentoring with organisations such as Pop!Tech, National Geographic and the Unreasonable Institute, something that aligns perfectly with my long-standing commitment to “give back”.
Project-wise I have a long list of new ideas I’ll be working on. One is just a few weeks away from being ready, so I’ll save the official announcement for then. But in the spirit of my efforts with FrontlineSMS, the overarching focus of my work will continue to centre around how we best apply modern technology for social benefit, both in the developed and developing world. If anything, it’s the additional focus on the developed world which represents the biggest shift in my thinking.
In an effort to stay innovative and relevant, large companies are often encouraged to reinvent themselves. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to individuals, too. The ICT4D sector has shifted focus considerably since I started out all those years ago. When the time is right, there’s no reason why some of the people in it shouldn’t do the same, either.
ClearlySo featured our transition on their blog. You can read their excellent commentary here.
June 5, 2012 52 Comments
Over the past few years I’ve given a fair few interviews, and have been grateful for the continued interest and enthusiasm from others for our work. Most interviews have focused on combinations of my time working in Africa, my technology interests, or the evolution and development of FrontlineSMS. Until now, none had asked me to go way back and talk about my background, family and upbringing, or dig deeply into what drives me and my work.
Last week, Kate Ebner on “Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life” did just that. You can read the write-up below.
Finding What Lights You Up: The Unassuming Wisdom of Mobile Innovator and Anthropologist Ken Banks
Ken Banks finished up his hour on our radio show and, moments later, tweeted “thanks for the therapy!” with a cyber smile. During his radio hour, Kate invited Ken to tell his life story at length for the benefit of our listeners. The story began in Banks’ childhood — in Jersey, England, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, France. To date, it takes place in Africa where Banks is bringing mobile technologies to enable effective communications channels for communities in the developing world through his organization kiwanja.net and his free, open-source software FrontlineSMS.
Why did Kate invite Ken to spend so much of the hour telling his story? “Ken’s story is one of overcoming loss, uncertainty and adversity to find his path. He is an optimist with high standards for himself and the world. He hasn’t always been able to see how the pieces of his story quite fit together. We can relate to those feelings and circumstances. How Ken moves through life — the decisions that he has made and how he makes them — is so instructive and inspiring for all of us.”
Here are just a few of the wise nuggets that Ken Banks imparted during his hour on Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life:
Everyone should be given a chance to maximize their potential. Inspire people to feel they have something to contribute to the world and help them find ways to make it happen. Read Ken’s blog post, “Enabling the Inspiration Generation.”
Just think about how you can help 4-5 people. You don’t need to save the whole world. If everyone helped just 4-5 people, the world would be a better place.
Anything is possible. Regardless of the cards you are dealt in life, pick yourself up and walk on. You don’t need parents in high places, or lots of money to make a difference in the world.
Do something that feels right. Don’t let others dictate your path. Only you will know what is right for you at any given moment in your life. If you feel good about what you are doing, don’t give up.
Make your own opportunities. If you haven’t found the one thing that immediately switches you on, get out and put yourself in the kinds of environments where you have a better chance of finding it. You won’t find it sitting at home and watching television.
Maximize every opportunity. You are only as good as the last thing you have done. It doesn’t matter that you gave a great talk last year – it’s all about the one you are doing now. If you give everything 100%, it will start to pay off and you will build momentum and people will want to support you and your ideas.
This interview was in part dedicated to our Mother, who passed away one year ago last month.
May 6, 2012 5 Comments
Late Tuesday afternoon, while I was strolling through Ottawa International Airport on my way back from a conference, a magazine title jumped out at me from one of the airport newsagents. It was called Inc.
If I were asked to describe it, I’d say it was a bit like “Wired for entrepreneurs”. If you’re into business, startups, entrepreneurship (and, yes, social entrepreneurship) I’d say it’s a must-read. You can check out Inc.’s website here.
One of the many gems in the current March edition is this infographic, which I thought was well worth sharing.
March 29, 2012 45 Comments
Today’s smart phones bear little resemblance to the phones of years gone by. With the arrival of each new model we’re stretched to think what else a phone might be able to do, and what manufacturers have planned for us next. The rate of innovation is staggering. Here’s a preview of a few phones some of us might get our hands on, and a brilliant-looking concept device which we may not.
LG Optimus 3D Max
Glasses-free 3D screen
Panasonic Eluga Power
50% charging capacity within 30 minutes
Nokia 808 PureView
41 megapixel camera
Concept BlackBerry with a smart wraparound display
Huawei Ascend D Quad
Dolby 5.1 surround sound
For full details on these, and previews of a few more phones, check out the original MSN article here.
March 14, 2012 17 Comments
An interview given during the Networked Society Forum gathering in Hong Kong late last year has just been published online and in the print edition of the Ericsson Business Review.
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”.
Check out the kiwanja.net Documents section for a wider selection of interviews, publications and articles.
March 8, 2012 47 Comments
Last week saw me start out at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and finish up at an event focusing on the use of text messaging in the non-profit sector in London. It was a busy week but two new resources were the end result.
Pictures. If you didn’t make it to Mobile World Congress then here’s a Flickr set of 111 free-to-use photos to give you a flavour of the event. Mobile World Congress is the world’s largest mobile exhibition and conference and features CEO’s and representatives from mobile operators, device manufacturers, technology providers, vendors and content owners from around the world.
Words. On Friday, Credemus Associates ran an event in London attended by representatives from FrontlineSMS and Text to Change. “The World in the Palm of Your Hands: SMS & Mobile Communications” was the first in a new line of events which Credemus hopes will become a live platform for discussion and news on ICT to support community engagement for Local Authorities, Third Sector & Public Sector organisations. At Friday’s event, FrontlineSMS and Text to Change announced the release of a new resource on how to use SMS as an effective behaviour change campaigning tool.
Behaviour change campaigning is inherently interactive. In order to encourage positive behaviour change it is important to not only push campaign messages out to people, but to listen to the responses. To run a campaign which has a real impact, you need to listen to ensure you’re being heard. This is one of the main reasons why SMS – as a widely accessible and inherently interactive communications channel – is an ideal tool for campaigning.
March 6, 2012 9 Comments
In just over a weeks time I’ll be heading back to the US to collect the Curry Stone Design Prize on behalf of FrontlineSMS. This is an exciting (and interesting) award for us for a number of reasons. You can read more of my thoughts on that here, and check out our official prize page here.
The Prize Ceremony is being held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design on 7th November, and it’s open invitation. If you’re interested in coming along drop the organisers an email. Details below.
October 27, 2011 8 Comments
“The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to champion designers as a force for social change. Now in its fourth year, the Prize recognizes innovators who address critical issues involving clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace”.
Yesterday was an exciting day for us as we announced FrontlineSMS had won the prestigious 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. This award follows closely on the heels of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, an honourable mention at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and our National Geographic “Explorer” Award last summer. It goes without saying these are exciting times not just for FrontlineSMS but for our growing user base and the rapidly expanding team behind it. When I think back to the roots of our work in the spring of 2005, FrontlineSMS almost comes across as “the little piece of software that dared to dream big”.
With the exception of the Pizzigati Prize – which specifically focuses on open source software for public good – our other recent awards are particularly revealing. Last summer we began something of a trend by being awarded things which weren’t traditionally won by socially-focused mobile technology organisations.
Being named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer is a case in point, and last summer while I was in Washington DC collecting the prize I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post:
On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.
More recently we’ve begun receiving recognition from more traditional socially-responsible design organisations – Buckminster Fuller and Clifford Curry/Delight Stone. If you ask the man or woman on the street what “socially responsible design” meant to them, most would associate it with physical design – the building or construction of things, more-to-the-point. Water containers, purifiers, prefabricated buildings, emergency shelters, storage containers and so on. Design is so much easier to recognise, explain and appreciate if you can see it. Software is a different beast altogether, and that’s what makes our Curry Stone Design Prize most interesting. As the prize website itself puts it:
Design has always been concerned with built environment and the place of people within it, but too often has limited its effective reach to narrow segments of society. The Curry Stone Design Prize is intended to support the expansion of the reach of designers to a wider segment of humanity around the globe, making talents of leading designers available to broader sections of society.
Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it’s deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We’ve worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It’s also arguably at the heart of it’s success:
We trust our users – rely on them, in fact – to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. We’re all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because it’s people who own the problems, and by default they’re often the ones best-placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool. Our approach to empowering our users isn’t rocket science. As I’ve written many times before, it’s usually quite subtle, but it works:
My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some “cloud“. This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.
What recognition from the likes of the Curry Stone Design Prize tells us is that socially responsible design can be increasingly applied to the solutions, people and ecosystems built around lines of code – but only if those solutions are user-focused, sensitive to their needs, deploy appropriate technologies and allow communities to influence how these tools are applied to the problems they own.
FrontlineSMS is featured in the upcoming book “Design Like You Give a Damn 2: Building Change From The Ground Up”, available now on pre-order from Amazon.
October 5, 2011 19 Comments
Do you know a software developer building open source tools with the potential to positively impact communities around the world? If you do – or you are one – then read on.
The Tides Foundation is now accepting nominations for this year’s Pizzigati Prize. The Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest annually awards a $10,000 cash grant to one individual who has created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the nonprofit sector and movements for social change.
The 2012 winner will be announced in April at the Nonprofit Technology Network annual conference in San Francisco. Each year, starting in 2006, the Pizzigati Prize has accepted nominations for talented and creative individuals who develop open source software products that demonstrate impressive value to the nonprofit sector. Tides welcomes nominations from both developers and the nonprofits who work with them.
Earlier this year I had the honour of picking up the Pizzigati Prize in Washington DC on behalf of everyone at FrontlineSMS. According to the Pizzigati jury, we’d managed to:
create software that speaks directly to the reality that millions of people globally have only simple mobile phones and no access whatsoever to the Internet. The software they developed turns mobile phones into grassroots organizing tools for everything from mobilizing young voters to thwarting thieving commodity traders.
The 2010 Pizzigati Prize winner, Yaw Anokwa, led the development on Open Data Kit, a modular set of tools that’s helping nonprofits the world over on a wide variety of battlefronts, from struggles to prevent deforestation to campaigns against human rights violations.
“Open source software developers like these fill an indispensable role”, explained Tides Chief of Staff Joseph Mouzon, a Pizzigati Prize judge and the former Executive Director of Nonprofit Services for Network for Good. “The Pizzigati Prize aims to honor that contribution – and encourage programmers to engage their talents in the ongoing struggle for social change”.
The Pizzigati 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.
Full details on the Pizzigati Prize, the largest annual award in public interest computing, are available online.
Please nominate, share or enter as appropriate. Good luck!
September 23, 2011 32 Comments