Eugene L. Lawler Award for our work in mobile

A couple of weeks ago I received the surprising (and wonderful) news that I had been selected as the latest recipient of the Eugene L. Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science. The Award is given by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) every two years to a group or individual who has made a significant contribution through the use of computing technology.

The ACM is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting computing educators, researchers and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources and address the field’s challenges. As it does each year, the ACM honours the dedication, talent and achievements of luminaries of the international computing community. Working in diverse areas, the 2016 award recipients were selected by their peers for longstanding efforts that have had far-reaching impact. This year’s ACM award recipients made contributions in areas including computer science education, technology in the developing world, preserving and sharing computing history, and supporting women in the computing field. According to the ACM:

Ken Banks has received the 2016 ACM Eugene L. Lawler Award for developing FrontlineSMS, using mobile technology and text messaging to empower people to share information, organize aid, and reconnect communities during crises. Banks saw an opportunity to harness the world’s most-used communication platform – mobile messaging – to help people in the developing world.

The Awards will be presented at a special ceremony in San Francisco in June. You can read more about each of the Award winners on the ACM website, or via the official Press Release [PDF].

“Living a boys adventure tale”

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 in Washington DC attending the 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 and various trips and visits to a host of other countries, most on the African continent.

Since 2003 my career took a significant turn when I started working in mobile, and the development of FrontlineSMS takes up the majority of my time these days. It was this work which caught the eye of the panel at National Geographic, culminating in the Award announced last month.

I’ve always been keen to take the mobile story out of the entrepreneurship, social media, activism and technology circles and more into the mainstream. Many of the articles I used to write for PC World were primarily designed to do just that. I’m excited to be able to talk about the role of mobile technology around the world to the Symposium delegates and attendees this week, and am excited to meet at first hand some of the amazing explorers and adventurers I was previously only able to read about (the man who helped discover the wreck of the Titanic among them).

It promises to be a fascinating few days, and I’ll be taking every opportunity available to see how our work – and how mobile more widely – can be applied to some of the work being done by National Geographic and their incredible family of Fellows and Emerging Explorers.

FrontlineSMS wins prestigious Tech Award

Yesterday the Tech Museum at Santa Clara University announced the 2009 Tech Awards Laureates. The Tech Awards is a prestigious international awards program that honours innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. FrontlineSMS / kiwanja.net was one of three Laureates honoured in the “Equality” category, and one of only fifteen in total.

Established in 2001, The Tech Awards recognises Laureates in a total of five categories – environment, economic development, education, equality and health. Laureates are recognised as having developed new technological solutions or innovative ways to use existing technologies to significantly improve the lives of people around the world. The Awards are sponsored by a wide range of partners which include Nokia, Intel, Microsoft, Accenture, eBay and Google.

Courtesy: Tech AwardsThe fact we knew about our Award a couple of weeks ago didn’t make Tuesday’s announcement any less exciting. It’s always a great feeling to have your efforts acknowledged, and if anything this shows, at the very least, that we’re heading in the right direction. A lot of work has gone into FrontlineSMS, and this Award is very much down to the efforts of a fantastic user base of NGOs big and small, incredible donors – the MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Institute and the Hewlett Foundation – an amazing team of developers at Masabi, the inspiring work of spin-off organisations such as FrontlineSMS:Medic, the faith and belief of the many bloggers who regularly write about and promote our work,  the efforts of talented designers, and unlimited encouragement from friends and supporters in the social mobile space.

This Award is for all of you.

Thanks also to the person who nominated FrontlineSMS, whoever and wherever you are, and to the judges and organisers of the Tech Awards for putting their faith in our work.

Empowerment

I’ve always maintained that it’s not technology that excites me, but what happens when you put technology in the hands of people. If it wasn’t for the tireless work of increasing numbers of NGOs – each of whom has adapted and applied FrontlineSMS in their own unique way – we’d simply be sitting on thousands of lines of benign code.

FrontlineSMS LogoFrontlineSMS has always been about empowerment, about lowering barriers to entry and giving people the tools they need to carry out their own social change work. This 2007 quote from the Africa Journal still spells out the ethos of FrontlineSMS better than anything:

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

Of course, it’s also helped that we’ve been patient – the software has been over four years in the making, and remains very much a work in progress. We know more than anyone that there’s still a very long way to go. What’s also key is that we’ve remained totally focused in an industry which innovates at such a rate it’s easy to be distracted. Back in 2005 we picked a specific problem and set out determined to solve it. It’s fair to say that we never quite expected things to take off as they have, and today’s announcement is yet another highlight in what is becoming an incredible journey.

But the work goes on, and it’s all eyes back on the next big release, due out later this month. In the ICT4D world, complacency is a killer.

Finally, it goes without saying that congratulations also go out to the other fourteen Laureates. I’m looking forward to meeting them in November, and seeing what we can all learn from each others work. It promises to be an inspiring week.  \o/