FrontlineSMS was created by Ken Banks in 2005 to enable effective communications channels for communities in the developing world. FrontlineSMS leverages the ubiquity of mobile phones and familiarity of text messaging to turn an offline laptop into a communication hub. The simple innovation empowers villagers, aid agencies, and news services to exchange information among groups easily.
For most of the developed world it has become commonplace to rely on the power of the Internet for nearly every aspect of daily life. But in Africa, with less than ten percent of the population online, access to vital information and communications is scarce. The mobile phone market, however, has a much greater reach. Nearly half of all Africans have mobile phones, and text messaging has become one of the most common means of communication. The ubiquity of mobile technology – even in the world’s most remote and resource-scarce regions – makes it a critical tool for human welfare.
“Mobile anthropologist” Ken Banks was early to recognize the potential of cell phones – specifically text messaging – to disseminate information, organise aid, and reconnect communities in times of crisis. But individual phones can’t easily broadcast to large groups. So Banks pioneered a method for turning a laptop or desktop computer into an offline hub for two-way text messaging, completely independent of an Internet connection.
FrontlineSMS is a free, open-source software platform that leverages the simplicity and familiarity of texting to empower citizens and grassroots organisers. When civil war, political upheaval or natural disasters scatter villages and dismantle infrastructure, FrontlineSMS enables group communication that would otherwise be impossible.
Banks created FrontlineSMS in 2005, after studying appropriate technology in Africa for several years while earning his graduate degree from Sussex University (UK). Initially his concept was intended to enable interaction between conservationists in ecologically threatened regions of Africa. But the easy, human-centred design of the software allowed users to adapt it to other purposes, and they soon did.
Banks’ invention soared into the global spotlight in 2007 when Nigerian citizens used the technology to monitor national elections. Volunteers submitted observations via SMS from local polling stations, preventing voter fraud and gathering foundational data for the country’s future democratic process.
In the years since, FrontlineSMS has been a powerful engine for bottom-up social change, from promoting literacy in Niger, to assisting family farmers in Laos, to training rural medics in Ecuador. In 2011, FrontlineSMS partnered with Infoasaid, a consortium of international media organizations working to improve the communications channels between aid agencies and disaster-affected communities, to assist in the distribution of news and information to northern Kenyans. Plagued by drought and food shortages, rural Kenyan populations have been helped by increased access to information about livestock and staple food prices, weather, and work. The news is delivered by text message using FrontlineSMS software, and posted in public for the community.
Banks has emerged as a leader in the growing field of technology in the public interest by deploying the simplest of modern-day tools. FrontlineSMS has been downloaded by tens of thousands of users, and Banks and his team are at work on a streamlined 2.0 version of the software as well as specific applications for citizen media, community radio, and financial organisations.
Further information – including media coverage, case studies, how-to guides and user videos – are available on the FrontlineSMS project website.
Update: In summer 2012, Ken stepped back from FrontlineSMS to allow a new management team to take the project forward. You can read about the transition on the ClearlySo website here.
Article and video courtesy the Curry Stone Design Prize website