Pioneering Technology for Grassroot Development – Ken Banks

ken banks pop tech 2Ken Banks is an anthropologist, conservationist, and mobile technology innovator who is using his technology expertise to bring about change at the grassroot level. Besides having won several other awards, he is a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow(2008), National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2010) and a Tech Awards Laureate(2009).

Ken Banks is best known for having created FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS enables users to connect a range of mobile devices to a computer to send and receive SMS text messages. It has since been used to improve emergency response during natural disasters, to improve provision of healthcare in developing nations and to monitor elections in countries like Afghanistan, Philippines and Nigeria.

WE spoke to him about his previous projects, his current works and heard his opinion on various issues. Here is an excerpt from an interview he did with National Geographic in 2010. Stay tuned to read his interview with us!

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.

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.

How can mobile technology help us find solutions to the world’s eco problems or help make our use of the world more sustainable?

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.

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.

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.

On the genesis of Frontline

frontlineFrontline was a mass messaging system which ran off a laptop computer and attached mobile phone. By sending and receiving the messages through the phone, the need for the Internet was removed. 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 spent five weeks over the summer of 2005 writing a prototype of FrontlineSMS. I built a website for it, and in October that year released it to the world.


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.

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

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. What they lack in tools, resources, and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape

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?

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. 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.

[Tweet “@kiwanja – Keep spreading the goodness! #OKIntrnt”]

Ken Banks Interviewed by Brian Handwerk for National Geographic. To read the full interview, go to National Geographic’s website, here. Image source: here. We thank Ken for allowing us to share his interview and provide us with the resources. Stay tuned for our interview with him!

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