Ken Banks

Ashoka Fellow
Cambridge, United Kingdom
Fellow Since 2010


This profile was prepared when Ken Banks was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.
The New Idea
Ken’s observation is that the mobiles-for-social-change movement is failing to reach a huge proportion of COs on the ground. Their remoteness, as well as their lack of voice and resources, effectively locks them out of the productivity gains of the technological revolution. This revolution has spread unevenly: The expectation that the technology trickles down is flawed. Ken is building the architecture to reach the last mile. He puts the needs of the user above the specialist, to build a principles—and not technology—focused movement. Ken’s solution is to focus relentlessly on the most basic of all technology, in the context of an open source movement, which gives the greatest development power to the users who can then spread solutions among themselves.

The first building block of the movement is a simple and free piece of software which allows COs to engage in mass two-way communication using SMS. The platform works with the most basic equipment, namely the simple mobile phones already pervasive in the developing world. It has a wide range of potential functions determined by the user, which typically involve sending information out to stakeholders; enabling stakeholders to request information on demand; data gathering and analysis; and making basic transactions. The software—FrontlineSMS—was used for citizen monitoring of the 2007 Nigerian and 2009 Afghan elections; it is being used in agricultural projects in Banda Aceh to inform farmers of fish prices; in Pakistan for flood relief efforts; to give people access to legal services in Kenya; in domestic violence COs in the U.S., and in many other contexts. Ken believes that professionals should not need to install or maintain software and that the focus of software should be on instant usability even in difficult situations. Thousands of COs in over 70 countries have downloaded the software and are using it in ways they themselves design and determine.

However, the importance of FrontlineSMS lies not in the technology, but in the power shift it enables. In tailoring the platform, Ken considered how it could best foster user-led innovation and the spreading of solutions between users. Structured as a self-governing group of peers that use and develop the software, FrontlineSMS has the largest user community of any non-profit-focused SMS tool in the world. The open source software is locally customizable so that anyone who has more specific needs can take the software and add in additional functions, potentially sharing this with the rest of the network of users. In contrast to technology which is built by technologists in universities in the developed world, innovations are designed at the periphery, where they are most relevant, and then return to the center for wider distribution within the network. Ken is demonstrating to users that “something is possible”, inspiring and enabling them to design what they really need. For example, when a group of nurses in Malawi were using the software, they found that they were unable to add more credit to their phones when they were out in the communities. The nurses worked out a system for adding this function into the software, and now this solution can be spread through the central hub to other users.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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