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In Africa, less than eighteen percent of the population has internet access but more than eighty percent have mobile phones. Text messaging is one of the most common means of communication. The ubiquity of mobile technology makes it a critical tool for human welfare.

In our interconnected world it is hard to imagine life before the ability to quickly disseminate information by text or social media. Yet as recently as 2005, Social Entrepreneur Ken Banks founded FrontlineSMS, the first platform to leverage the ubiquity of mobile phones and familiarity of text messaging to turn an offline laptop into a communication hub. Since individual phones can’t broadcast to large groups, Banks developed a method to turn a laptop or desktop computer into an offline hub for two-way text messaging to groups via software that is installed on a low-cost laptop and acts as a management service for text messages. A user can store phone numbers and names, and sort them into groups to create a communication network and exchange information.

Free and open source, FrontlineSMS does not require internet access. It works by attaching a mobile phone to the laptop with a cable and the software communicates directly through the mobile network. Even with just one bar of signal, it allows a user to run a communication network.

This simple innovation empowered villagers, aid agencies, and news services to easily exchange information among groups.

FrontlineSMS entered the global spotlight in 2007 when Nigerian citizens used the technology to monitor national elections. Volunteers submitted observations via FrontlineSMS from local polling stations, preventing voter fraud and gathering data for the country’s future democratic process.

Today FrontlineSMS is 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. It has expanded its reach by developing several sector-specific projects, including FrontlineSMS:Credit, a platform for mobile money management; FrontlineSMS:Legal, which helps legal services providers aid clients and compile records; and FrontlineSMS:Medic, which provides tools for community health coordinators.

We were fortunate to have Ken on our podcast, Social Design Insights, where he guided us through a discussion about social applications of technology. Have a listen at the link below.

98 | Empathy Overdrive