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Social Entrepreneur Ken Banks developed a method to turn a laptop or desktop computer into an offline hub for two-way text messaging to groups via a software that is installed on a low-cost laptop, and acts as a management service for text messages. This simple innovation empowered villagers, aid agencies, and news services to easily exchange information among groups.

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 2005, Social Entrepreneur Ken Banks founded FrontlineSMS, the first platform to leverage the ubiquity of mobile phones and familiarity with text messaging to turn an offline laptop into a communication hub and a way to broadcast to large groups. Free and open-source, the platform does not require internet access. By attaching a mobile phone to the laptop with a cable, the software communicates directly through the mobile network. Even with just one bar of signal, it allows a user to run a communication system. A user can store phone numbers and names, and sort them into groups to create a network and exchange information. 

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