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November 17, 2008

Making the world a better place: number 2

GLOBAL – The lack of infrastructure in remote places can make what we in the developed world take for granted incredibly complex and in some areas almost impossible. Think about disseminating information to large groups of people. In the UK we might use a mailshot, or more likely, an email newsletter. In sub-Saharan Africa though, neither of those is an option. Which is why Ken Banks from came up with a solution that focussed on the technology that was available locally, rather than that which we typically enjoy.

Increasingly mobile phones and texting are taking off in developing
countries and this was Ken’s starting point for FrontlineSMS. Amongst mobile
users, texting (or SMS) is a popular technology that’s fast, reliable
and cheap to use. Ken built FrontlineSMS as a piece of software which
enables users to manage and mass-send text messages from a laptop
connected to a mobile phone. The software is designed to work
“out-of-the-box” and is super simple to use. It’s key function is the
ability to collate contacts into groups and mass send texts using a
connected mobile as the carrier.

Designed for NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) in developing
countries, the latest version, funded by the MacArthur Foundation and
available on Windows, Mac and Linux, has taken off with almost 1,000
downloads since it’s release at the start of the summer. The software
can also be used both ways, both sending and receiving messages to and
from large groups. This makes things like surveys and competitions a
breeze to set up and run.

The software formed a key part of monitoring the Nigerian Presidential
elections in 2007 where citizens fed back on polling activity, the
first time that civilians have been able to monitor an African
election. In fact,the range of applications for FrontlineSMS is pretty
extensive and really only held back by the imagination, and need, of
its users. As a means of making mass communication cheap, fast and
simple it’s first class and is now in use in over 40 countries.

Whilst the Nigerian Election was one of its first high profile
applications, FrontlineSMS has gone on to be used in a variety of
circumstances including blood donor recruitment, assisting human rights
workers, providing security alerts to field workers, capturing and
exchanging agricultural market information, distributing weather
forecasts, co-ordinating healthcare workers, carrying out surveys and
reporting and monitoring disease outbreaks.

Josh Nesbit from the blog MobilesInMalawi recently produced a video
interview with Alexander Ngalande. He is a home-based care nurse a St
Gabriel’s Hospital in Namitete, Malawi. Serving over 250k people across
a 100-mile radius, the hospital uses FrontlineSMS as the core of its
new SMS-based communications project that links community health
workers and remote patients to the hospital’s services. Oddly enough,
the kind of service that we could probably do with in the UK, but is
unlikely to happen. Sometimes it pays to keep it simple! Check out the
interview below.

We’re going to be doing an interview with Ken soon as his life and
work, which brilliantly fuse aid and relief work with technology, is
both fascinating and insightful. Before we do though, be sure to check
him out at