Author Archives: ccrowle1

Ken Banks: Social Innovator and Founder of Frontline SMS

Ken Banks is a technological and social innovator working at the nexus of technology, anthropology and conservation. He founded in 2005, an organization dedicated to guiding NGOs in how to appropriately incorporate technology into their missions, working specifically with mobile technologies. He’s been a techie before anything else – learning how to code at 14 he obtained a hobby which, later in life, helped him land more jobs than did his business experience in college. He began doing non-profit work in Zambia after signing up for a volunteer gig as a young man, and subsequently finding that his interests were at home in this part of the world.

Kiwanja, since its inception, has been wildly successful. They have spearheaded projects for huge biodiversity conservation organizations like Flora & Fauna International and UNEP; in addition they’ve partnered up with Grameen Technology Centre. Most notably they developed Frontline SMS, a free open-source software used by a number of non-profits to collect and disseminate information via SMS messaging. Banks believes that the power of mobile phones is “ubiquitous”, hence why he was so geared toward a software that does not require internet connection and is centered around the mobile phone.

Banks has won countless internationally-recognized awards for his efforts since Kiwanja. As of now he spends most of his working time in his home town in England, but travels frequently as a Fellow Faculty of Pop!Tech in Camden, ME, and as a National Geographic “Emerging Explorer”, just to name a few of his most recently-acquired epithets.

What I found particularly interesting, which I’ve mentioned in a previous blog-post, is Banks’ opinion of the message being sent toward “innovators-to-be”. He believes that what they truly want to hear about are the motivations, the greater goals behind the work, and that all too often educators in the field focus too much on the metrics, logistics, etc. While I wonder if this is appropriate, I’m pleased to learn that professionals in the field are not weary of “the big dreams” that young adults have. Usually I hear about how these are generally not well-thought-out, and rightfully so! It was, nevertheless, surprising to me to learn that the first opinion he has of young dreamers is the opposite of jaded.

Some useful links and videos relating to Ken Banks:


Ken Banks Twitter
Ken Banks at Pop!Tech Video

“A Bottle of Beer Inspires Emerging Explorer Ken Banks to Create an Innovative Computer Software Program”

“Mechanics vs. Motivation” in Social Innovation

Ken Banks is a noteworthy thought leader in the field of ICT4D. For our recent short paper I chose to profile him because I used his work often in our sector presentation – he does a lot of work with conservation organizations and develops mobile platforms for them (including Frontline SMS). When prompted about what he looks for in recent ICT4D/IDEV graduates, he referred me to a blog post he wrote back in 2009 after meeting students and faculty from various universities on the west coast. He wrote that he enjoys talking to people who aren’t tech experts, and that he’s noticed that what these young people generally look for are stories – the experiences, what brought professionals to where they are now, what inspired them, etc. He complains that too often programs and academia focus too tiredly on metrics – “This world centres on business models, the quest for data, for metrics and an obsession on measuring impact”. He says that we need to foster passion and big ideas- the creative juices that build the foundations of powerful initiatives, because the technical stuff can always be worked out later.

Luckily my interview subject was someone who believes strongly and passionately in helping other people, and that includes young start-ups; in a different blog post he writes, “In the mobile world we talk a lot about project sustainability, but little about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the ‘mobile for development’ field, and then give them all the support they need to keep them there. Empowerment isn’t just something we do in a distant land. There’s plenty we can be doing on our own doorstep.”

So if this guy believes more in passion and big ideas to get off the ground than logistics, is he right? Recently we’ve been discussing about emotions driving the platforms of some organizations, whether it’s ethical, whether it works, etc. I think that discussion is so reasonable! I find that I have to be a bit of a pessimist in response to Ken’s words because so many people have big ideas, but sometimes for the wrong or misguided end-results. Do we want a professional field saturated with dreamers whose dreams might run short? I can’t say much in argument to a guy who literally invented Frontline SMS, but I do wonder if, academically, passion is the highest focus.

Mechanics vs. Motivation

Enabling the Inspiration Generation

Kony2012 Part II: Beyond Repair?

Yesterday Invisible Children released a “sequel” video to Kony2012, in defense of the organizations’ actions, in response to its biggest criticisms, and to re-propose its original public participation platform including “Cover the Night”. It took two weeks to make. Most notable differences between the two videos include some very obvious changes: diversifying the voices, including more Ugandan/Congolese interviews, engaging in somewhat-greater dialogue about the situation, a loud absence of co-founder Jason Russell, and a more mellow self-confidence. In fact the new video appeared to explicitly and discretely address every major criticism – from robbing natives of their agency in forming solutions to a global problem, to the complaint that their budget outline lacks concrete solution-strategies within the country. Narration instead of Jason Russell was done by CEO Ben Keesey, who was noticeably less-often in the front of the shot than was Jason Russell in the first video.

I’m curious to see if this version of the video not only earns less viewership, but draws a smaller amount of discourse than the first Kony2012. Do people (those at least loosely in the field, talking about this stuff) care that a sequel video was released in address to their voices, and if so, did it do enough justice? Does this organization deserve any sort of punishment for at best, misrepresenting, at worst, partly endangering many peoples? I’m referring to some concerns that Joseph Kony’s new-found fame would persuade him to “change his tactics”. Do the ever-increasing capabilities of ICTs necessitate greater oversight on the missions of NGOs in general? This is obviously an unprecedented event in the spread of a message; on top of that it involved a foreign international conflict- something that would likely be a huge risk in the hands of young teenagers’ craving hearts. I want to believe that citizens internationally can overcome geographic and political boundaries to help each other and talk freely; I do believe that ICTs have enabled such a thing to a great and positive extent. However, can ordinary people become a security risk by being naturally misinformed as foreigners? It may not be that Jason Russell was wrong to such a dire extent. But I wonder if the next one could be.

Kony 2012 Part II: Beyond Famous

ICT4D in the context of social enterprise

In the context of competing ideas in the world of ICT4D over the term, its purpose, the funding, the marketing, etc., I’d like to learn more about the role of social enterprise – a seemingly happy medium in between ICT4$ and ICT4D. In theory the idea of social enterprise incorporates the good characteristics of both ICT4$ and ICT4D and is without either of their extreme negative components. For instance, ICT4D doesn’t become a marketable commodity in itself when applying or competing for funding from donors who make a name for themselves by funding operations that are good PR stunts without necessarily having the capacity to be financially sustainable after achieving start-up momentum. ICT4$ necessarily runs the risk of traditional capitalist exploits, and invokes concern for widening the digital divide instead of mending it.

Successful social business, in the words of Muhammad Yunus (Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism), has the unique ability to both serve and make money from the poor simply by approaching the market with a non-traditional-capitalist outlook. The articles linked below discuss social enterprise in a couple different ways.The Missing Middlepredicts that social enterprise is going to grow almost exponentially by 2020. With this is emerging the growth of lenders – banks that also are forming a new idea of capitalism and are looking to fund more “doing good and doing well” business startups.

Our very own Wyan Vota from last class commented (if you scroll to the bottom) addressing the concern that NGOs are generally not involved in receiving this type of funding because they are not for-profit organizations. With this comment he seems to be implicitly asking whether this revolution of funders’ outlooks on capitalism is really revolutionary; is the exclusion of non-profits really necessary and actually prohibitive to the idea of “doing good and doing well”? Like we discussed in class, everyone has to make money, no matter what you do.

The bottom article is purely supplementary, from an organization called Women Online, vaguely inciting questions over the definition of social enterprise (i.e, should Wal-Mart have been put in charge of FEMA operations during Hurricane Katrina)? It’s short, so I attached it in case the site in general is at all interest-piquing.

The Missing Middle

Women Online: Social Enterprise

Telecenters and the Issue of Trust in Implementing E-Governments

After searching in vain for a more recent update on the status of South Africa’s e-government implementation, I found another article that related in part to the process of ensuring mainstream access in South Africa by generally discussing the use of telecenters. Somewhere along the way in my research, I learned that South Africa attempted to mitigate the resulting increased digital divide by promoting the use of e-government in telecenters. This would enable those without personal computers (or cell phones with internet capabilities) or internet to have a similar level of access to e-government resources in their own communities. This approach was in conjunction with the Zuza Software Foundation’s efforts to create open source software in South Africa (with the goal of making pages easy to translate into one of South Africa’s ten other languages). With these innovative phenomena acting in conjunction, one would think that mitigating two of the biggest access challenges would be a revolutionary impetus of widespread use of e-government resources.

However this article delves into the issue of trust within telecenters themselves – how it’s a multi-faceted paradigm that needs to be thoroughly overcome before expecting those with the greatest needs to use telecenters to their fullest capacities. Specifically within e-governments, the article addresses the importance of a human “local intermediary” with whom citizens feel trust to ensure success of telecenters in e-government service delivery;

“In the context of developing countries,there is a need for human intermediaries to bridge both the overt and the social resource endowment gaps between what the poor have and what they would need in order to use ICTs”

The ideal intermediary is an individual from the community directly targeted by the ICT and who has generally good knowledge and enthusiasm for the ICT at hand, who can essentially help out with any problems or possible frustrations that could be associated with using the ICT. Apparently this person leads an almost essential role in improving the rates of telecenter use. Besides having trust within the institution, online communities, the government itself, and in other aspects of technology, a human intermediary between the user and the ICT is necessary for full accomplishment.

Source: E-Governance Services Through Telecenters: The Role of Human Intermediary and Issues of Trust

“The politics of telecommunications reform in South Africa”- Article cited in readings

This week’s reading broadly touched some of the main conflicts in ICT4D, notably the varying definitions of “globalization”, stakeholder relationships, ICT’s connection to widening income and social gaps, the role of capitalism, and the role of regulation. First, the superficial connotation of “globalization” is the typically heralded idea of an overarching unprecedented system of plane-leveling to the extent of equal access to information (and other assets) is shared around the globe. To a certain extent most of the population tends to view “globalization” as beneficial in this manner; some of the most recent current events that signify ‘progressions of the populous’ and other grassroots organizations in otherwise poorer or oppressed communities, have been accredited solely (and usually only half-correctly) to social media. Unwin mentions that this idea of globalization overshadows some commonly overlooked implications of globalization, such as the idea that it provides another mechanism for wealthy capitalists to exploit poorer and more disadvantaged communities. This reality is particularly frightening in the context of ICT4D on the basis that ICT access for all is becoming increasingly important in global and local economic and social spheres. Unwin mentions that striking a balance and synergistic relationships between governments, the general public, private industry, and NGO’s is not only difficult but unique to every nation and perhaps even more locally unique to communities.

Unwin cites an article in the chapter about South Africa’s post-apartheid goal of increasing techonological communications access to usually more disadvantaged sectors of its population. The article explains that in its Telecommunications Act, the government sold a 30% stake in the state owned network operator, Telekom, on the basis that the company would expand its services to under-serviced areas. Over a period of ten years (1996-2006) South Africa saw only a 10% increase in telecommunication use, and monopolization caused prices to surge beyond international averages.

I find the conundrum of regulation vs. deregulation quite intriguing and was wondering if anybody knew more about this situation in South Africa or if they have any opinions regarding other case studies in which ICT was privatized, liberalized, regulated, etc. Link to the aforementioned article here: