Bright idea: Unused text messages helping deprived

THE unused text messages in your monthly mobile phone bundle could be used to save lives and help families in some of the world’s remotest and most deprived areas.

THE unused text messages in your monthly mobile phone bundle could be used to save lives and help families in some of the world’s remotest and most deprived areas.

And the project that allows you to donate your unused SMS messages to charity last week won Bluntisham-based IT innovator Ken Banks a prestigious international award from National Geographic as one of 2010’s Emerging Explorers.

Mr Banks (pictured), who has been in the business for a quarter of a century, first became involved with overseas charity work in 1993 when he went to Zambia help build a school. Since then, he has worked on a variety of conservation projects in eight or nine countries, most of them in Africa.

His NG recognition is for the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, perhaps a natural development from his degree in social anthropology.

Although he has never monitored elections in Africa, run a rural healthcare network in India or brought crucial pricing information to farmers in El Salvador, some software he created and provides free to grassroots non-profit organisations does all that and more.

FrontlineSMS is a text-messaging-based field communication application that is allowing groups in over 50 countries to send and receive information in remote areas without Internet access. Deploying the technology requires just a laptop, cell phone and cable.

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“I spent seven-and-a-half years trying to figure out how to make mobile phone technology make life tolerable for the most disadvantaged people in the world,” he told The Hunts Post. “It has been an interesting journey, but it seems to be working.”

While involved in conservation work in Africa, Mr Banks saw a huge unmet need for technology that could send information between groups in remote areas with no internet access. Such a tool could save hours of time and transform effectiveness for resource-stretched groups.

He returned from the field with this knowledge: grassroots non-profit organisations lack money, technical savvy, expensive hardware, reliable electricity and internet access. But what do they have are mobile phones that can be used virtually anywhere.

Understanding these realities, Mr Banks created FrontlineSMS to make that compromise. “I wrote the software in five weeks at a kitchen table,” he said. “I made it a generic communications platform that could be used for almost anything, and I made it free.”

Much of the early work was funded by US-based philanthropic foundations with which he was in contact while based a few years ago at Stanford University in California.

Now operating through UK-based charity kiwanja, which he set up in 2003, and in conjunction with the mobile operators’ body the GSM Association, Mr Banks is building a donation website through which people can donate unused but already paid-for text messages from their mobile phone packages.

INFORMATION: Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja, is available through


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