Across the world, hundreds of thousands of small local grassroots COs conduct vital work in the areas of health, education, economic development, and civic engagement. Despite the advances in communications technology over the past decade, many of those working in the most resource-poor environments still face great communications barriers. Ken Banks is bridging the digital divide in the citizen sector by bringing the tech revolution to the last mile: to the isolated, small, and resource-poor organizations in the developing world. Having been one of the first innovators using mobile phones for social change, he is now creating a rapidly scaling user-led movement that enables local change-makers to co-create the solutions they need to solve their own problems, based on simple and readily available technology: ordinary mobile phones. The core platform has been downloaded thousands of times by users in more than 70 countries, inspired a number of sector-specific spin-offs developed by user citizen organizations (COs), and is reaching millions of people.
Banks’ observation is that the mobiles-for-social-change movement is failing to reach a huge proportion of COs on the ground. Their remoteness, as well as their lack of voice and resources, effectively locks them out of the productivity gains of the technological revolution. This revolution has spread unevenly: the expectation that the technology trickles down is flawed. His solution is to focus relentlessly on the most basic of all technology, in the context of an open source movement, which gives the greatest development power to the users who can then spread solutions among themselves.
The first building block of the movement is a simple and free piece of software which allows COs to engage in mass two-way communication using SMS. The platform works with the most basic equipment, namely the simple mobile phones already pervasive in the developing world. It has a wide range of potential functions determined by the user, which typically involve sending information out to stakeholders; enabling stakeholders to request information on demand; data gathering and analysis; and making basic transactions. The software FrontlineSMS was used for citizen monitoring of the 2007 Nigerian and 2009 Afghan elections; it is being used in agricultural projects in Banda Aceh to inform farmers of fish prices; in Pakistan for flood relief efforts; to give people access to legal services in Kenya; in domestic violence COs in the U.S., and in many other contexts.