It had started off simple enough.

Two weeks ago, still relatively new in my position as a Northeast Regional Coordinator with AIDemocracy, I spent a few hours trawling through Social Edge and twitter. With an eye on global development and security, my goal was to discover what was being done already in the non-profit world, who was doing it best and who among these folk were the most open to collaboration.

I made a number of new friends: the people at Acumen Fund, Water Charity (not to be confused with charity:water), Be Unreasonable, Sangam India, CORD and Open Society Institute were fantastic right off the bat– They were engaging, interested and human. It was like a Utopian first day at school.

In the context of my new job and projects I had in mind, I needed to know what was being done in terms of technology support for non-profit outreach and education services. One name that came up regularly was Ken Banks, founder of Kiwanja.net

I had heard of Kiwanja in passing before, but didn’t know much about it’s main project FrontlineSMS, otherwise known as \o/ (Which, btw, is a design based on this fantastic visual here).

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Before this Saturday, I had no idea who Ken Banks is as a person, and was as wary as a product of post-post-colonialism can be of anybody who does “non-profit work” in “Africa”. I was afraid I might run into yet another individual who’s working to “save Africa” just because that’s what Bono, the UN and everyone else is talking about right now.

[And if this is something that bothers you, Aid Watch has a great post on the issue here.]

I sent an email to Ken, one of those self-introduction/basic outline of project/can we chat sometime emails. You must remember that I moonlight as a writer: after all my experiences writing lit mag queries, I was prepared to face rejection or silence.

Imagine my shock then, when I checked mail the next day to find a reply from Ken. Yes, Ken Banks himself! Not an intern, volunteer, automated message or brush-off.

He said he’d love to talk further. Over a couple more emails I discovered he would be in Providence for the Better World By Design conference, and thanks to Barbara Grota, Assistant Dean of the Business School at my uni and a small set of practical miracles, this Saturday afternoon saw Ken, Barbara, two other students and I sit down together for an intimate conversation on change-making, mobile-for-development and non-profit developmental programs.

Ken is that guy you see in TED videos, the ones that go viral the moment they’re uploaded on TED’s site and Facebook page.

He showed up in a white cotton shirt and no jacket, laughing at how unprepared he was for New England weather, how he should’ve known better. Over coffee and a banana, he told us about how Kiwanja got started: his love for computers, how he had first traveled to the African continent in ’93, how he spent 16 years living and working in countries that included Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Uganda. He spoke about his focus on using mobile tech for conservation and development, and mentioned he was a Liverpool fan.

He was alright.

As part of his presentation, he introduced us first to the role of mobile technology in the daily life of small business owners in African countries:

Ken told us that this picture is of a woman who started off a small business by providing a cell phone connection to her community, at a time when not everyone owned a handset of their own. She then built a small grocery store around this business, and when competition stepped in in terms of wider coverage and other small business owners who had the same idea, she secured her handset with a wire so clients could enjoy a private conversation while making sure no one would make off with her phone at the same time.

Ken pointed out that small, lean-to mobile charging stations and stores just like this one were common all over East and South Africa, making a case for mobile-enabled entrepreneurship among communities that are often labeled as being aid-dependent or in need of immediate charity.

These pictures immediately struck a chord with me– these shots could have been taken anywhere in any rural or urban area, back home in India.

What Ken’s presentation did was to focus our attention on ways in which ordinary people without much skill training or capital have adapted mobile phones and mobile technology to serve as both economic and service delivery solutions– Not only are individuals across Africa and Asia making a business for themselves out of selling & repairing cell phone hardware and connections, they are also utilizing mobile technology to stay updated on medical services and market prices for agricultural produce. He then introduced us to how FrontlineSMS functions– Take the tour and see for yourself here.

Ken built the original software and threw it out into the world “dirty”, much like how Google first opened up Gmail Beta for public users. He’s been generous with both its code and its core idea, a generosity that has enabled other entrepreneurial men and women around the world to up and run with it. One of the immensely successful ideas to come out this sharing is FrontlineSMS:Medic.

FrontlineSMS:Medic (or \+/ for short) has enabled regional hospitals that serve remote, isolated communities and villages to get the word out regarding updates in treatments, schedules for open clinics, and test results. And if that wasn’t incredible enough–

Patient View, a module of \+/ enables a health worker to access a patient’s records using FrontlineSMS and respond in real-time to complaints from patients many miles away.

CelloPhone, new technology being developed at UCLA that will be supported by \+/

“is a revolutionary diagnostic tool that will be able to perform basic diagnostics such as Complete Blood Count, diagnosis of Malaria and TB, and CD4 T Lymphocyte count on the back of a camera cell phone, for under $1 per test. The device itself is expected to cost as little as $10. The device utilizes a new imaging technique called LUCAS, which circumvents a lens for magnification, instead taking intracellular “holograph” images of cells directly via the CCD chip ubiquitous in most camera phones. A pattern matching algorithm then analyzes cell morphology to automatically produce a diagnostic result. The diagnostic results will be communicated from the device to a central location using FrontlineSMS, and viewed with our Patient View module and/or sent to OpenMRS with our medical records module. The Ozcan lab at UCLA is developing this device, and we aim to pioneer its use in the developing world (\+/, 2009).”

All I could think at this time was, why the hell isn’t everyone talking about this? Why aren’t the modules of \+/ being utilized all over South Asia, for instance, where we and all our gods know it would be of incredible service?

Maybe it’s because of a lack of information. Maybe not enough people know about \o/, and the other activities of Kiwanja. Or maybe some global non-profits, government agencies and contractors are afraid of all the power they might lose once local community members and non-profits start empowering themselves with such technology. Who knows?

I can imagine multiple uses of FrontlineSMS in India alone:

  • In disaster management response and activity coordination.
  • In managing the agricultural crisis by getting out messages on weather patterns, market prices and setting up a communication network for suicide prevention.
  • In responding to health care needs in remote villages up and down the east coast and in state interiors.

While I sat there, taking in how simple and yet beautiful FrontlineSMS’ design is, and how accessible its use can be, Ken spoke quietly about some of the ideas that drove him to build \o/:

“It’s not about building cool— it’s about building appropriate.”

FrontlineSMS began with one idea: to build on the existing, burgeoning mobile network in Africa instead of waiting either for some government to buy into fiber optic cables or on some non-profit or foreign assistance program to set up a development-oriented project.

\o/ also builds on local awareness and local ownership, says Ken Banks, and I believe him: you can’t read cases of health-workers in the Philippines and Malawi who downloaded \o/ all on their own and used it to improve the quality of care and then not believe in \o/, Kiwanja and Ken. And yet, none of this happened overnight. “Be Patient” is a core principle of this sort of work, according to Ken– an idea that Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz mirrored in her TED talk on Patient Capital.

Ken’s dream is that FrontlineSMS will grow to be self-sufficient, that people all over the world will adapt it to solve problems specific to their communities without needing him to be its brand ambassador. Considering the Open Source nature of \o/, this dream may soon become a reality.

Ken Banks’ energy, candor and intelligence will infect your brain with good ideas. The thought that timely, measurable change for the better can occur on the ground, on a one to one basis without needing to wait for a grant cycle or government vote to come through is refreshingly now.

I can’t wait to speak with people in South Asia about \o/ and discovering whether some of the challenges they are facing in the field can be answered with this suit of mobile technology.

What about you? Know of a non-profit, community or person who can benefit from FrontlineSMS? Direct them here. I can attest to the fact they’ll get a personal response almost immediately.

I did bring that up with Ken towards the end of our conversation. He didn’t know me from Eve, and I obviously didn’t have big money or contacts to throw at his work. Why would such a busy guy spend time on a non-lucrative email exchange and trip to a small liberal arts university?

According to Ken, nurturing conversation around the kind of work Kiwanja supports is what has brought FrontlineSMS and its associated avatars this far. He talks about the individuals who contacted him about \o/ and are responsible for developing \o/ to the level it’s at now. He also points out that he knows what it’s like to be a newbie in the non-profit field. Says he wouldn’t have got where he is now if it wasn’t for several key people giving him a break and believing in FrontlineSMS when they didn’t have to. And then, he grins.

Ken Banks, myself and Ai Jing, a fellow international student at RWU

I nod in agreement. The sun broke through a gray cloud bank, shining into the conference room we sat in. A good omen: maybe the New Age of Non-Profits is truly upon us, one in which ordinary people everywhere are empowered by need-based technology, where volunteering at a non-profit means coming up with usable ideas, not just filing proposals and where sharing real-time knowledge and experience is rated higher than how many celebrity endorsements a non-profit gets.

Cross-posted at my personal blog, here.

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