Fourth Annual ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium (VII). Ken Banks: Making an Impact. The Role of Mobile Phones in the Developing World

Notes from the Fourth IPID ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium 2009, held in the Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, United Kingdom, on September 11-12th, 2009. More notes on this event: ict4d_symposium_2009.

Making an Impact. The Role of Mobile Phones in the Developing World
Ken Banks,

Alan Kay: The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Ken Banks: If you can’t find the perfect job you have to create it.

Mobile adoption by users drives SMS adoption by local NGOs which is increasingly driven by a range of formal and informal economic activity. The increasing pervasiveness of mobile phones has been followed by an according pervasiveness in SMS usage.

Mobile phones give people the chance to get involved in their own development. Traditional development was not participated by the target beneficiaries. Now this have changed as ICTs and mobile phones create plenty of innovation and business opportunities.

The fact that the mobile phone creates business opportunities has been a main driver for development, becoming a revolution in developing countries.

The weird thing being that most of the information — research papers, news, development reports — always speaks of the benefits of mobile phones and SMSs but never about what specific tools were being used to reach those benefits, what was used to provide a specific service, how and what could e.g. other NGOs apply in their own work, etc.


FrontlineSMS uses a desktop PC to send alerts via SMS, being used for health, education, coordination, etc. FrontlineSMS allows for group messaging between health workers, farmers, aid workers, etc.

FrontlineSMS can be used, for instance, to alert about an emergency in real time, even if e-mail does not work and voice communication is just not possible (because of quality of communication infrastructures, cost, etc.)

Why FrontlineSMS work:

  • Local ownership: of tool, of project, of data
  • Builds on local awareness: you don’t lead the project, you just provide the tool to the people that know about their needs and how to solve them
  • Platform is free and works on available hardware
  • Highly replicable and scalable
  • No need for the Internet
  • Easy to use
  • Responds to “their” need (bottom up)



Fourth Annual ICT4D Postgraduate Symposium (2009)

e-STAS 2009 (III). Battle of experiences between Ken Banks and Christian Kreutz

Notes from Simposium de las Tecnologías para la Acción Social (e-STAS: Symposium on Technologies for Social Action) held in Málaga, Spain, on March 26-27th, 2009. More notes on this event: estas2009. More notes on this series of events: e-stas.

Battle of experiences between Ken Banks and Christian Kreutz, conducted by Jaime Estévez

Ken Banks, Kiwanja,

The best way to understand what’s happening in a developing country is to go there. In Nigeria, he set up a project using mobile phones, or better said, how mobile phones could be used on the ground in developing countries.

With Kiwanja software it is possible to use SMS to get information and to create conversations by means of SMSs.

Christian Kreutz, ICT4D Consultant

After working for GTZ, now he’s a consultant in helping organizations to use ICTs in development issues.

There is a lot of unrealized potential — or even unknown actual applications — in ICT4D. Lots of people use ICTs for activism, or for development cooperation, and don’t even “know” they’re doing it. The question, hence, is not “what can be done” but to be aware of “what is being done”.

In this train of thought, an important challenge is to make people and organizations to think beyond their (narrow) scope and see what others are doing in same or similar issues. Putting people in contact so that they share innovation is as important as raw innovation.

Q & A

Jaime Estévez: ICT4Ds for democracy? Kreutz: the more data that is published, the more transparency, hence more democracy. Banks: communication (through mobile phones, voice or SMS) is also a good symptom that we’re moving towards democracy, and this is happening in Africa more and more every time. Every citizen’s ability to monitor and report elections brings a lot of transparency to the whole process.

Estévez: how do ICTs transform participation? Kreutz: how do you combine top-down organizations with peer-to-peer collaboration? The pressure that organizations have to be open and horizontal is huge and most likely to be unstoppable. Banks: There’s a huge potential for people participation, the big challenge being bringing access to these people.

Estévez: how will ICTs impact organizations? Kreutz: it is very likely that ICTs will promote openness in organizations. Banks: Indeed, some top-down processes still have to be top-down (e.g. SMS banking services, because of regulations, etc.). The thing is how do create an environment for people to interact, but not necessarily imply the top-down debate.

Q: How can ICTs reduce violence in Africa? Banks: Public exposition (because everyone is monitoring and everyone reporting) has been crucial for actually reducing violence in the whole continent.

Q: Why helping “others” if we have problems “home”? Banks: this is a globalized world. There’s no more “others” or “home”. Indeed, the projects that work abroad will work too home.

Estévez: where do you get funding for your activities from? Kreutz: Most times you start with your own time and commitment. Banks: after a threshold (of time, and success) is reached, it is possible to raise money to keep on with the project and make it reach a wider scope. But the real stuff happens when people contribute on their own interest, in a decentralized way, and the project is supported by the community (of users) itself because the project matters. Kreutz: the case of Nabuur is just that: exchange of expertise, nothing to do with money or funding, and perfectly possible through the Internet.

Q: what approach should we take on ICT4D? Banks: (a) speak of target communities as yet another community, not “developing countries” and other condescending terms (b) benefit from the already existing knowledge in the places you want to work with. Kreutz: connecting people the most important thing to do.

Q: how to assess impact? Banks: it’s very difficult to measure the number of users of a technology or tool, what do they use them foor, etc.. A proxy for measuring impact can be to go and search for feedback on that impact. If you’re able to find (e.g. in a forum) feedback of an end user having actively adopted a technology or used a tool, that’s really useful for the promoter of that project.


e-Stas 2009, Symposium on Technologies for Social Action (2009)