Workspaces:The changing environment of infomediaries/m4d

Mobile Applications for Development

Ken Banks, founder

“The impact that mobile phones have on the developing world is as revolutionary as roads, railways and ports, increasing social cohesion and releasing the entrepreneurial spirit that stimulates trade and creates jobs” Professor Leonard Waverman London Business School February 2007

Ask your market trader in Nigeria, or your painter and decorator in Nairobi, and you’ll get the same response. You’re almost certain to get it whoever you ask, wherever they are and whatever they do. Mobile technology has become a vital business tool (read “poverty alleviation tool”) in much of the developing world, and many people you ask will gladly explain the importance of owning one. The entrepreneurial spirit the technology has fostered is spectacular.

I started working in “mobiles for development” – if we can call it that – at the very end of 2002. Those were early days, and few people realised the impact that the technology would have. Mobile phones were still largely expensive devices, with hefty contracts, and the thought of a rural farmer in Zambia being able to afford one was far from people’s minds. Events over the past seven years have shown us otherwise.

Much of my career has been spent on the ground in developing countries, going back to Zambia in 1993, and when I started working with mobiles nine years later I was keen to keep it that way. During my early research visits to South Africa and Mozambique in 2003 it was clear that something was happening, yet despite the excitement, buzz and hype it didn’t take me long to realise that we were beginning to create a problem for ourselves. Most of the early technical development I was seeing - in both tools and services – were simply too expensive, complex or technically challenging to be of any use to many of the grassroots organisations I had spend much of the previous ten years working with. We were in the early stages of creating a mobile ‘digital divide’ within the wider ICT4D ‘digital divide’.

I’m a big fan of grassroots organisations, having seen first hand how financially lean and efficient they can be compared to many of their heavyweight international counterparts. Not only that, but they’re often able to respond more quickly to local needs, and can often work under the radar of dictatorial regimes, something more high-profile organisations struggle with. But being small, there’s also a downside. Many work off the grid, geographically and technically. They typically lack reliable and regular sources of funding, staff with ICT expertise, and access to latest hardware and the Internet, all of which are prerequisites to carrying out most mobile-related projects or initiatives. My challenge became this: How do we build mobile tools which work for these organisations? Tools which are affordable – ideally free – and ones which require the minimum of technical expertise to deploy, and work in the many places the Internet is yet to reach?

In 2005 I conceived, developed and released an early prototype of a piece of software called FrontlineSMS. In essence it’s a very simple piece of technology that turns a computer and a mobile phone – with a USB cable – into a two-way group messaging system. Utilising equipment most readily available to grassroots NGOs – phones and laptops/computers – it opens up two-way SMS communications between them and their constituents (staff, communities, farmers, doctors, etc). Crucially, it doesn’t require the Internet to work. Today, NGOs in over fifty countries are using it in a bewildering away of projects – their own projects. Sometimes, small and simple is beautiful, and what we’ve hit on seems to be working.

So, what have I learnt from all of this over the past four years or so? Quite a lot, it seems, and I increasingly write and talk about mobile applications development because increasing numbers of people are interested in doing it. We live in unprecedented times. Imagine - someone with a computer, access to the Internet and a mobile SDK (software development kit) can write an application that can literally change the lives of millions of people. We’re already beginning to see it in the commercial arena, and increasingly in the non-profit world.

Exciting as this may be, it also comes with its fair share of danger. One of the most common mistakes I see are people trying to build solutions to distant problems they don’t understand. As I wrote in “Cometh the hour. Cometh the technology”, the more successful tools tend to come about as the result of a very real need, or a specific event. Initiatives such as Ushahidi, Kiva and FrontlineSMS have a story, and that’s often what people resonate with. You have to be in the field to see these needs, and few software developers are (except growing numbers from the developing world itself, and we should encourage and support this as much as possible).

On top of that, there’s a huge tendency to re-invent the wheel, and not to work off the back of tools others have already created. People are still building SMS gateways and data collection tools, and I’d argue that we probably have enough of those already. What we need to do is spend more time getting the tools that already exist – and work – into more hands, as I argued recently in “The folly of finding what works”. I’ve been hugely encouraged and excited by the work of FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit, each of whom have adapted our core FrontlineSMS platform for specific sectors rather than build tools from scratch. I believe strongly that this is the way the wider “mobile for development” movement needs to go, but it will be difficult to convince everyone.

Once these tools are developed then there’s often a tendency for the end user to require training, or for teams of consultants to be flown in to help deploy them. Again, I consider this to be a considerable barrier, as well as hugely disempowering. If users are able to take a tool themselves, and install and set it up without outside help, you immediately solve one of the biggest challenges in the ICT4D world – local ownership. We’ve worked particularly hard to build a FrontlineSMS ethos of “pull” rather than “push”, where end-users drive the whole process from discovery through to deployment. I discussed the benefits of this recently in “A glimpse into social mobile’s long tail”, and again see it as a crucial element of what we do.

In addition to some of these wider challenges, numerous myths and misconceptions have built up over recent years around mobile applications development, and I spend a lot of my time trying to dispel many I see as particularly unhelpful. These include the notion that “bigger is better”, and that low-tech, appropriate technology solutions are second-rate when compared to their high-end, technically-superior relatives. We must always remember that “appropriateness is in the eye of the deployer”, and that we need tools all the way along the applications spectrum. Direct comparisons of tools aimed at entirely different audiences are unhelpful, and misguided at best, yet comparisons continue. Again, we have made our own efforts to address this, starting with our own “line in the sand”. Many others are yet to follow.

There has also been heated discussion in recent months around the notion of scale. Just because a particular solution doesn’t ramp-up to run an international mobile campaign, or health care for an entire nation, does not make it irrelevant. Just as a low-tech solution might likely never run a high-end project, expensive and technically complex solutions would likely fail to downscale enough to run a small rural communications network. Let’s not forget that a small deployment which helps just a dozen people is significant to those dozen people and their families, and if we have enough of them (through a process we like to call “horizontal scaling”) then the impact can be considerable.

This leads on to my final point – that centralised systems are “better than distributed”. Not everything needs to run on a mega-server housed in the capital city, accessed through “the cloud“. Okay, storing data and even running applications – remotely – might be wonderful technologically, but it’s not so great if you have a patchy Internet connection, if one at all. For most grassroots NGOs, centralised means “remote”, distributed “local”. Local ownership of remote solutions is a considerable challenge, if it’s possible at all.

There are, of course, many issues and challenges – some technical, but many others cultural, economic and geographical. The good news is that few are insurmountable, and we can remove many of them by simply empowering the very people we’re seeking to help. The emergence of home grown developer communities in an increasing number of African countries, for example, presents perhaps the greatest opportunity yet to unlock the social change potential of mobile technology. The next few years certainly promise to be as exciting as the last.

Author Bio

Ken Banks, founder of, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, and has spent the last 17 years working on projects in Africa. Recently, his research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. Ken graduated from Sussex University with honours in Social Anthropology with Development Studies, and was awarded a Stanford University Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship in 2006, and named a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008. In 2009 he was named a Laureate of the Tech Awards, an international awards program which honours innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. Ken's work was initially supported by the MacArthur Foundation, and he is the current recipient of grants from the Open Society Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, HIVOS and the Hewlett Foundation Further details of Ken's wider work are available on his website at