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Technology, Anthropology, Conservation and Development: A Personal Journey

In Digital Diversity, a new series of blog posts for Nat Geo News Watch starting today, innovator, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Ken Banks shares exciting stories about how innovative technologies and mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This first post sets the stage.

By Ken Banks

As a child I had a fascination with the natural world. It helped being brought up in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between the English and French coasts where Gerald Durrell set up a zoo in the late 1950s that would become famous for its pioneering work, captive-breeding endangered species. It also helped having grandparents who were ardent amateur naturalists, and a mother who followed closely in their footsteps.

I remember flicking through old National Geographic magazines in awe, scissors in hand, and being fixated by David Attenborough’s natural history programs on the BBC, wondering what it would be like to visit “deepest darkest” Africa and see the wildlife first-hand.

Looking back, I really wasn’t that different to many children my age. Only, my dreams came true.

1993 was a big year for me. I was already beginning to turn my back on a career in information technology when I was selected to be a team member for a school building project in northern Zambia. Those five weeks changed the course of my life as I became hungry to learn more about the developing world, and the tensions between wildlife conservation and human development.Another trip to Africa followed in 1995, this time to Uganda. Later the following year I left Jersey and my journey was well and truly underway. The next few years took me to Sussex University to study Social Anthropology and Development Studies, and then back to Africa to run a primate sanctuary in Nigeria. It’s safe to say that after all this I was well and truly hooked.

Exactly ten years after I first set foot in Zambia came the first real opportunity to put all I had learnt since to good use — a dream job at the intersection of technology and conservation.

Back in 2003 mobile phones were just beginning to get smart. For the first time they were integrating cameras and color screens, and were able to access the Internet and play music and video. Witnessing this, a small team at Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge (UK) asked two important questions: How could these new devices be used to promote conservation in the “developed” world, and how could they be used to assist conservationists and development practitioners on the ground in the “developing” world? It was my job to help find the answers.

 

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Bushbuckridge, on the borders of Kruger National Park, South Africa. My first taste of mobile fieldwork almost eight years ago.

Photo credit: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net

Today, with over 500 million subscribers across Africa alone and more people around the world owning a phone than not, mobile phones seem to be everywhere.

Farmers are now able to access market information through their phones, increasing income in some cases by up to 40 percent. Casual labourers can advertise their services and avoid downtime waiting on street corners for work to come their way. Unemployed youth can receive alerts about job vacancies. And, for the first time, the unbanked can transfer money to relatives, or make payments for goods and services, through their phones.

Mobile phones also provide health information and advice, remind people when to take their medicine, and allow citizens to engage more actively in civil society by monitoring elections and helping keep governments accountable. Villagers in Kenya can get wildlife early warnings, mitigating against livelihood- and life-threatening human-elephant conflict.

It turns out that mobile phones can be useful for much more than just ordering pizza, looking up the football scores or arranging a Friday night out. In short, the impact and uses of mobile technology in the developing world is nothing short of staggering. But it wasn’t always that way. In one of the earliest attempts to capture the potential of mobile phones in conservation and development work, a colleague and I authored a 2004 report in which we struggled to find much evidence of the revolution that was about to take place. It was a time of hope and excitement, but much of the work was still to be done.

 

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Over the past few years, mobile phones have found their way into the hands of millions of people across the African continent.

Photo credit: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net

The earliest problem I identified back in 2003 wasn’t the lack of mobile phone ownership among rural communities, but a lack of workable technologies that enabled non-profit organisations working in the more remote, needy places to take advantage of them.

Systems did exist which allowed the sending of hundreds of text messages at a time — these could contain agriculture information, or advice on HIV testing, for example — but none of these systems was particularly affordable, none was easy to use, none worked without the Internet, and none made it easy for recipients to reply. In short, very little worked for the very NGOs that I felt needed the most help.

And so began a mission which continues to this day. My response to the challenge was the development and release of FrontlineSMS back in 2005. Simply put, FrontlineSMS is a piece of free software which turns a laptop computer and a mobile phone into a text messaging communication system. It works without the Internet, is easy to use, and it allows true two-way communication with anyone with a mobile phone. Since launch the software has been downloaded by over 11,000 non-profit organisations and is in use in over 60 countries around the world.

 

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A typical FrontlineSMS set-up — a laptop, a phone and a cable.

Photo credit: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net

Exactly eight years ago this month I started working in the “mobile phones for development” field, and over that time I’ve learnt three key things: the importance of building appropriate technologies, the importance of local ownership, and the need to focus some of our technology solutions on smaller grassroots users.

These are some of the themes we will explore in the “Mobile Message.” Over the next few months we will delve into the human stories behind the growth of mobile technology in the developing world. We’ll take a closer look at the background and thinking behind FrontlineSMS, and hear from a number of users applying it to very real social and environmental problems in their communities. We will also hear thoughts and insights from other key mobile innovators in the field, from anthropologists to technologists to local innovators.

Let us take you on a journey. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have.

 

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Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. He 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 honors 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. He was also named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in May 2010. 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, the Omidyar Network and the Hewlett Foundation.

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Comments

  1. michael Onesimo
    Dodoma, Tanzania
    January 22, 2012, 10:47 am

    Dear Ken,

    I am fascinated with mobile exploration. innovation under your organisation is more likely to change peoples lives, wherever mobile reaches. After reading your article, I am convinced that it is possible to empower communities with their mobile. This empowerment, will have major effects if it aims to prevent and improve sustainable livelihood.
    I am impressed. Michael

    • Ken Banks
      January 22, 2012, 12:11 pm

      Thanks, Michael!