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National Geographic Explorer Ken Banks Awarded Public Interest Prize

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Ken Banks, a UK software developer working to give grassroots groups the world over the capacity to interact, cheaply and simply, with constituents in remote communities, has won the 2011 Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest.

 

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Ken Banks is the developer of FrontlineSMS, a simple yet powerful program that’s speeding social change in over 60 nations. Banks produces Digital Diversity, a series of blog posts for National Geographic News Watch, focusing on how his software innovation is impacting peoples’ lives.

The Pizzigati Prize goes annually to an open source software developer who is adding significant value to the nonprofit sector and movements for social change.

This year’s recipient was announced today by Tides, a San Francisco-based nonprofit founded in 1976 to provide services that amplify the efforts of forward-thinking individuals and organizations.

Photograph of Ken Banks by Karola Riegler

Explaining why Banks was selected for the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, Tides said:

The U.S.$10,000 Pizzigati Prize honors software developers who, in the spirit of open source computing, are fashioning exceptional applications that aid activists and nonprofits. Tides — a partner to philanthropists, foundations, activists, and organizations worldwide — hosts the prize selection process.

This year’s Pizzigati Prize winner, Ken Banks, has created software that speaks directly to a harsh global communications reality: Millions of people in remote areas have no access whatsoever to the Internet. But many of these millions do have simple mobile phones.

“The software Banks created six years ago enables grassroots groups to reach these millions, using only a laptop computer, a USB cable, and a plain-vanilla mobile phone. And the constituents of these groups can use their own mobile phones to communicate back.”

The software Banks created six years ago enables grassroots groups to reach these millions, using only a laptop computer, a USB cable, and a plain-vanilla mobile phone. And the constituents of these groups can use their own mobile phones to communicate back.

Since 2005, nonprofits have downloaded the totally free — and easy to use — FrontlineSMS software almost 13,000 times, for use in a strikingly varied assortment of projects across the globe. The first independent news agency in Iraq, for instance, is using the software to text message updates to readers in eight different countries.

Other users have a more targeted focus. Some groups are using FrontlineSMS to share fair market prices with local farmers, information that can help these farmers spot — and avoid — commodity traders out to cheat them.

In Azerbaijan, FrontlineSMS has helped mobilize the youth vote in national elections. In Zimbabwe, the software is enabling groups to monitor human rights violations. One group serving overseas Filipino workers is using FrontlineSMS as an emergency help line.

 

 

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Over the past few years, mobile phones have found their way into the hands of millions of people in developing countries. The software developed by Ken Banks has empowered them to communicate with grassroots organizations in a strikingly varied assortment of projects.

Photo credit: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net

The 44-year-old Ken Banks has based the entire FrontlineSMS effort on basic open source principles. His kiwanja Foundation wants any organization working for grassroots social change to have “the ability to build on and take advantage of the code we’ve developed.”

This devotion to the open source ethos goes beyond just working with software programmers.

“We’re committed,” says Banks, “to involving even non-developers among our users in the ongoing improvement of FrontlineSMS.”

Banks, an anthropologist by training, has lived and worked all around Africa since the early 1990s. A long-time computer coder, he first started thinking about connecting computers and mobile phones while working on a conservation project in South Africa.

In 2005, Banks raised a small amount of money, bought some equipment and cables, and sat down, over five summer weeks, to write the first FrontlineSMS software. That October, Banks released his new code over the Web.

“What’s happened since,” he says, “has been pretty amazing.”

A number of groups and organizations, ranging from National Geographic to the MacArthur Foundation, have noted the wide and positive impact that Banks has had with FrontlineSMS. Banks himself is hoping that his work will have an equally positive impact on the next generation of software developers.

“Stories like mine — developing FrontlineSMS with very limited resources over a five-week period — can inspire younger developers. They prove that anyone with an idea can make a real difference if they stick with it.”

“Stories like mine — developing FrontlineSMS with very limited resources over a five-week period — can inspire younger developers,” he points out. “They prove that anyone with an idea can make a real difference if they stick with it.”

Banks, currently based in Cambridge, UK, will receive this year’s Pizzigati Prize in a presentation during the National Technology Network’s 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference, set to begin March 17 in Washington, D.C.

This year’s Pizzigati Prize judging panel included three previous winners of the prize — Darius Jazayeri, Yaw Anokwa, and Barry Warsaw — and two veteran professionals who have each earned wide respect within the nonprofit computing world, Joseph Mouzon and Erika Bjune.

The applications forms, background information, and deadline for next year’s Pizzigati Prize will be available later this year at the Pizzigati Prize website.

The prize honors the brief life of Tony Pizzigati, an early advocate of open source computing. Born in 1971, Pizzigati spent his college years at MIT, where he worked at the MIT Media Lab. He died in 1995, in an auto accident on his way to work in Silicon Valley.

Adapted from a news release distributed by Tides.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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