Another update from the Berkman internet and democracy meeting in Istanbul:
Ken Banks, the creator of FrontlineSMS, offers a presentation on the strengths and weaknesses of mobile phones for activism. His software is a clever and powerful tool that allows a user with a laptop and a GSM mobile phone to send a large number of SMS messages. The software runs on the laptop and can send a message – through cable to a mobile phone or through a GSM model – to a list of recipients. It can be quite slow – Ken says that on old Nokia mobiles, it sends about eight messages a minute, and overwhelms the phone in the process – but it’s vastly faster than manually sending thousands of SMS messages.
Banks developed the tool in response to a situation in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Large numbers of people were displaced from their land in the process of creating nature preserves. There was a strong need to communicate with these dispersed populations, but there’s very few media that can reach these populations. Banks was inspired to create a tool that communicated with these groups via SMS and hacked a tool together in Finland for use in South Africa. (In a sad note, the tool wasn’t used very effectively in the Kruger situation, as the government did a very poor job of involving the community in the decisions to create preserves.)
The tool is being used by several dozen groups in over forty nations. A Lebanese group uses it for education on human rights; in South Africa, another group uses the tool to provide feedback to community radio programs; an Albanian group uses it to monitor corruption in public services; in Uganda, the tool is used for community healthcare. Banks says that he’s amazed the tool has been useful to people beyond the ones he’s originally intended to serve.
One of the major applications for FrontlineSMS is election monitoring. Banks tells us about a project that allowed 800 Filipino election monitors to coordinate their work via SMS, performing very thorough monitoring of elections. A similar project in Nigeria put the ability to monitor elections into the hands of private citizens, not official election monitors. The results were interesting – the citizen monitors were very interested in getting good news out about the Nigerian elections, combatting the perception Nigeria has for corruption and for election violence. This may not be a completely accurate picture of the recent Nigerian elections, but it shows the desire of the people in Nigeria to combat negative reporting and stereotypes about the country.
Recently, Banks has been working with an NGO in a highly repressive nation that’s looking for ways to deliver audio content via mobile phone. He’s working with Tad Hirsch’s Dialup Radio project to help make it possible for NGOs to deliver radio-style content via mobile phone. In conjunction with Dialup Radio, Banks developed a tool that can accept thousands of SMS messages and make them available over the web. This would allow a radio station to conduct polling via SMS and then display results on a website, perhaps allowing for a voting system to prioritize questions that are submitted.
FrontlineSMS is more expensive than solutions that depend on the cooperation of local phone operators – it’s expensive for an individual citizen to send thousands of messages, while in partnership with a phone company, you might be able to bring these costs down. But Frontline is very useful for grassroots groups that don’t want to cooperate with the local telcos – Banks tells us about an application in Pakistan, where the organizers sent thousands of SMS messages from a laptop in the trunk of a car that drove thoughout a city to avoid detection.
Banks reminds us that there’s a huge gap between software developers and practitioners. People who develop mobile applications often don’t understand the context in which they’re going to be used. “Tech people vho write things requiring Nokia 95s really don’t understand that people in Uganda don’t walk around with those kinds of phones.” It’s important to introduce developers to the people who actually use these tools to ensure they’re appropriately designed. Banks also wonders how he would feel if his tool had been used to spread ethnic hatred in the post-election violence in Kenya – it’s an important reminder that any sufficiently powerful tool is a double-edged sword.