In North America, text-messaging has a reputation for being frivolous, used to spread teenaged rumours, or the recent mania over “sexting.” But in developing countries like Africa, cell phones and text messages are the primary means of communication. And, not just for gossip.
Information and communication for development or ICT4D, isn’t just another fancy development acronym. Instead, it encompasses a booming cell phone industry which can be geared towards inclusive, empowering and cost-efficient development.
Frontline SMS is one of many ingenious programs that are helping non-governmental organizations connect with rural communities on a mass-scale. Basically, you plug your cell phone into a computer, power up the software, enter your recipients’ phone numbers and, with one click of the mouse, send out hundreds of text messages to the most rural of places. Returning text messages can be organized into databases like Ushahidi’s, essentially an abridged Google Map that visually traces events like Kenya’s post-election riots.
While Frontline SMS might seem basic—at least from the tech-saturated Western perspective—this quality makes it accessible and flexible. The human rights community was the first to put the software to test in 2005. Immediately successful, Frontline SMS first helped advocacy organizations like Kubatana track communities being abused by Mugabe’s henchmen. It was also used by the Nigerian Election Reporting Project to track voting in areas deemed too dangerous for election observers.
Over the past year, the software has become popular in other sectors. Here in Kenya, Frontline SMS is now being used in health and agriculture. Nelson Ojango, a young veterinary working with the Kenya Livestock Breeders Organization, uses the software to send out mass text messages to breeders across the country. They send text messages back detailing their current stock and breeding capacities. Health Action International‘s offices in Nairobi use the software to track medicine availabilities in rural clinics across four different African countries.
While computer access and skills are still limited in developing countries, Ken Banks, the creator of Frontline SMS, is developing a version that will run on a USB stick. Stroll into any Internet café and within a few minutes you’ve reached hundreds of people, hundreds of miles away.
Around the world, it’s looking like the revolution will be texted. As we see in the streets of Tehran, mobile phone technology, and software like Frontline SMS, have the power to threaten authoritarian governments, improve health and ensure fair elections.
Like all technologies, this one has its darker uses, too. While used to track violence in Kenya post-election, text messaging was also used to spread ethnic hate. Every communication technology has the means of spreading information—for both good and evil.