FrontlineSMS, Now in 70 Countries, Wins Curry Stone Design Award

FrontlineSMS, open source software that allows users to initiate two-way communication with large groups of people via texting on an ordinary mobile phone, continues its exponential growth. The software has been downloaded more than 20,000 times and is being used for non-profit projects in about 70 different countries. This past October, FrontlineSMS was one of the winners of the Curry Stone Design Award. Hsieh Ying-Chun won the grand prize of $100,000 while Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée (AAA) and FrontlineSMS were each awarded $10,000. An official presentation ceremony took place at the Harvard Graduate School of Design last month. This article provides great background on the Curry Stone Award.

The Curry Stone Foundation, co-founded by architect Clifford Curry and archaeologist Delight Stone, began the contest in 2008 as a means to champion innovative designers who “harness their ingenuity and craft for social good.” Past prizes have been awarded to teams and individuals who tackled thorny issues relating to “clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace.” By recognizing and encouraging social designers who are already using their talents and ingenuity to help solve critical issues around the world, the Curry Stone Foundation hopes to “support the influence and reach of design as a critical force for improving lives and strengthening communities” by extending the influence of social designers and inspiring the next generation of designers to use their abilities for humanitarian purposes.

Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS, developed the software in 2005 while doing conservation work in Africa. Recognizing the need for exchange of information between groups in remote areas without Internet access, Banks wrote the software in five weeks at his kitchen table. Once downloaded, the program only needs a computer, cord and mobile phone to operate: no Internet access is necessary. The data is stored on the desktop or laptop, effectively transforming it into a central communications hub, and allows users to send and receive texts through the software. In a continent like Africa, where less than ten percent of the population have access to the Internet and approximately half of the population own mobile phones, this technology is highly effective and empowers individuals and groups to communicate with each other in a way that was not possible before the creation of FrontlineSMS.

The beauty of the software is its flexibility. “FrontlineSMS gives [users] tools to create their own projects and make a difference,” says Banks. “It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to reach their full potential through their own ingenuity. That’s why it’s so motivating, exciting, and effective.” Limited only by the ingenuity of its users, FrontlineSMS can “be applied to any problem anywhere.” This podcast and this video are good introductions by Banks to FrontlineSMS and its open source philosophy. In addition Ken Banks wrote an excellent article about the award ceremony that can be read here.

FrontlineSMS is being used in an extraordinary range of ways, as documented in this article. In 2007, for example, Nigerians used FrontlineSMS to monitor their elections and report on problems and successes . Likewise, groups in Zimbabwe have employed the software to keep citizens in rural areas informed about the state of political upheaval. Farmers in Indonesia, Niger, Cambodia, and El Salvador now receive current information about market prices for fish and crops through FrontlineSMS texting, allowing them to keep a competitive edge. These represent just a few examples of how FrontlineSMS has been used to improve lives and communities throughout the world and especially in underdeveloped countries. Given its simplicity and flexibility, the software can be applied to almost any problem or circumstance, and has already proven its ability and effectiveness to address critical issues “as a critical force for improving lives and strengthening communities.”

One vital area FrontlineSMS has contributed to is healthcare. Consider just three examples (among many):

  1. St. Paul's health center in western Kenya has developed a pilot study, using FrontlineSMS to communicate with a growing number of local people living with HIV. The software is used to give practical medical advice to improve living conditions and prevent illness and infection.
  2. In Cambodia, the government is fighting a war against the onslaught of malaria with text messaging. Volunteers use FrontlineSMS to report cases of malaria throughout the country, allowing health workers to respond much more quickly and effectively than before.
  3. The IRH (Institute for Reproductive Health) is using FrontlineSMS for a pilot study in India, to provide women with CycleTel™, a service which supplies reproductive health information and teaches women to “take charge of their reproductive health” by using SDM, an effective, fertility-based awareness method of family planning.

With good reason, FrontlineSMS has gained recognition and several awards for its involvement in technology and social design. Most recently, apart from the Curry Stone Design Prize, the organization was chosen as a runner up for the Buckminster Fuller Sustainable Design Award (sponsored by the Buckminster Fuller Institute). In 2009, FrontlineSMS received the Silicon Valley Tech Award from The Tech Museum. FrontlineSMS was also listed as a finalist for the 2008 Stockholm Challenge (Sida, Ericsson, and Stockholm) and the 2007 Mobile Messaging Awards (160 Characters). In 2011, founder Ken Banks won the Pizzigati Prize and was named an Ashoka Fellow.

To discover more about how FrontlineSMS is being used to spark constructive social change, how the software works and how you can get involved, visit