A conversation with Ken Banks about text-message-based networking in Africa

In a pair of articles from today’s New York Times, the world’s unequal distribution of Internet access refracts through two very different lenses. Paul Krugman’s subscriber-only column, The French Connections, highlights the sorry state of the United States relative to France, Japan, and other nations where broadband access is more widely distributed and much faster. But as Ron Nixon points out in Africa, Offline: Waiting for the Web, “less than 4 percent of Africa’s population is connected to the Web.”

That’s not likely to change anytime soon, according to Ken Banks whom I interviewed for my weekly ITConversations podcast. The network that matters in Africa is the pervasive cellphone network. (The US, of course, fails to lead in that realm too.) Leveraging the ubiquity of text messaging, Ken has created an entry-level SMS hub called FrontlineSMS — free to charities and non-profits — which automates various patterns of text-message-based communication. He’s recently been awarded a MacArthur grant to continue this work. Good going, Ken!

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