Author Archives: Ken Banks

Due diligence? We need an app for that.

The ubiquity of mobile phones, the reach of the Internet, the shear number of problems facing the planet, competitions and challenges galore, pots of money and strong media interest in tech-for-good projects has today created the perfect storm. Not a day goes by without the release of an app hoping to solve something, and the fact so many people are building so many apps to fix so many problems can only be a good thing. Right? The only problem is this. It’s become impossible to tell good from bad, even real from fake

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Breakfast with explorers

I’m sitting on the top deck of a 747 after British Airways kindly decided to upgrade me to First Class. After a week in Washington DC it feels like a fitting – if not fortunate – end to a crazy and hugely productive, thought-provoking few days. The main purpose of my trip was to attend the National Geographic Explorers Symposium, but that ended up being sandwiched between various meetings for the Global eHealth Foundation, a CARE International workshop, and coffee with a number of old friends and colleagues. There’s nothing like a bit of diversity in your working week.

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A Six-Point Plan for Change

Late last year I was in South Africa attending Buntwani 2015. As always, it was great meeting new people and catching up with old friends. Sadly, some of those old ‘friends’ included many of the issues we seem to continually face in the development sector, issues which don’t seem to ever want to go away. I wrote about this in “Retweet, recycle, repeat” and “What to do when the yelling stops?” recently. One of the sessions I proposed was aimed at kickstarting discussion around some of these historical issues

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What to do when the yelling stops?

I’m reading two books in parallel right now – Ben Ramalingam‘s ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos‘ and Kentaro Toyama‘s ‘Geek Heresy‘. With both books I’m finding myself regularly pausing for a nod of approval or a wry smile. Both books are spot on in their identification of the issues – Ben in global development more broadly, and Kentaro in ICT4D, a sector/field/discipline/specialism of global development. A while back when Bill Easterly published his ‘Tyranny of Experts‘ I started to wonder what impact his previous book – ‘The White Man’s Burden‘ – has had on the practice and policy of global development.

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We’re (part-time) hiring!

Late last year we secured angel investment for an exciting new kind of mobile giving app. Called altruly, we’re looking to reimagine how people give, manage and monitor their personal giving portfolios. App development started last month and we’re looking at early summer onwards for an official launch. There’s a holding page up on the altruly website, but we’re holding back on releasing more information until nearer the time. As part of our preparations for the earlier Beta release, we’re looking for some help building a database of projects and causes people will be able to support through the app.

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Problems as symptoms

When I started out in development I had no idea what I’d be able to do to help solve the huge, complex problems out there. That lack of certainty – and an absence of obvious answers – turned out to be a far better starting point than I imagined.  After a trip to Zambia in 1993 to help build a school, I knew immediately that my work in IT and finance in Jersey wasn’t the right career for me and that I wanted to spend the rest of my working life doing something more meaningful. But that was all I knew. At that stage I didn’t have a skill set that was particularly useful to international development, so there was no obvious quick and easy way in. Instead I set out on an extended period of learning, one where I spent as much time as I could living with, working with, and supporting the communities and causes I wanted to help – everything from a few weeks helping build a local hospital in Uganda to a year working in rural conservation in Nigeria.

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Life in full circle

In both my books – The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator from 2013 and Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation published this March – I make no secret of my early struggles to find meaning and purpose. Back home in Jersey, for a period approaching a decade from my mid-teens, I went through the motions doing what most people around me were doing – working in a well-paid but totally unfulfilling job. It was a fairly dark time, but one which I thankfully stumbled my way through. Part of my strategy at the time was to go on long drives in my beloved TR7 – quite a feat on an island the size of Jersey. As most people my age did I’d play my music loud, putting together compilation tapes of some of my favourite thought-provoking, sometimes gloomy, music. In 1986, like many people, I found myself caught up in the buzz and excitement of a new album called So by Peter Gabriel (famous for a number of hits including Sledgehammer, Don’t Give Up and Big Time)

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Best practice begins in the classroom

In The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator and my more recent book, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I dedicate more than a few pages to emerging best practice in technology-for-development projects. While we certainly need as many bright minds as possible turning their skills, energy and attention to solving many of the problems in the world, their efforts should be respectful to the communities they seek to help, and properly guided in order for those efforts to have the greatest possible impact and chance of success. But if you step back for a moment, it defies logic that someone should try to solve a problem they’ve never seen, or don’t fully understand, from tens of thousands of miles away. It’s hard to argue that they have the knowledge or qualifications – even the right – to attempt such an audacious feat. Yet that’s precisely what’s happening in many universities across much of the developed world multiple times each academic year.

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A call for sanity – not innovation – in humanitarian tech.

If you’re a socially-focussed tech organisation working with refugees, it’s been a pretty tough few months. Not only have you had to deal with the ever-growing number of people fleeing conflict – now at record levels – but you’ve had to deal with the politics of the ‘humanitarian technology sector’. For those who have been working with refugees for years, often with proven, well-thought out solutions, it must be frustrating to see call after call – through Challenges and Innovation Competitions and the like – for ‘innovative new solutions’ to the crisis. Not only is it madness to imply that every solution already out there isn’t any good (which asking for new ones implicitly does), but it often sidelines the very organisations with the best background and experience – the ones best-placed to build the ‘desperately needed stuff that works’ that we need. Can we agree to stop calling for ‘innovative and new’ solutions to every crisis, and commit to at least first looking at what currently exists

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Time for a top-down bottom-up development challenge?

Earlier last week I stumbled into a post on Chris Blattman’s website provocatively titled ‘Is this the most effective development program in history?‘ It in, he shares the story of how, in 2011, the Nigerian government handed out $60 million to 1,200 Nigerians – that’s about $50,000 each – to help them create, run and/or scale a business. “Three years later there are hundreds more new companies, generating tons of profit, and employing about 7,000 new people”. Not bad for a reasonably modest amount of money. Although I see this as more of an investment program rather than a development initiative, I come to similar conclusions to Chris. What if we channelled more funds to the middle and the bottom, and let market forces and entrepreneurialism in-country take over?

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Revealing inside stories of social innovation

It all started as a casual conversation about a new book idea over coffee last March. Despite being self-published with no marketing budget, my first book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“, had gone down particularly well and I had been encouraged by how well it had been received, particularly in academia. It turns out there aren’t many books like it – ones that give the true, authentic voice of the social innovator and their life, work, achievements and struggles in their own words. I was happy with the book, but the feedback – great as it was – told me I could do better. The end result, exactly one year later, is “Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation: International Case Studies and Practice‘

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R/T ≠ Endorsement

For pretty-much eight years now I’ve been tweeting about international development, technology, social change, innovation, technology, my work, and how we can all help make the world a better place. Some of it is pretty serious stuff. And sometimes it gets the odd retweet, too. So it’s funny that my most popular tweet so far – posted exactly a year ago today – covered none of those. Welcome to the world of social media.

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New idea? Or old idea done better?

Last week I received my yearly mailing of Ashoka’s inspiring ‘Leading Social Entrepreneurs’ publication. It’s always fascinating flicking through the work and lives of some quite extraordinary individuals helping make their part of the world a better place. At the end, it struck me how many solutions there were between the covers of the publication, and how many further answers were out there to the world’s social and environmental ills. I also wondered what was happening with most of those ideas. Were they being implemented in single (or sometimes multiple) locations by single social innovators or organisations?

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2016: A year in preview

2015 started off with more than a little degree of uncertainty. Thirteen years ago I launched kiwanja.net not really knowing whether there was really much of a long-term demand for what I had to offer. But it was worth a go. Apart from my years at the helm of FrontlineSMS, where funding often came in multi-year awards, most of my other work has been short-term, and I’ve ended up combining paid work with pro-bono support to grassroots innovators.

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