Bangalore: Imagine being able to make international calls at the price of a local call, or for that matter, using a basic Rs.1,000 cellphone from a remote village to access information that would otherwise only be accessible to tech-savvy users in big cities who flaunt fancy, high-end smartphones or tablets.
Such a scenario is fast becoming a reality with an ambitious communications project called IVR Junction developed by two young Bangalore-based computer science researchers at Microsoft Research India, Bill Thies and Aditya Vashistha.
Their mission is to bridge the digital divide between rural and urban India using what is called an interactive voice response (IVR) system.
Nearly 900 million people in the country use mobile phones, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Of them, barely 120 million use their phones to access the Internet.
Vashistha, 26, says the percentage of users who can understand and send short messages from their mobile phones is also extremely low.
“Though an SMS can reach all these users, only a few of them can use an SMS. The question is: what are the other ways of reaching out to these communities? If you see, there is a digital divide. There are people who have no access to information at all though they have 2G devices. Or there are a lot of people like you and me who have access to the Internet,” says Vashistha, research assistant at Microsoft Research India.
An IVR system allows computers to interact directly with telephone callers through pre-recorded voice prompts and menus. IVR, which uses automation to attend incoming calls, has been around for over two decades and is used by most corporations across the world. This technology was even used to screen contestants in the popular TV quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati.
What is new with the project developed by Thies and Vashistha is that it allows cellphone users from marginalized or rural areas to post voice messages that can also be accessed by users anywhere who have smartphones or laptops—essentially creating a two-way communication stream.
“Making it a two-way channel, where you have voices coming in from across the world, that’s what’s new (with IVR Junction),” says Thies, researcher at Microsoft Research India. “For a long time, IVR has been used to deliver information, but that goes back to the early days of the Internet for consuming information. People who were previously just consumers of information are now producers of information. Now they can record (information) and have a global audience.”
According to the co-developers, IVR Junction makes it easier to create voice forums that could be equated to a so-called voice Facebook or voice Twitter of marginalized communities which, in turn, can be accessed by social media users anywhere in the world.
For example, a user in a remote village in Chhattisgarh in central India can record and listen to posts via a mobile phone, while someone in Mumbai can access the post via YouTube, Facebook or other social media through a smartphone or laptop.
“This technology is creating more social awareness about issues facing marginalized communities and prompts authorities to take some action,” says Vashistha.
The idea for this concept came two years ago, when Thies and Vashistha were setting up IVR systems for more than a dozen non-governmental and small organizations, only to realize these companies were clueless as to how to access and use such a communication platform, let alone set it up from scratch.
“The problem is IVR is very difficult to use and understand and extremely difficult to set up,” says co-developer Vashistha, who previously had a stint as a software engineer at India’s second largest software exporter Infosys Ltd.
With IVR Junction, setting up a voice communication forum becomes much simpler. All users need to do is download and install the software on their laptops to get it running.
Such a system is not restricted within a country. Users sitting in a particular country can get help or pass on information to someone sitting in a different country by dialling a local number, significantly bringing down call costs.
“Someone sitting in Nepal can now pass information to someone in Egypt by making a call without dialling an international number,” says Vashistha.
IVR Junction, which is a free and open-source software, is currently being used across governments in three countries across two continents, most notably in conflict zone Somaliland in Africa.
In Somaliland, where the rural population had no access to radio, newspaper or any media, the technology allowed tribal groups to directly contact government officials and put forward their grievances.
IVR Junction also allowed US broadcaster Voice of America to deliver breaking news to the war-torn African nation Mali, where people in remote areas dialled a local number to listen to news broadcasts.
The software has also been used by other media outlets such as Al Jazeera, state governments in India, various NGOs and academic institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University, the United Nations University and the University of Michigan.
Vashistha and Thies, who holds a doctorate in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have so far invested $25,000 in the project.
“It’s not something we’re trying to profit from anyway,” says Thies. “Right now, we’re just studying the science of how to use technology for social good.”
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