The Web Foundation is piloting an experiment on the use of Interactive Voice Response systems (IVR) as a potential alternate way to access the Web.
Funder: Rockefeller Foundation
Partners: Web Foundation and North West University led by Etienne Barnard for the automated voice components. One World South Asia for the farmer helplines project.
Our aim is to deliver a full-scale report on the assessment of whether voice is a viable technology for delivering trustworthy and useful Web-based content to under-privileged populations and if so, what must be done in the future to realize this opportunity. The Web Foundation will work in collaboration with One World South Asia
, an organization that has developed the farmer helpline project
inIndia and has been operational for the past six years. Alongside NWU
, we will investigate the integration of automatic voice response system in the current human-based setup. The testing of this application will answer several questions regarding future use of the technology in similar regions.
- Can people with little experience with information technology learn to communicate with the Web via their phone, using their voice, and interacting with a computer instead of a human?
- What level of confidence will people have in the information delivered through this channel? How long will it take to build this confidence? Is the level sufficient? What strategies increase or decrease confidence?
Most of the existing Market Information System (MIS) initiatives seek to boost the smallholder farmer's income by rendering information about the latest market price. However, most of this interaction is a one-way affair and suffers from a lack of localization, and in many instances are actually not consumable by the farmer due to literacy and accessibility issues. Given the rapid spread of mobile phones across even remote and rural areas, we are presented with a new and powerful channel of communication and the ability to link previously excluded rural communities to relevant information. The potential of a two-way information exchange has created avenues for technology based innovations using voice, which as a medium holds the maximum comfort, offers ease of use and acceptability by the smallholder farmer. Farmer helplines currently provide specialized, personalized and localized agriculture information to farmers in rural, disadvantaged communities in formats that are easy to access, understand and implement. But often, the absence or delay of agricultural extension agents deployed to deliver information face to face results in the loss of yield or missed opportunities to more efficiently deliver crops to market. There is tremendous opportunity to enhance the food security and livelihoods of small holder farmers by improving this helpline model by integrating voice-based Web technology to existing systems.
In partnership with OneWorld South Asia and North-West University in South Africa, we developed and deployed a test application to gauge the response of our voice-based technology through the LifeLines Project. LifeLines is a group serving smallholder farmers across central India through a database of more than 400,000 Q&As which allows them to answer more than 80% of the small-holders requests the other 20% being answered by experts. We set out to test whether farmers with little experience with information technology could learn to communicate with the Web via their phone, using their voice, and interacting with a computer instead of a human. We also explored how to achieve sufficient levels of confidence in information delivered through this channel, so that usage would grow and farmers would apply the knowledge transmitted.
Launched in 2010, a final review of the test outcomes has been conducted, the findings of which have been shared in the final report published in April 2012 and available here
. Moving forward, we have identified a specific roadmap towards unlocking the full potential of Web-enhanced helpline services, specifically seeking to understand:
- How to implement a search feature on a voice site
- How to build the appropriate speech resources, specifically speech recognition software, at low-cost and high quality, to enable search features for under-resourced languages
- How to design an audio user interface to enable users from underprivileged communities to use the search feature in an efficient way.
The VBAT demo interface is connected to a voice / farmer interface and can be accessed and tested at http://public.webfoundation.org/vbat
- US number: +1-646-475-3466
- Free Skype number: +990009369996102738
- SIP VoIP: sip:firstname.lastname@example.org
The software package (zip file) including both the Web interface and the Farmer voice interface
is now available. Please refer to the configuration guide
North West University
One World South Asia