The Story

The emergence of the Web and Internet has changed the developed World, offering a new paradigm in communication, exchange and commerce. The Web also presents a great opportunity for the developing world. Providing basic social services (such as health, education, business, government, etc.) to rural communities and under-privileged populations is of major importance to the improvement of people’s lives, and to sustainment of their future development. Using the Web could be the easiest, and possibly only, way to develop and deploy those services for many people. It is therefore critical to work towards finding solutions by realizing the potential of this digital opportunity.

However, this potential is far from being exploited. Today, less than 30% of the world’s population is connected to the Web. There are a variety of factors than can explain this situation: very high communications access barriers (e.g. as lack of affordable bandwidth, inadequate infrastructure and devices), lack of locally relevant content, low reading skills, no prior exposure to technology that prevent understanding of concepts such as Web search, use of less-spoken/non-written languages, etc.

During the last few years, the improvement of basic telecommunication infrastructure has been tremendous. Now, more than 5 billion people in the world have a mobile subscription, 90% of the world’s population lives with coverage of mobile signals, and new sea cables have reached Africa, bringing high bandwidth. This new infrastructure is offering opportunities to realize the full potential of the Web. The global objective of this project is to identify the key actions and directions to explore in the future to leverage these new opportunities and to take a major steps towards delivering the benefits of the Web to all people of the world, and particularly to those living in underprivileged communities in low-income countries.

Work Plan

We propose to undertake this project by conducting a pilot project exploring in depth a promising new concept: voice-based Web access. Voice could offer a solution for people with simple voice phones, without internet access, with low-reading skills, without prior exposure to the Web, and speaking languages that do not yet exist on the Web.

The pilot experiment will investigate the potential of automated voice applications to deliver Web-based information to people living in rural, under-privileged communities in low-income countries. The objective of this pilot is to investigate two specific aspects:

User acceptance of technology: 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?

User trust in information received: 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?

Expected Outcomes

IVR Pilot Phase

The expected outcome of the pilot project is to understand more clearly if voice is a viable technology for delivering trustable and useful Web-based content to under-privileged populations, and if so, what must be done in the future to realize this opportunity.
This part of the project proposes to work in collaboration with OneWorld South Asia that has developed the farmer helpline project in India and has been operational for the past six years. Web Foundation and NWU will investigate the integration of automatic voice response system in the current human-based setup.