Dialing Up Development

“Dialing Up Development,” Special to CNN, 23 June 2011.

There’s been lots of excitement about mobile phone apps in Africa, but what about using voice?

The global explosion of mobile phone technology has spawned a host of applications, products and services facilitating development outcomes from financial inclusion to improved maternal health. While these innovations have proven an essential lifeline for the world’s most vulnerable, most ignore the basic function of a mobile phone – its voice capacity.

A service called “I-Call” aims to solve the problem of education in Africa and other developing regions of the world by getting back to basics.

The organization helps to produce innovative educational modules that use phone calls to impart useful information on topics such as antenatal care giving or environmental stewardship. Callers in Kenya, for example, will hear a story featuring two household workers debating how and whether to separate their trash. The script, titled “Gold from Garbage,” takes a chatty, telenovella formatintended to promote the country’s nascent recycling program.

The service provides a unique twist on traditional – and frustrating – automated voice menus. While many customer service calls require users to punch numbers and symbols in search of a live voice, “I-Call” is transforming that head-banging experience into a meaningful development solution. When prompted, listeners can navigate a “choose your own adventure” set of options that invites users to complete the story.

The system is notable for bypassing traditional pedagogical methods such as textbooks and lectures as well as traditional media such as radio, print articles, or pamphlets distributed by eager NGOs. The voice-based system builds on the familiarity of oral storytelling, and can reach individuals with specialized learning needs who may have left the formal education sector years ago.

“We deal with awareness raising, attitude and behavior change, things like that,” says Arndt Bubenzer, whose Common Sense consultancy developed the software behind I-Call. “We asked: How do we get an m-learning tool out to a large number of people without them being able to read or write?”

I-Call took the spotlight at the annual e-learning summit in Dar Es Salaam, a pan-African gathering focused on using information and connection technologies to distribute the most important commodity in Africa: knowledge. In resource poor settings, distribution headaches – whether for vital vaccines or Coca-Cola – are a chief obstacle to progress. I-call’s innovative teaching method bridges both the explosion of mobile technology and Africa’s need to know.

Voice services are some of the lowest hanging fruit in communicating with underserved populations. “In Africa, most of the lives are lost not because of a very serious complication but in how fast people can get information,” says Derrick Ntalasha of Zambia’s Copperbelt University.

Stakeholders seeking a direct and effective link with a specific population can use I-Call’s open source program to produce content for a targeted purpose. Local actors record the script, and users can call local numbers toll-free. The recycling story is a project developed and deployed by the United Nations Environment Program and Kenya’s National Environment Management Agency.

“Our goal is to produce something entertaining and interactive,” says Gabrielle Patsch, also of Common Sense. “We can work with anyone who has an idea.”

Other pilots – targeting expectant mothers, rural health workers and agricultural workers – are underway. Patsch stresses the ease of access their model provides. “You don’t need Internet access, you don’t need smart phones – once you have the number anyone with a phone can join in the conversation.”

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