Press 1 for Democracy
While Twitter and Facebook-led 'slacktivism' dominate the Anglo-Saxon media a less sexy technology is empowering the developing world's poor. The humble automated phone menu – detested by western consumers – is revolutionising grass-roots democracy and public information: Zimbabwean voters have kept up with constitutional changes, Thai sex workers have learnt about AIDS risks and Indian farmers have been advised by agricultural experts.
As mobile usage outstrips internet access in most developing countries, voice-based information services are more accessible than websites and don't discriminate against the illiterate, unlike SMS or printed leaflets. They're also an ideal mode of relaying sensitive advice, such as sanitation tips in Bangladesh or post-rape facts in Congo. Pre-recorded information services are "tools for bridging the digital divide," says Brenda Burrell of Harare-based Freedom Fone, a platform that's helped Cambodian teenagers and Tanzanian chicken farmers.
But services like Freedom Fone are more than just accessible – they're interactive. Aside from listening to public messages, callers can record their own clips requesting specific information or supplying their own. This feedback loop is termed Interactive Voice Response (IVR). The Indian NGO, CGnet Swarma, uses it for citizen journalism: villagers phone in local scoops, for example compensation for a dam on the Shivnath river. The BBC World Service-run Janala service allows Bangladeshis to listen to English lessons and also record their own sound clips to practice pronunciation. Over a million three-minute lessons have been delivered so far.
The rapid success of Janala masks a potential drawback of IVR services: they cost money to access. In some cases this is subsidised, such as a 75 per cent reduction in call costs by the six Bangladeshi mobile networks that supply Janala. Users pay just three pence per lesson, the same price as a cup of tea in Dhaka. Other projects like Avaaj Otalo are free altogether, thanks to funding from IBM and Nokia.
Despite the involvement of major technology companies, the telecoms sector in the developed world has dragged its feet over IVR funding. UK mobile networks, for instance, have a combined market value of £14.9 billion yet none are running IVR development projects. Funding this simple, accessible technology could turn some of Britain's most successful companies into champions of a global big society.