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How IVR Junction bridges the technology gap for people lacking smartphones

How IVR Junction bridges the technology gap for people lacking smartphones

Maite Fernandez | September 18, 2013

While the Internet has become a global village, people who lack the right technology are often left out of the conversation.

Smartphone adoption is ubiquitous in some parts of the world and rapidly expanding in others, but many people across the globe must still rely on basic phones which lack features that make it easy to share and connect using the Internet.

A system called IVR Junction helps bridge the gap between technology's haves and have-nots. Created by Aditya Vashistha, a former assistant researcher at Microsoft Research India, and his adviser, Microsoft researcher Bill Thies, this free tool simplifies the process of installing an Interactive Voice Response system.

IVR systems allow callers to communicate by pressing digits through an automated menu. We don't often think of, “To speak with a customer service representative, press '1,' " as revolutionary technology, but for people using a basic cell phone, it can be. IVR Junction not only connects people through an audio forum using this technology, but it’s also seamlessly integrated with YouTube, DropBox and Facebook. In a simplified way, this is how it works:

A caller dials a voice forum number, presses "1" to leave a message, then records one. Then, IVR Junction uploads it to a configured YouTube channel.

A moderator can then decide whether or not to approve the message. If the message is approved, it can also be pushed to a configured Facebook page. (For a more detailed rundown, visit the "How it works" section of IVR Junction’s website.)

The system connects people using a basic phone with social media, allowing them to join the global conversation, Thies said in an interview.

The inspiration for many of the features of IVR Junction are the product of lessons learned from Thies' work on a previous project, CGNET Swara. Swara is the mobile news service he created with ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Shubhranshu Choudhary.

They launched the voice service in February 2010 in India. The service allows users to record audio stories on a server using their mobile phones. After the submissions are approved, people can listen to the stories by calling the service. The stories also are published on a website. Previously, rural farmers had no voice in important local debates, "so CGNet Swara made them producers of information,” Thies said.

Conceived as a way for residents of India's Central Gondwana region to report stories of local interest, CGNet Swara began receiving several hundred calls a day soon after its launch, giving a voice to members of tribal communities who lack access to mainstream media.

Since then, CGNet Swara has published nearly 3,100 stories and received about 220,000 phone calls. The stories are moderated by a group of journalists and, once approved, they are made available on the forum and on CGNet Swara’s website.

Out of the thousands of stories, the one Thies remembers most came from a person whose acceptance of a US$2,000 bribe had been exposed on Swara. The person apologized and even promised to return the money. Stories like this taught Thies the potential power of the network to give people a voice.

The Swara experience shaped the design for IVR Junction, and also prompted Thies and Vashistha to make a few changes. Because CGNet Swara runs on Linux, only computer experts were able to configure it, so IVR Junction runs on Windows. To install IVR Junction, "all you need is a laptop with Internet access,” Thies said.

Another lesson learned was the importance of connecting the audio forum with social media channels to amplify the reach of the conversation, since “only so many people visit your website,” Thies said.

To make the system even more accessible, the team decided to lower the phone calls' cost. Calling CGNet Swara requires a long-distance call within India. Thanks to distributed servers, the cost of a call to IVR Junction is the same as the cost of a local phone call.

IVR Junction has been adopted by institutions such as the Parliament of Somaliland, which is using the system as a discussion forum, and Voice of America Mali, which is using it to provide a 3-minute news broadcast in the local language.

The system was also used as a voice petition platform by women's rights activists in India. After a gang rape in Delhi in December 2012, Protect Indian Women Voice Forum recorded messages from people advocating for the safety of women.

Nearly 20 more organizations are interested in implementing this technology, and Thies said they want to create a community around the tool to amplify its impact on the world. “Anyone can contribute using this software,” he said.

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Maite Fernández is IJNet’s managing editor. She is bilingual in English and Spanish and has an M.J. in multimedia journalism from the University of Maryland.

@maits

Global media innovation content related to the projects and partners of the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellows on IJNet is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and edited by Jennifer Dorroh.

CC-Licensed photo, courtesy of Matthijs on Flickr.