This is a re-blog from an entry I wrote for the Web Foundation, my current employer. Not something I usually do, but I really care about the project and I’d like it to be more known. Not that this blog makes a difference, but who knows.
This week, a group of us are back in Mali, on a field trip for the Foroba Blon project, where we’ll be deploying the first prototype of our radio platform, testing it, and gathering feedback for the continuation of the project.
When I describe the platform and the project I often get the same questions, so I thought I’d write an FAQ.
What does the radio platform do?
It is a tool for community radios to gather news or listeners’ reactions as submitted by mobile phones. It does so by facilitating incoming communication with remote correspondants submitting information via their mobile phones.
Because people in rural regions don’t usually have access to computers or mobile internet access. Instead, they get their news from local community radios. Those radios often find it difficult to communicate with listeners or reporters, and can miss stories or important feedback. However, web technology can help and that’s what we seek to demonstrate.
How does it work?
The platform is accessible by calling a local phone number and interacting with a vocal application (otherwise known as interactive voice response system, or IVR). All the functionality offered to listeners, journalists and radio staff is available through simple speech interaction. It is therefore accessible to non-literate people, and doesn’t require any platform deployment by the radios.
Listeners or correspondents can leave messages on the platform. They call the system and leave news stories, reactions to programs they’ve heard, or anything they wish to communicate to the radio and other listeners. The messages are stored on the platform, and anyone at the station can call the system, manage the messages and broadcast selected ones.
The ability to store the messages and manage them offline can greatly help radio presenters by assisting with the often overwhelming task of running a live programme while managing instant feedback.
So it’s just voicemail?
First, the system must support multiple languages. Radio stations broadcast in the local language, and correspondants will often understand that language only. So the platform must be usable in the language they speak. This requires asking the caller their language, and remembering it for the next time. The design of the platform must thus allow for the use of different voice prompts, prerecorded by a native speaker.
Second, the system requires functionality slightly more advanced than your basic voicemail. Normal listeners only need a very simple interface, indeed just like dropping a voice mail: “leave message after the beep. Thanks, bye.” But reporters, or citizen journalists, being a selected group of people (professionals or volunteers) whose task it is to provide news to the radio will need more advanced functionality, like managing the reports they’ve previously recorded or categorising them. They can be taught the more complex IVR as part of their training in reporting news.
Third, the IVR provided to the radio staff is also more complex. Staff members must be able to record and retrieve their own stories, and since the radio they manage is likely to receive quite a few messages, they need to have an efficient broadcast management interface. They also should be able to retrieve stories by type (currently journalist reports or listener messages, but we’re also planning other types, like commercials), and they want to be able to broadcast the recordings. This happens by having the presenter connect their phone to the radio console and instructing the IVR to play the selected message after cues, while recording the time the message was broadcast.
Fourth, the people who will use the tools, whether radio staff or citizen journalists, are usually not familiar with voicemail – something rarely used in Africa. That’s why another very important aspect of the the design platform is how to make it work for its intended users: it must be designed so they understand its value, find it easy to use, and trust it. It takes time to get it right, and that’s why we’re going to Mali in order to do usability testing
What does it have to do with the Web?
An important question. First, the system is entirely designed using Web technology (mainly LAMP and VoiceXML, for those of you familiar) and the application and its messages are stored on the Web. Second, it’s not because it’s not a standard browser and there are no visible URLs that it’s not the Web. If, say, Facebook created a voice interface to its services, people would use it, wouldn’t doubt the fact that they’re using Facebook, and would therefore consider they are online, just as if they used a desktop computer.
Voice, just like apps, is a new modality for online access. The Web is becoming a web of APIs, which allows new channels at the user’s end of things. Specifically, online applications based on speech are growing: Apple’s SIRI and Google’s voice search are well-known examples.
Our platform also implements some of the fundamental goals of the Web: accessibility to people with low literacy; internationalisation, as the system can easily be adapted to support new languages; and read/write capability, as the system is designed for contribution of content and not just distribution.
Things will become much more interesting when we extend our platform to interact with web content produced by others: weather APIs, external news sources, etc.
We are also in the process of adding a standard web interface, for radios who have computers and broadband, or have data access on their mobile phones, but also for correspondants from the diaspora who also have internet access and wish to leave or listen to messages from their home radio.
What other software projects does the Foundation run?
We are running a few projects that involve writing software, like VOICES‘s meeting organiser or MCDC‘s multi-modal market price collection tool. The speech modality is at the heart of many of our projects, because we believe it’s currently the best way to design web-based tools that will help people in developing countries.
Our other main software project is Switch: a platform for mobile-technology entrepreneurs to share projects, stories, and training material. Though it’s currently in testing phase, it will be open soon.
Exciting! Can I help?
Simple: spread the word! Help us advertise our work and get more people interested.
We also always welcome volunteers who would like to contribute their web development skills, on any of our projects. Contact me if you’d like to know more.