The People Are Calling: Interactive Voice Services for Citizen Participation

The People Are Calling: Interactive Voice Services for Citizen Participation

So you want to increase citizen participation in government and civil society, but the tech infrastructure is poor and there are low literacy rates with many people living in rural areas who are hard to reach. What do you do to increase transparency and civic interaction between a government and citizens? Poor tech infrastructure, rural populations, and low literacy rates are commong barriers to using tech in many countries where we work. Integrated Voice Response (IVR) provides a mechanism for civic interaction that breaks down many of the barriers to interactive civic engagement listed above.

Interactive Voice Response systems are not new. In fact, anyone who has ever listened to "Press 1 for Sales, press 2 for customer service" has encountered an IVR system. Open-source IVR platforms such as Freedom Fone, FreeSwitch (on which Freedom Fone is based), and Asterisk have been around for years.  

NDItech recently partnered with the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO), an independent Ghanaian NGO focused on election accountability on prividing audio voter education via an IVR service to voters in rural areas. NDITech is also looking at IVR Junction, another audio/IVR platform coming out of Microsoft Research in Bangalore.

IVR Junction is a decentralized, Windows-based platform able to sync with multiple servers and integrating existing technologies such as Facebook and YouTube. IVR Junction has been deployed in several countries including India, Somaliland, and Mali. A deployment in India is being used to raise awareness on issues pertaining to violence against women as part of the Protect Indian Women initiative. This IVR Junction deployment allows people to call in and raise their voice for women’s safety and rights. Although the project is based in India, the decentralized structure of IVR Junction allows for diaspora participation, and lowers costs with servers set up in different regions of the country using local numbers.

As IVR Junction notes in its literature

"IVR Junction leverages existing cloud-based services to provide free online content moderation, free hosting of audio recordings for dissemination to a global audience, and a novel mechanism to automatically synchronize audio recordings across geographically-dispersed offices, thereaby enabling local access points with decreased calling costs." 

In Somaliland, there is ILA Dhageys, run by the Office of Communication of the Presidential Ministry, that enables  citizens to call a toll-free number on their mobile phones to access government news and submit feedback. Highlighted as one of the primary benefits of this decentralized system is the inclusion of remote regions into the national civic dialogue and the provision of unfiltered debates/sessions of parliamentarians. Unfiltered access to debates and sessions may increase access to more unbiased information from the various tribal areas of Somaliland.

IVR Junction is also being used by Voice of America (VOA) in Bamako, Mali to reach areas with low bandwidth or technological infrastructure. VOA uses IVR to broadcast news updates to mobile phone users. At the same time, VOA can collect  updates called in from citizen journalists from remote regions that then are broadcast by the VOA. Prior to the use of  IVR Junction, little citizen-generated information was collected.

We are trying out IVR Junction in our NDItech lab as we are writing this. But more generally, we think interactive voice services delivered on and to mobile devices are an important channel for reaching people in areas facing infrastructure, literacy and geographic challenges around the world.