Conversational Security / 06.03.2012

Mobile (Voice) for Development

In 2006, Iqbal Quadir gave a TED talk about the power of the mobile phone to end global poverty. He argued that “aid does damages: because it empowers authorities instead of people,” and he advocated for a new approach to development from below. Quadir believes that in order to enable inclusive development, the key is to allow marginalized populations to be productive participants in the economy. And because “connectivity is productivity,” the one tool that could make this happen was the mobile phone.

As founder of Bangladesh’s leading telecom operator, GrameenPhone, Quadir has good reason for this belief. In fact, according to the New Nation, “GrameenPhone has increased the country’s GDP by far greater amount that repeated infusions of aid.” Since founding GrameenPhone in 1997, Quadir has noticed that mobile phones not only connect the village to the world, but they also provide business opportunities and create a culture of entrepreneurship. These are integral ingredients for successful development.

Today, Quadir’s successes are part of a much larger movement known as Mobile for Development (M4D). Every year at the Mobile for Development conference, businesses, policy makers, and NGOs from over 30 countries gather to share their insights on the role of mobile phones in health, education, agriculture, financial services, governance and livelihoods.

At this year’s conference, we saw a lot of inspiring presentations. Text to Change demonstrated how text campaigns can improve the delivery of male circumcision for HIV Prevention Services, Eko discussed how they enable financial inclusion through mobile-based transactions, and SMSOne revealed how social networking through text can empower farmers and enhance their livelihoods. These were just 3 of over 50 examples of the various ways that mobile phones are changing the face of development.

All these innovations have created tangible impact on the lives of those who depend on these services. Indeed, text-based programs on the mobile phones have shown an amazing ability to improve outcomes as well as generate cost savings for organizations across industries working with the poor. But throughout these presentations, we repeatedly had three doubts running through our minds: literacy issues, language constraints, and connectivity limitations. In India, at least 25% of the people are illiterate, and many countries in the developing world have even higher rates of illiteracy. This eliminates the ability of these people to use SMS or GRPS applications. Literacy level is directly correlated to level of poverty, meaning that text-based services are not reaching the bottom 25% of Indian society. Second, in this country, about 4% of the population is English-literate, and these levels are again indicative of developing world patterns. Although some mobiles are local language-enabled, most are not, thus once again limiting the level and type of person that can be reached through text on their mobile. Finally, wifi connectivity is not available in many remote parts of India and the rest of the world, thus ruling out the use of GRPS applications in these areas. Again, those who live in the most rural areas without connectivity are usually those in the highest need of services. Together, these three factors limit the potential of text-based mobile applications to reach the last-mile, thus inhibiting the ability of mobiles to foster inclusive development.

This is where voice comes in. As the only commercial provider of Voice Biometrics and Multilingual Speech Recognition in the country, Uniphore took time to share the insights we have gained over the years about how voice can fill the gaps of many text-only Mobile for Development initiatives. First, voice is a universal human asset, so reaching out to people through voice eliminates the needs for literacy skills. Second, with Multilingual Speech Recognition, people can have interactive dialogues with the application in their local languages. (Uniphore currently has 11 Indian languages and over 100 dialects, and we’re quickly adding!). Lastly, in areas that lack connectivity, people can fill out information traditionally done on a GRPS applications through voice inputs, which is then converted in speech-to-text. During our presentation, we also explained how adding voice biometrics enables organizations to further their value offering to the end user, allowing them to not only access information, but also do transactions, whether it be a loan payment, ordering an agricultural input, or purchasing medicine.

At the end of our speech, we had at least 10 people come up to us and use the word “ground-breaking” (in one of many languages) to describe their reaction to our presentation. Indeed, most agree the voice is the next major step in achieving development outcomes through mobile phones. We’re excited to be part of the Mobile for Development movement, and to partner with many of these fabulous organizations to augment their existing workflows and amplify their impact through voice-enabled, inclusive development.

About Uniphore: Uniphore Software Systems is the leader in Multi lingual speech-based software solutions. Uniphore’s solutions allow any machine to understand and respond to natural human speech, thus enabling humans to use the most natural of communication modes, speech, to engage and instruct machines. Uniphore operates from its corporate headquarters at IIT Madras Research Park, Chennai, India and has sales offices in Middle East (Dubai, UAE) as well as in Manila, Philippines.