Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Dialling for information and news

Digital Planet
Alka Marwaha
BBC World Service

Mobile phone telephone keypad
The project is using mobiles, landlines and internet phones
A new information service to deliver news and public-interest information via land, mobile and internet phones is being trialled in Zimbabwe.

The 'Freedom Fone' project is being run by a non-governmental organisation called Kubatana.

Digital Planet, BBC World Service's technology programme, spoke to Brenda Burrell who is the organisation's technical director.

"What we are trying to do with Freedom Fone is simplify the interactive use of voice response (IVR) for non-technical users", said Ms Burrell.

"IVR has been around for many years now and many people have used it when they hit an automated answering service that directs them to select certain numbers from their keypad to direct their call to the relevant place.

"The aim of the project is to make IVR a means to which people can extend their information campaigns," she added.

Prototype

A sign opposing sexual violence in Democratic Republic of Congo
Sexual violence against women is a massive problem in DR Congo
Audio files are stored by Freedom Fone in a content management system, which is updated through a simple browser interface.

These audio clips populate an IVR menu through which callers can navigate for information.

"Essentially what you do is upload audio files, so they build these little audio menus, so that you can welcome someone to your service and offer them options that they can select," said Ms Burrell.

The target market for Freedom Fone is among development organisations or social groups in communities, who know that the best way to reach their audiences is through telephony rather than through tools like the internet and email.

"The most common technology device they have is a mobile phone and many more people have access to those than they do to the internet and email," said Ms Burrell.

"We know that increasingly in some countries, more people have access to mobile phones than they do to television or radio," she added.

It could be information on where they could get themselves tested for HIV
Brenda Burrell
Although texting could be another way of delivering information, it does have its limitations. "One of the limits of SMS is there are only 160 characters that you can use to leave your message," said Ms Burrell.

Freedom Fone has been used as a prototype in a number of information campaigns, one of which was a sexual health campaign called "Auntie Stella".

"Young people have questions that they are often embarassed to ask, so we felt that this was an interesting way to deploy Freedom Fone - targeting an audience that typically has taken to mobile telephony," said Ms Burrell.

As the project is still in its early stages, every information campaign is providing new and creative ways of disseminating the information using IVR.

"It could be information on where they could get themselves tested for HIV, or it could be a service that provides a very small minority with information in their own language," said Ms Burrell.

The future

The feedback from those that have used Freedom Fone has been positive.

"We found people to be quite inspired by the prospects of what could be done with the tool," said Ms Burrell.

"We have had people from the DRC contact us, they are interested in using the tool to provide support to women who have been the victims of sexual assault as a result of the unrest in that country.

"We have also had people from Thailand, to help support sex workers because they are an audience that's unlikely to access radio and will need to be producing their own support materials over time.

"It's just a question of re-directing information and how we package it," she added.

People can use Freedom Fone to convey whatever message and whatever content they need to
Brenda Burrell
One of the major drawbacks of the phone information service is the cost. "Its major impediment is that people have to dial up and pay for information, or your service has to pay to dial or call back," said Ms Burrell.

The project is based in Harare, Zimbabwe, where news and information are heavily censored by the government, so the safety of those using and consuming information via Freedom Fone is an issue.

"People can use Freedom Fone to convey whatever message and whatever content they need to," said Ms Burrell.

"However, this tool is going to make a difference to anybody reaching out in the health services or those working in disaster relief scenarios," she added.

Digital Planet is broadcast on BBC World Service on Tuesday at 1232 GMT and repeated at 1632 GMT, 2032 GMT and on Wednesday at 0032 GMT.

You can listen onlineor download the podcast.

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