Funding for a project to deliver voice-based technologies that enable illiterate people in rural Africa to access the web — even those without an Internet connection or a computer — is ending this month, and a drive is on to ensure that the technologies will be freely available after it finishes.
The project's 13 partners aim to support remote communities by creating spoken web content accessed through mobile phones or radio. Pilot services were built in collaboration with farmers, radio journalists and local ICT entrepreneurs, and the partners want to ensure that enough business is generated to maintain uptake of the services beyond the project's life.
The partners will also publish open-source software to enable other developers to put together similar services and technologies, says Mary Allen Ballo, executive secretary of Sahel Eco
, a development NGO involved in the project.
A number of pilot systems were developed as part of the US$4 million project called VOICES
(VOIce-based Community-cEntric mobile Services) that was launched in 2011. It is managed by the World Wide Web Foundation
, which works to ensure universal web access, in partnership with NGOs, universities and telecommunications companies.
The VOICES project has done several pilots in two key sectors: ones to do with health in Senegal and agriculture-based schemes in Mali. The ones in Mali were implemented — and will continue — in Burkina Faso and Ghana.
Several voice-based services, including a virtual farmers' market, a voice-based messaging system and a citizen journalism platform have been launched, allowing illiterate people in Africa to access information and to run businesses.
The free, open-source voice-based technologies could be deployed to bridge the digital gap anywhere, the team says.
They are based on VoiceXML, a web standard for building voice applications, says Stéphane Boyera, lead programmer manager at the World Wide Web Foundation.
Unlike the standard setup in which text is used to input information that is then displayed on a computer screen, the new system uses speech or a mobile phone keypad as the input, and audio played on mobile phones or radio as the output, according to Boyera.
This means that it opens opportunities for people who are illiterate or lack an Internet connection.
One example, Radio Marché — Market Radio — is a trading system that helps farmers in Mali find buyers for products such as shea nuts, honey and tamarind by turning market information sent via phone into a computer-generated voice message that is broadcast on the local community radio.