Farmers’ voices on the Spoken Web

A project in India introduces rural farmers to a voice-controlled web

Amit A. Nanavati
Sheetal K. Agarwal
Arun Kumar
Nitendra Rajput
Neil Patel
Tapan Parikh
Deepti Chittamuru
Sachin Oza
Paresh Dave

A network of voice recordings, accessible from any telephone, provides information to farmers in India. Villagers can add their own VoiceSites to promote their business.

In almost all developing countries, internet penetration is much lower than that of the mobile phone. At the same time, the rate of increase of mobile phone penetration far exceeds that of the internet. In many cases, the lack of literacy is a further impediment to the proliferation of the internet. The IBM India Research Laboratory is now trying to make use of the growth of mobile telephony to overcome the problems of literacy and internet connectivity. We are working to create a world wide network of VoiceSites linked together to make the Spoken Web.

The Spoken Web does not require a computer, an internet connection, or the ability to read and write to access information. All that is needed is a telephone. People can browse by talking, and go from one VoiceSite to another using keywords, or VoiLinks. Users can conduct transactions using their voice over the phone, save their favourite sites as bookmarks, and navigate with ‘back buttons’, by saying, for example, ‘go to the previous VoiceSite’.

The project team developed a system, called VoiGen, to simplify the process of creating voice-based applications. The system differs from more traditional interactive voice response (IVR) technology in that it allows users to build their own VoiceSites. A VoiceSite consists of voice pages (VoiceXML files) and can be identified by phone numbers playing the role of web addresses. Users can, of course, edit their sites via the telephone, but it is also possible to add and amend the site content of more complex VoiceSites via the web.

To bring this service to rural parts of India, we have introduced information kiosks, called VoiKiosks, to two villages as part of a pilot project to test the technology. The VoiKiosk acts as an information portal for a village. It can be a central point of access for a community, where information relevant to the community can be posted and accessed directly by the villagers. Most importantly, these users can interact directly with the services, using any telephone, removing the need for a kiosk operator. A local non-governmental organization (NGO) or government department could host the service and provide the welcome messages and general information services, such as agricultural and health advice, in any language.

Talking business

We first tested the system in Juvvala Palam, a village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where the main language is Telugu. It has a population of approximately 4,000 people, made up of about 850 families. Around 70% of these families have a mobile phone. Most of the people working in the village are involved in agriculture, particularly rice production. Transportation is a major business here, too; people rent their trucks, tractors and smaller vehicles to people in nearby villages, where they are used by farmers in their fields or for a specific social function, such as a wedding.

One NGO, the Byrraju Foundation, is particularly active in Juvvala Palam. It works to provide clean drinking water, organize refuse collection and offer distance education through video conferencing.

The VoiKiosk ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a trial period of eight months. The toll-free number was accessible from any telephone and required no registration. In those eight months, the system received a total of 114,782 calls from 6,509 users.

The kiosk had four categories of information: agricultural, health, distance education and professional services. Farmers used the agricultural service to consult experts regarding crop-related problems. Prior to VoiKiosk, a farmer could send a picture of the crop to an expert, who then replied via the Byrraju Foundation. The turnaround time for this process was 24 hours. With VoiKiosk, the expert could provide advice to the farmer within four hours.

Other information services included the times when the doctor would visit the health centre and details, including timetables, of the daily distance education programmes. The professional services section gave local business people – mechanics, drivers, and truck owners, for example – the opportunity to advertise their businesses. This proved to be the most popular service, receiving a total of 37,112 calls.

We learned a lot from this first pilot project. We used an early version of the VoiKiosk, but people were very patient with listening to a long list of advertisements before posting their own. Users were able to interact more efficiently with the VoiKiosk system when we then provided keypad-based shortcuts for faster navigation. And the system proved simple enough for villagers to experiment with the technology and come up with innovative uses for it, including developing social networking and personal broadcasting aspects. But most importantly, this pilot proved to us the viability of a speech-based interface in the local language.

Info on demand

The second test village was in Gujarat, where the VoiKiosk was known as Avaaj Otalo, which means ‘voice-based community forum’ in the local Gujarati language. We worked with another NGO, the Development Support Center (DSC) which publishes a quarterly magazine on agriculture and produces a popular weekly radio programme that reaches nearly 500,000 farmers. During critical stages of the growing season, the DSC receives over 100 phone calls and 40 handwritten letters from listeners every week. The organization and their agricultural experts often design the content of their broadcasts based on this feedback.

One of the information categories for this VoiKiosk, therefore, provided a similar forum, where farmers could post agricultural questions or comments, and where experts or fellow farmers could respond. However, unlike in the first pilot that had an unrestricted number of users, we initially started the Gujarat service with a registered set of 50 users, and are now gradually increasing the numbers.

The majority of the questions posted to the forum came from farmers who did not have direct access to the system. In a typical scenario, a farmer would approach a registered user with an agricultural query, which could be a specific question. Since the system only allowed 30 second intervals in which to record the query, the farmer often trusted the registered member to pose the question more clearly and succinctly. Farmers also said they were happy to leave the process up to someone more experienced with the automated interface.

Another section of the service was reserved for the DSC to post news and announcements, such as the launch of a new government programme or subsidy, while the third section was an archive of all the agricultural radio programmes. This, ‘radio-on-demand’ service proved popular with listeners who had missed a previous broadcast, or who wanted to hear a favourite episode.

One user played forum and radio content in his store, using a speaker phone he had specifically bought for the purpose. He commented that the VoiKiosk allowed him to become a source of information and advice, and that it had elevated his social status in the village (not to mention improving customer numbers in his store).

Some farmers showed an interest in learning from peers through experience sharing, and felt the forum was a good place for this. One farmer, for example, had asked a question about how to deal with the hot wind that damages millet crops in the region. The response through the VoiKiosk advised him to plant Rajka millet on the edges of the plot. Another farmer told us that he’d heard this advice and also planted the Rajka millet, which saved his crop from being ruined.

We are in the process of conducting further interviews, increasing the number of registered users, and improving features, both content-wise and access-wise, for the service in Gujarat. On the basis of these two pilots, the outlook for VoiKiosks in particular, and VoiceSites in general, looks promising. The opportunity for people, whether they are literate or not, to create content in their local language using voice seems to be popular and empowering. The increasing use of the VoiKiosk system for a range of purposes leads us to believe that a voice-based mechanism for local content creation is a very powerful tool, one which can certainly help to provide information and communication technologies to rural areas.


Amit A. Nanavati, Sheetal K. Agarwal, Arun Kumar and Nitendra Rajput are developers with the IBM India Research Laboratory (

Project Spoken Web
The Spoken Web helps people to create voice sites using a simple telephone, mobile or landline. The user gets a unique phone number, similar to a URL, which other users can access to hear the content. All these voice sites can be interlinked creating a massive network, to work just like the world wide web.

Development Support Centre
An NGO based in Gujarat, India, that works to improve rural livelihoods through the participatory management of natural resources.

Byrraju Foundation
Byrraju promotes healthcare, education, and the improvement of rural livelihoods in remote villages in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

28 October 2009

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