The cell phone call centre

A cell phone chat system in South Africa offers access to essential services

Marlon Parker

The cell phone chat system, JamiiX, offers a quick, cost-effective method of delivering advice and information services to rural communities.

In 2007, the South African community organisation, Impact Direct, was looking for alternative ways of counselling people with drug and substance abuse problems in the Western Cape area. At that time, people would often have to wait up to 12 months for counselling. Impact Direct wanted to provide support more promptly, so they asked the non-profit technology company, Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs), to come up with a solution.

Marlon Parker, an information technology lecturer at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, was involved with the project from the beginning. ‘We realised that many South Africans use chat applications on their cell phones, and we thought that, since people are familiar with these applications, we could use chat as a way to provide support services.’

The RLabs team developed a secure system where people could use their favourite chat platform, such as MXit, the most popular in South Africa, to contact and ask for advice from counsellors. Such platforms do not use SMS but transfer data to the web via GPRS, 3G or even wi-fi. To test the new system, called JamiiX, they worked with ten students from a local high school.

‘Word spread from that original 10,’ says Parker, ‘and within one week 50 kids were using the platform to access counselling services. After a month, we had 100 kids and now, just over two years later, we support more than 100,000 people through JamiiX and other similar platforms. They can log on to discuss their problems with trained counsellors who have experience, often first-hand experience, with substance abuse.’

Multi-tasking

JamiiX works with most chat or instant messaging systems to which members send and receive messages back from their ‘friends’ who are also logged on at that moment. The students who took part in the drug-counselling project, for example, simply added the service to their list of contacts, similar to adding a friend in other web-based social networking sites such as Facebook. They could then use their preferred chat application to ask counsellors for advice directly, and quickly receive an answer.

Like most chat platforms, JamiiX allows subscribers to carry out more than one conversation at a time, so a counsellor can have several chat sessions open and provide support to many different people at the same time. The system helps the counsellors to manage the conversations, and it saves callers from long waits, providing them with quicker access to the services.

Another advantage of the system is that it is web-based, or in the ‘cloud’, so counsellors do not have to install the software on their individual computers or cell phones, but can log on using a web browser from anywhere in the world. Psychologists in the UK, for example, contribute expert advice to the drug counselling service.

‘Using this technology,’ says Parker, ‘we are able to deliver a virtual consultation between someone in a rural village and an expert living in the city, or even another country. Just by using a cell phone, people can access many more services than those available in the immediate environment. Low-income customers rarely have access to these kinds of services.’

Rural support

Anyone using the service has to have a cell phone capable of connecting to the internet, but many low-end handsets already have that function. In fact, approximately 25 million people in South Africa already use similar chat platforms. It is also cheaper than using SMS. Sending an SMS in South Africa costs, on average, about seven eurocents, but subscribers can send up to 50,000 messages with JamiiX for the same price. This is because subscribers send their chat messages as data over the internet. The messages are usually very short and text-based which accounts for very little data being transferred.

Since JamiiX is a web-based system, anyone with access to the internet can register. An organisation, for example, that wants to provide services, registers as a ‘social exchange’ and invites people to become counsellors.

‘We are currently developing a mobile application that’s not yet available to the public,’ says Parker, ‘which would allow organisations or companies to set up a contact centre without a computer. They could run the whole exchange from a cell phone, or a combination of phone and computer.’

JamiiX has rapidly become a kind of contact centre that organisations can create quickly to provide people with information and support services. The South African National AIDS Helpline now also uses the system to deliver HIV/AIDS information to cell phones in an attempt to reach more people. Calls to the Helpline are free from landlines, but there are only about five million landlines in the country compared to more than 36 million cell phones. The service reports that, since using JamiiX, they are able to deal with more queries in two hours than they previously did in a week with the more traditional call centre set up.

The system also protects anonymity. JamiiX hosts the service, but their staff cannot access the data. All the information is encrypted and, in the case of the AIDS Helpline, only the Helpline staff can read the messages. The chat messages are not stored on the phone, which helps to protect the privacy of young people who might only have access to a parent’s cell phone.

Meanwhile, a company in Uganda is developing the system to provide customer support to people who do not have access to the internet or who cannot afford to call the usual helpline numbers. The company can now provide better information on how to use their products, and get feedback on exactly what customers want.

Farmer advice

There are also organisations working on using JamiiX to deliver agricultural information, as the platform can also be used to send messages to a large number of people at a relatively low cost. An agricultural cooperative or NGO could, for example, send out weather information to a group of farmers. And, perhaps more importantly, farmers could use the service to ask for specific advice from trained staff at a central information centre, experts based elsewhere, or even from other local farmers who also use the system.

JamiiX also offers instant access for people who might otherwise have to travel to advice centres or agricultural cooperative headquarters in the main urban centres. When a problem occurs, farmers, for example, are often too busy dealing with it to take a long trip to the city.

The platform would initially connect a small group of farmers who could work together to provide information to others, and gradually develop the network as other people joined it. They could give rapid advice on how to deal with drought situations, or get pest control details from farmers in neighbouring countries who have experienced the same problem.

The developers also expect the platform to be used to collect information on cell phones. Organisations or companies can quickly set up a survey using JamiiX, and send it out via their preferred chat platform. Such surveys can be relatively complex, allowing for more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, and so can gather detailed information directly from rural areas.

Parker sees mobile apps as a great opportunity for any organisation that wants to provide information to rural areas, and farming communities in particular. The services can be developed using existing technology and with the knowledge that already exists within the community. Also there would be no need for the equipment and other expenses involved in setting up and running a call centre. Farmers can support other farmers, and can easily connect with advisors elsewhere in the country or even abroad.

‘JamiiX capitalises on the fact that there is a lack of information and services for rural communities in many countries,’ says Parker. ‘Even government-sponsored support services have trouble reaching people in very remote areas. Also, the service offers an affordable alternative to information services normally accessed via traditional telephone landlines or the internet, which can be expensive in many ACP countries.’

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Marlon Parker is an information technology lecturer at Cape Peninsula University of Technology ( www.cput.ac.za) and founder of RLabs.

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Related resources

JamiiX
www.jamiix.com

Reconstructed Living Lab
www.rlabs.org

Impact Direct
http://twitter.com/impactdirect

MXit
www.mxit.com

16 December 2010

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)