The freedom of information

Zimbabweans access and contribute content through an interactive voice service

Brenda Burrell

A Zimbabwean organization has developed an interactive voice system that allows people to access and contribute information to the service using their mobile phone.

Since its creation in 2001, the Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe has used the internet, email, print and, more recently, SMS to communicate with the general public in Zimbabwe. We have used this range of communication tools to share information in Zimbabwe’s restricted media environment and to advocate for a variety of local and national issues. In order to reach Zimbabweans in ways most relevant to them, we are continuously expanding our communication tool kit. Increasingly, this means using mobile phones to reach our audience.

While barely 5% of Zimbabweans have access to the internet, there are over 2 million mobile phone contracts for the country’s 11 million people. Recognizing this, Kubatana began using SMS to communicate with our members in 2005. We now communicate with nearly 7,000 subscribers via our regular, free text message service, sending out news and event announcements, as well as using SMS to solicit feedback from our members about current events and topical issues.

But there are some limitations to SMS messages: they are restricted to 160 characters; they require a certain level of literacy, and; they do not support all languages. Thus, our new project, Freedom Fone, uses interactive voice response (IVR) software to make it easier for organizations to share short audio segments with their audiences via the telephone. The system’s ‘leave a message’ facility exploits the two-way communication potential of the telephone, making it useful for both content creation and distribution.

Our goal is to harness open source telephony platforms and make it easier for people to independently or collaboratively produce dial-up information to motivate, mobilize and inform their communities – big or small. The basic idea was to simplify and liven up IVR and use it in a creative way to deliver information to people.

Callers navigate through the IVR menu to listen to audio clips. IVR menus are a series of prompts in which an automated voice instructs the caller to, for example, ‘Press 1 for sales, 2 for the help desk, 3 for customer care’ and so on. Callers can phone from a landline, mobile or other system, such as Skype, and contribute questions, content and feedback by leaving voice messages. The audio files are stored on a content management system (CMS), which can be easily and regularly updated.

Affordability

Organizations can use this technology in a ‘cost-free to caller’ context, where users dial a toll-free number to access the service, or leave a ‘missed call’ where the system records the caller’s number and calls them back to connect them to the IVR menu. In a ‘low-cost to caller’ context, users can send an SMS to request a call back. Or, one person can send a text message to request a call back to another number.


We launched Freedom Fone in June 2009 and, so far, our content consists of a mix of news, event details, jobs and other opportunities that members have come to value from our more established outlets – the website, community blog, email and SMS service. But Freedom Fone will target those Zimbabweans who cannot access our information in these formats. We use the ‘leave a message’ facility to take caller contributions, feedback and questions, and also to receive tip-offs, citizen reports and on-the-ground accounts of events across the country.

The system can be updated continuously and made available to callers 24 hours a day, overcoming the hurdles of access, literacy, printing, distribution and time delays that print-based initiatives often encounter. The simplicity of the user interface, the open nature of telecommunications, and the basic equipment requirements of the system make it a more affordable and accessible option than starting a radio station or buying an hour of radio time each week to communicate an organization’s message.

There are, however, many constraints with such a system in Zimbabwe. Mobile network services, for example, have changed from being affordable but over-congested to being expensive and less accessible to the poor. In spite of these limitations, more people can afford access to information via phones than computers, so we will persist with our information outreach using our new tool.

And Freedom Fone could easily be applied in other countries, to give individuals and organizations access to another means to communicate with the public. We are currently discussing how we could integrate the system with other initiatives, and we anticipate a variety of other applications for Freedom Fone as the software matures and more organizations take it up.

Desktop publishing tools made it easier for organizations to publish their own newsletters and magazines; web 2.0 tools have made it easier for anyone to write a blog or create an online community presence. We hope Freedom Fone will similarly remove the technical and cost barriers that surround audio content creation and dissemination, providing another tool for organizations to reach their audience.

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Brenda Burrell is co-founder of Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe ( www.kubatana.net)

28 October 2009

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