September 1, 2009

Voice-based technology aids social change

Projects that use mobile to deliver impactful information

By Prabhas Pokharel

The precursors to mobile phones were walkie-talkies, and the first generation of mobile phone networks only supported voice communications. With second generation networks and a happy accident came SMS, and only with the third generation networks came mobile data services in the form of GPRS.TalkToMeImage

Most applications using mobile phones these days tend to use these newer channels of communication: SMS and data. But even though we sometimes forget, voice is still a part of mobile phone communications. This article profiles interesting ways in which voice technology is being used for social work all around the world.

Voice transmission has a singular advantage over SMS and data transmissions—it channels human, spoken  language directly. Users of many literacy levels can use voice technology with keypad and voice navigation, and applications can be run in local languages. Users can issue commands and requests in their natural language, and thus communicate more accurately. The problem, unfortunately, lies on the receiving end. Voice data is much harder to process automatically than text or other data. It requires considerable technical effort (or a lot of person-power) to parse and separate voice data (and even then accuracy isn’t perfect), and searching voice data still remains a nearly impossible feat. Second, airtime costs tend to run higher than text message costs. Continue reading