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Mobile phones for development: don’t forget about the voice!

Mobile phones heated up once again the development 2.0 summer debate: from the NYT on the uses of mobile phones for safe water distribution, to the upcoming World Bank study on mobile phones for education; from CTA’s overview of the uses of mobile phones for agricultural development to Chris’ foray into sensors and micro-voluntarism. And if you are interested in mobile banking for the unbanked, don’t miss Jim’s summer round-up.

In the midst of all this flurry—mostly focused on advanced features—my personal favourite, however, has to be an article from SocialBrite that brings us back to basics: namely, voice-based services. As the author notes:

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.

It was fascinating to learn about Avaaj Otalo, a “voice-based community forum" for famers in Gujarat, or the experience of Mobiled, a service that delivered Wikipedia over mobile phones to schools in South Africa through a speech synthesizer. Apparently, audio-wikis” and the spoken web (a voice-driven ecosystem parallel to the world wide web targeting underserved populations in emerging markets) are next in line. Cost, however—as the author of the article notes—is still the major hurdle: once again, sustainability of business models is the key question for development 2.0.


Everybody agrees that cell phones improve communications, lower transaction costs and promote economic progress. The cell phones of an iPhone 3G generation are also great for educational purposes. Moreover, the Economist writes about how augmented reality (AR) becomes more accessible thanks to mobile phones. For instance, Wikitude, an AR-travel guide application developed by Google, makes it much easier to explore the world around you. However, the main issue for the developing countries is the affordability of mobile phones. A transitional experience of Eastern Europe shows us that pagers come first before the mobile phones.

Submitted by giulio quaggiotto on
Leo, thanks for stopping by and yes, as was remarked also in the SocialBrite article, long term financial sustainability is an issue. Since you mentioned AR, you might be interested in a previous post ( touching on its potential applications in a development context. Cheers, Giulio

Hmmm. I thought voice connection was MORE expensive than data, especially if you do informationally simple stuff like navigate through menus (If you want to speak to an operator say "Yes" now). It wastes 99,9% of bandwidth. There must be some cheap, text-only data connection mode, like what we used in the 90s with Palms... The literacy point is undisputable.

Good point, cost is important. At one time it was possible to piggyback packet data transmission at low cost on unused night tv bandwith and on airtravel networks in downtime. Any experience of this now? I agree, voice transmission is still more expensive than data. And who hasn't heard of flashing to confirm or deny, the practice of calling and hanging up - a no cost alternative to actually talking.

Submitted by giulio quaggiotto on
Hi Dale Anne, I actually don't know of any such experiences, but tomorrow's event on Mobile Innovations for Social and Economic Development (, which is going to be webcast live, might be a venue to discuss this. Cheers, Giulio

Hi Alberto, Prabhas, the author of the socialbrite article commenting. Your point about voice being perhaps a bad medium for informationally simple queries is important, and probably points to the fact that voice-based technology should be used smartly when it is used. As for your data-only-connection mode, there does exist such technology, and it's called USSD. Read about it on the wikipedia page:

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