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

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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.

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