One call can bring news to hundreds in rural villages in India. Gaon Ki Awaaz, which means “Village Voice” in the Avhadi language, sends out twice-daily news calls to subscribers directly over their mobile phones. Launched in December 2009, the project recently expanded to 250 subscribers spread over 20 villages.

What Does Gaon Ki Awaaz Do?

Sunil Saxena, dean of the International Media Institute of India that launched the project, said that Gaon Ki Awaaz was developed in order to meet the needs of rural populations. Gaon Ki Awaaz has two reporters, Divyakar Pratap Singh and Priya Gupta, who produce news reports by recording 30-to 60-second voice notes on their phones. Those short news bulletins are sent as multi-media messaging (MMS) to local editor Satyenda Pratap for review and are then sent on to Saxena for final review. The reporters are from the village of Rampur-Mathura (where the pilot is being run) so they can transmit reports in the local dialect, Avhadi.

Subject matter for the broadcasts can include alerts such as when health camps are coming to a nearby area, farm tips, events happening in the village such as religious and/or community-oriented celebrations, or local-centric government announcements. Saxena explains the value of mobile phones for communicating information:

In most of the Indian villages, the literacy levels are low. So newspaper do not work as the medium to disseminate information. And because the electricity is erratic, the television is also not a very good medium – we’re talking about the villages, not the cities – so the only way one could overcome these two hurdles was to look at mobile phones. And if you look at the way the mobile phone’s popularity has grown in India, it’s absolutely remarkable. There are 543 million subscribers, and even in villages a lot of villagers now own mobile phones. It’s become a part of their everyday life.

Saxena explained the thinking behind using voice calls: “We wanted to move away from the SMS alerts [that many large media companies in India use], because many villagers can’t read them, so the purpose is completely defeated. It had to be a voice call, and it could not be MMS because some of the villagers are very poor – they’re using very simple phones and don’t all have MMS facilities.”

Another reason mobile and particularly, mobile voice works for this project is its ease of use; recording voice notes and sending them as an MMS is easy for the local reporters, and subscribers need only to answer their phones in order to hear the pre-recorded messages. Adds Saxena, “The advantages we saw with mobile was 1. the villager could hear a news bulletin in the language or dialect that he or she speaks; and 2., the news relates to events happening around the village life. And this was not possible with any other device.”

The ease of receiving and sharing Gaon Ki Awaaz’s reports motivated the group to expand from an original closed group of 20 subscribers to 250 users. Saxena explains that the original 20 subscribers would often organize other villagers in order to broadcast the news alerts via speakerphone. According to Saxena, mobile phones are changing how news can be shared. He says, “They’re enabling a large number of people who did not have access to information or could not contribute to information flow.”

How Does It Work?

The twice-daily news reports (broadcast at noon and 5 p.m.) start with the village reporters recording their bulletins into the phones’ voice recorders as .amr files. Those files are sent to the local editor, then on to Saxena. Saxena transfers the files to his laptop and converts them to .wav files. Because the .wav files are data-heavy, the files are compressed as .zip files and then sent on to Netxcell, a company in Hyderabad, for broadcast. Netxcell takes the files and sends them out as a robo-call to the numbers stored in a database (which the villagers submit).

Although the process has multiple steps, it doesn’t take much time as everything is sent electronically and is automated.

The cost of the program is low; it’s free for the villagers and is currently funded by Saxena’s IMII colleague Dave Bloss. Bloss is a Knight International Fellow, and is funding the project through his Knight grant. Saxena estimates that the total cost of the four-month project is roughly $1000 USD. The only costs have been the purchase of three MMS-equipped phones (for the two reporters and local editor), which cost about $100 US each, and the monthly broadcast fees. Because the transmission costs of the short robo-calls are fairly cheap (Saxena estimates that the expansion of the subscriber to 250 raised the monthly fee to roughly $300 USD; before that is was under $100 USD), the project is able to operate with a small budget.

Despite the small budget, Gaon Ki Awaaz is now trying to become sustainable by bringing in independent revenue. Gaon Ki Awaaz recently got its first advertisers – in early March 2010 one of the village merchants, who was part of the original group of 20 users, bought an ad that was played before the news. Saxena says that they are looking to eventually bring in two types of adverts from local merchants and from national agricultural companies. The plan is to start with hyper-local advertising in order to gauge the response, and then start looking to agri-companies to have them sponsor some bulletins.

Plans for expansion include making the system more interactive for the villagers and increasing the number of subscribers. Subcribers currently only receive news voice calls but Saxena hopes to eventually enable villagers to submit their own news updates to a toll-free number. That information will be vetted by the reporters or local editor, and then added in to the reports. Says Saxena, “The aim is to enable subscribers to generate information about themselves in their own language, and to be able to hear information that’s relevant to them.”

He adds, “There is no better tool for information to come in, and for information to go out. If something happened in a remote, rural area there was no way to communicate with the media, or the administration or anybody [before mobiles]. This is the first tool that makes it possible.”