Two years ago, Bev Clark, the co-founder of Kubatana.net, was awarded a large grant in the Knight News Challenge for Freedom Fone, an open-source software platform for distributing news and information through interactive voice response (IVR) technology. Freedom Fone was officially launched (version 1.5) in late February of this year and has since been downloaded about 200 times, according Amy Saunderson-Meyer of Freedom Fone. (She blogs for Idea Lab and her most recent post, about Freedom Fone version 1.6, is here.)

Freedom Fone leverages audio as a mobile function using IVR, a technology that allows a system to detect voice and keyboard input. IVR allows a user to call, enter or say specific numbers, and listen to or contribute audio content. (Many people are already familiar with IVR — you’ve likely encountered it when you call a customer service number and are prompted with instructions to press numbers for different issues or service departments.)

Since launch, Freedom Fone has provided support to specific organizations, including Equal Access in Cambodia, Small World News TV, TechnoServe, One Economy Corporation, and Africa Youth Trust. Saunderson-Meyer said they have also received about 100 inquiries from individuals and organizations interested in a broad spectrum of potential uses of Freedom Fone outside of news and information distribution.

Freedom Fone in Tanzania and Ghana

Recently, Freedom Fone was adopted by two farm radio stations through the African Farm Radio Research Initiative, a 42-month project supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and implemented by Farm Radio International in partnership with the World University Services of Canada=. The aim of the AFRRI project was to assess the effectiveness and impact of farm radio in many parts of Africa.

We at MobileActive.org thought it was high time to learn how Freedom Fone was being used, including any challenges these users encountered. We ourselves had considered implementing Freedom Fone in Zimbabwe with an organization we were working with, but at the time (early this year) the software was still lacking critical features we needed.

Bartholomew Sullivan, a regional ICT officer for AFRRI, was on site to set up Freedom Fone at Radio Maria in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It was the first time Freedom Fone partnered with a group outside of its own projects.

AFRRI works with 25 radio stations in five countries in Africa. Stations include private, public, national, and community radio stations with established listeners in varied agricultural zones. Freedom Fone was introduced at two of these radio stations: Radio Maria (a faith-based station that also broadcasts health and agricultural information across the country) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Volta Star radio (the national broadcaster) in the Volta region of Ghana. Before the project, neither station had an existing IVR system in place and the primary feedback loop with listeners was through written letters.

Sullivan and Farm Radio International had been in touch with Kubatana, the parent organization of Freedom Fone, in Zimbabwe and thought IVR technology could be used to improve programming at the stations by making the experience and content more interactive.

“We’re looking for something that can enhance radio,” Sullivan said. “Because at this point for us, radio has been very effective in reaching people, but it’s not always the most effective for getting a feedback loop or making it interactive.”

Why Radio Maria and Volta Star?

There are several reasons why Radio Maria and Volta Star were chosen from among 25 possible radio stations to incorporate Freedom Fone.

First, reliable, accessible, on-site support was an important qualifier, especially for more complex projects. Radio Maria was a candidate for Freedom Fone in part because of Sullivan’s proximity to the station. Because of the learning curve involved with using the software, he wanted to be able to be on site on a daily basis.

Another factor was language. Most Radio Maria listeners understand and speak Kiswahili, and using a single language simplifies the language interface for the IVR system. Interestingly, Volta Star radio in Ghana was chosen because multiple languages (Akan and Ewe) were spoken and could be integrated with Freedom Fone, making it a good experiment for AFRRI.

Radio Maria was also chosen because it had an existing support system and infrastructure, including far-reaching coverage and existing funding which allowed for electricity, back-up systems, Internet, and technicians. In addition, Freedom Fone funded half of the project at Radio Maria, while AFRRI funded the Volta Star project in Ghana.

“We figured if were going to start a pilot project, let’s give it the best possible chance of succeeding,” Sullivan said.

Capturing Voices from the Field in Tanzania

One of the first steps in Dar es Salaam was getting supplies. Sullivan shared a list of things needed to get Freedom Fone up and running at Radio Maria. (Since they were working in a radio environment, the group already had access to a great deal of audio equipment and office supplies. The Freedom Fone site also lists other general-use items that may be needed.) Here’s the list, along with the cost of each item in U.S. dollars:

  • A dedicated computer to use as a server (minimum specs 1GB RAM, processor: 1.6GHz). About $700.
  • One or more SIM cards (depending on how many lines you want). Price varies locally.
  • A Mobigater SIP to GSM gateway. About $160 for each SIM card/line.
  • A USB microphone or other way of recording audio to the computer for creating IVR menus. About $50.
  • Internet connection to download the latest Freedom Fone DVD software (approximately 800 MB).
  • Any electricity or utility costs associated with keeping the Freedom Fone server running for 24 hours. Price varies locally.
  • UPS backup power. About $120.
  • A mobile phone to call in and test the IVR. About $35.
  • Any airtime costs needed to use the above phone. Price varies locally.

For the SIP to GSM gateway, the group bought a 2N VoiceBlue Lite that holds four SIM cards for four different lines in to Freedom Fone. The VoiceBlue Lite allows a user to call in on a mobile phone and interact with the server, built on Ubuntu 8.1. Where Internet access is slow and downloading difficult, Freedom Fone has sent the file on CD in the mail (version 1.6 is an ISO file, 935MB in size). Sullivan also bought a local, second-hand computer to run the Freedom Fone software.

As part of the Farm Radio International participatory radio campaign, the group worked with community members to identify an agricultural improvement that would make a difference for listeners if they had more information or encouragement. At Radio Maria, the group chose to focus on a weekly program called Heka Heka Vijijini, which means “busy busy in the village” in Kiswahili.

They decided to add a weekly, four-month segment to the program on how to improve local chicken management via housing, diet, and vaccinations. Unofficially, Sullivan said, they referred to the program as the “Kuku Hotline” (“kuku” means “chicken” in Kiswahili). Each of the 25 radio stations that were part of the project came up with a different program topic based on local needs.

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At Radio Maria, Sullivan and the group used the IVR “very simply,” almost as a “glorified voicemail service.” During the Heka Heka Vijijini program, broadcasters announced an upcoming competition which asked for “the best story of how you’re using the knowledge you’ve gained from this radio program in your life.” Listeners could call in to the radio station and leave a message on the IVR system.

The station received “wonderful stories from the field,” lasting anywhere from 10 seconds to three minutes. They received a total of 2,499 calls to the hotline, with 1,448 unique callers during the month and a half that it was available.

They also received a total of 297 SMS messages, which were usually requests for information or greetings. Many of the audio responses were later rebroadcast on the program.

“People love to hear their voices on the radio,” Sullivan said. “And what we’ve learned from the farmers was that radio programs that have the voices of farmers are far more entertaining and interesting than not.”

Making radio more accessible in Ghana

Where Radio Maria collected and re-broadcasted incoming voice content, Volta Star in Ghana focused on improving access to radio segments by posting outgoing content. The Volta Star program topic was organic fertilizer and included information for farmers such as market prices. Each one-hour segment was reduced to about five minutes, and this audio summary was made available every week on the IVR system.

When listeners called, they were able to choose their language. Sullivan said this dual language ability increased the complexity of the Freedom Fone interface quite a bit.

The listener could then choose a specific summary to listen to. They received a total of 4,503 calls to the “farmers fone” and 2,041 of these calls proceeded past the welcome message (meaning that the user accessed the information or left a voicemail).

At Volta Star, a lot of people called, but a smaller percentage called on a regular basis, Sullivan said. One question Farm Radio International is currently looking into is what made these repeat users call again and again and really use the IVR. Sullivan suspects that it was because some people didn’t really know how to use the system; whereas an IVR system might be intuitive to some, many Radio Maria and Volta Star listeners are not as accustomed to the technology or the process.

What worked well (and why)

One benefit to integrating Freedom Fone at an established radio station is the ability to promote the IVR service. At Radio Maria, the broadcasters relied on the large number of existing listeners to promote and explain the service including the specific local numbers to call. The group created a special jingle and message to promote the competition. Listen to the jingle here.

In the above clip, Radio Maria presenter Lilian Manyuka announces the final segment of the four-month radio campaign. She invites listeners to join the competition and share their stories. Manyuka gives an example of a submission, shares the four numbers that callers can use to access the Kuku Hotline and provides information on how to leave a message (wait for the beep, say your name, and leave your message).

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Another thing that Sullivan said worked well was the ability to set up multiple call-in numbers for each of the main local mobile providers in the region: Vodacom, Zain, and Tigo. This allowed listeners to call from their respective networks, making it cheaper. The group used similar sounding numbers for each of the networks.

The participatory radio campaign approach was to enhance existing systems, not add new content or processes to the farm radio stations. So, Sullivan and others were able to incorporate and adapt Freedom Fone to best match the needs and uses of the listeners.

At the end of the day, it’s an open-source IVR platform that you can adapt to what your needs are, Sullivan said. “It’s very basic. You can nest menus. You can have a voicemail service.”

Challenges and issues

The projects at Radio Maria and Volta Star (and specifically in regards to Freedom Fone) were not without challenges and issues, including reliable hardware, cost, human error, power, and training.

One challenge is obtaining high-quality or dedicated hardware. In Tanzania, Sullivan bought a second-hand computer locally to host the Freedom Fone software. But he wouldn’t do this again. At the most crucial moment, Sullivan said, the hard drive didn’t work and the group lost several days of uptime because of the crash. Cost can also be an issue with some hardware, but often there are less expensive alternatives.

Human error is a challenge inherent with Freedom Fone, which ironically stems from the high adaptability of the platform and the ability for control many parameters of the IVR process. When adjusting the settings on the modem at the Radio Maria station, for example, Sullivan said he had turned up the amp to the highest level. This resulted in significant audio distortion because the responses were so loud. Because of this, the IVR system was not recognizing user input. People called and were prompted to input a number. But no matter what was pressed the system would do nothing, until it would eventually hang up on the caller.

Power is an issue, especially in areas with unreliable power because, “when the computer is off, then Freedom Fone is down,” Sullivan said. Similarly, infrastructure is really important, including having backup power supplies for power outages.

Another issue to incorporating Freedom Fone at established organizations is training. At Radio Maria, for example, there were three parties involved: Farm Radio International, Freedom Fone, and the local station employees. Most people involved with the training were able to speak English, but language translation could be an issue for multi-party projects in other areas. It’s important to be able to train local employees to continue to use the IVR technology after the project concludes, Sullivan said.

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“Working with their staff — their technical team — so that they really feel like they own the technology, is a challenge but it is definitely worth doing,” Sullivan said. “Because it means when something comes up they can handle it on their own.”

Finally, another challenge with Freedom Fone was the ability to deal with user error or confusion. At Radio Maria, the group also used the IVR system to establish an SMS poll, asking listeners what they wanted to hear more about on the program. The radio station would broadcast the poll and the number and explain the process, such as “press one for maize,” “press two for chickens,” and “push three for other garden crops,” and so on.

But, many users had never completed an SMS poll before and were confused on how to submit a vote. First, there was a lot of information being conveyed over the radio (the number to text, the specific code for a poll, and the value of each numerical vote).

“It’s a lot for people to remember over the radio if you’ve never done it,” Sullivan said, so some people would spell maize instead of pushing “1” for maize, or spell out the word “one” rather then sending the number 1, or mix up the order of things. These responses would not register in the Freedom Fone system as a vote and instead “would just sit there as an SMS.”

Despite user and technical challenges, “people really like it,” Sullivan said. The station received well over 100 votes when the polls fist opened up, and the responses helped to shape future broadcasts.

Of Freedom Fone, Sullivan said, “they’ve got a really great idea but I think if it’s going to work with rural people, especially in a radio context, who don’t have a lot of experience with voting or using their SMS that way, it’s going to need some foolproof methods.”

What’s ahead for Freedom Fone

Farm Radio International is currently analyzing results of the initiative and plans to publish a report this fall on the findings. The Volta Star IVR content is still accessible to listeners and the mobile competition at Radio Maria has since closed, but they are starting another deployment based on what they learned at Radio Maria and Volta Star. The project will be at Rite FM, a radio station outside the greater Accra region in Ghana.

Sullivan said he is interested in exploring different revenue models for Freedom Fone including a subscription model. Currently, the caller incurs the costs in a typical IVR system, which usually amounts to the same prepaid deduction of making a phone call or sending an SMS. Early on, Sullivan said, many didn’t think this was a good model, and that somehow people, especially rural farmers, wouldn’t spend money to interact with an IVR system.

“But, turns out, they do,” Sullivan said. “People are willing to spend money on information that is important to them.”

A potential future subscription model, for example, could allow a user to purchase prepaid airtime for unlimited monthly access. A subscriber’s number could then be added to a list, which IVR technology would identify as a “to call” list whenever there is pertinent information. Saunderson-Meyer said Freedom Fone version 2.5, which is due out this December, will include this call-back functionality.

For now, simplicity is the goal for projects like Radio Maria that involve news and information distribution to rural populations. Simplicity is also important for other projects that do not involve long-term, on-site support from Freedom Fone or Farm Radio International.

“We believe that voice is still the richest medium for getting information to rural people, and that’s why we chose the IVR. But the challenge is to also not cut out those people who are not super savvy,” Sullivan said. “You’ve got to try and keep it as simple as possible.”

For more information about IVR systems, you can read MobileActive.org’s “other articles about this topic“http://www.mobileactive.org/search-ma?keyword=ivr&op=Search&form_id=search_block_form.