Voice-based web access helps illiterate get online
In Mali, the roads are mostly unpaved and access to landlines and the internet is scarce. Even if citizens have online access, illiteracy is a major barrier: less than a third of Mali's population can read or write.
A new voice-based web system could help, making it easier for illiterate people in Mali and other West African nations to use the internet. The project, sponsored by the European Commission, is called Voices and it has already been used to build an information system for farmers and as a platform for citizen journalism.
"The need for knowledge-sharing is universal, not just intrinsic to us in the West," says Anna Bon of VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, one of the project's 14 partners.
The system is based on a programming language called VoiceXML, which lets users vocally control specially created web content. Malians can navigate by listening to options and pressing buttons on their phone.
It has already been put to good use. Late last year, global news network Al Jazeera worked with Voices to get vox pops from under-represented, illiterate rural communities during election campaigns in Ghana and Kenya. Working with Voices and network carrier Safaricom, Al Jazeera built a voice-web platform that let people call in from a cellphone and contribute their thoughts at any time. Locals could also phone the Al Jazeera website and listen to election updates. "We were trying to plug into communities that you didn't hear that much from," says Cynara Vetch, who manages the service for Al Jazeera. "You suddenly get this plethora of voices giving you this wide array of angles."
Being web-based and linked to the cellphone network means the system can also push voice messages out to individual handsets, creating a "voice-Twitter" called Tabale, which launched last year. Details will be presented at the WebSci conference in Paris in May.
Many of those who need a system like this are women, says Mary Allen, who leads Sahel Eco, an NGO in Bamako, Mali. She has been working with the Voices project to let remote villagers broadcast what produce they have available. A previous system used text messages sent via one person in the village each week, usually a man. But this was slow, and did not give women, who produce as much as 70 per cent of all food in developing countries like Mali, their own access.
The old system helped farmers find markets for their produce. Michel, for example, went from a few dozen bee hives to a thousand, after he found a market for his honey in a nearby town. Full voice access could help illiterate women producers do the same – but on their own terms.
But for Voices to really take off, it needs to be easy to find the information on it. Engineers at the World Wide Web Foundation are working to build an index that links all the data on the platform. The database will be distributed across small servers, which automatically update across the whole network whenever anything changes. This will make the information accessible without having to log on to the internet itself. The ultimate goal is for users to search just by speaking. The problem is that no work on voice recognition has been done on Mali's native Bambara language. "You need to start collecting the database of samples of people talking that language," says Allen. "That's what missing. We'd like someone to phone up and get an automatic answer for: I've got black spots on my tomatoes, what should I do?"