If you have read our previous articles on Using ICT To Protect Cambodia’s Labourers and How ICT Can Help Agriculture, you might already know about Verboice. This technology has made waves in Cambodia, helping those in need with just simple voice response.
To find out more about how Verboice has helped Cambodia, Geeks In Cambodia speaks with Tharum Bun, Communications and Digital Media Manager at InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia as well as Joe Agoada, InSTEDD Global Communications Advisor.
(This interview has been edited for flow and clarity.)
Can you introduce yourself and explain the Verboice initiative by InSTEDD?
THARUM: I’m Tharum Bun, Communications and Digital Media Manager at iLab InSTEDD Southeast Asia, a locally run innovation lab. We focus on design and development of collaborative technology for social good.
At InSTEDD, we apply human centered design to our platform and software design process which we co-create and validate with the end user. We work in agile development which starts on a small scale, and improves as we hear the needs from users here in Cambodia and around the world.
Verboice is an automated voice response technology (IVR). It uses open source software. Anyone can use Verboice towards a number of purposes, such as surveys, as an alert system, or even mobile data collection. Based on voice messages, it focuses on users in a lower resource environment or low literacy, where mobile Internet is not widely covered, or even where people have no access to Internet just yet.
Why was Verboice created, and when did it start being utilised in Cambodia?
JOE: Verboice was initiated during a time when mobile phones were spreading widely and SMS provided a cheap and fast way for individuals to exchange information across network connections. However, there were barriers such as illiteracy and language differences which caused vulnerable populations to not benefit.
THARUM: In 2011, Verboice was first developed for a baby monitoring project (in Kenya). The need of the end-user was first identified, before we started to build this new technology. The problem was that the time and financial wastage it took for a new mother to travel from her home to the doctor was not desirable. With this technology in place, it saves them much time and money.
In August 2012, Verboice started to be implemented in Cambodia, with the support of the Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions. With their support, we worked with the Women’s Media Centre as well as Open Institute to roll out this platform.
Verboice can be used in a diverse way, and is highly customisable and scalable. We have implemented them in a couple of projects here, but if any user is serious about integrating Verboice in their project, they can approach us for support and maintenance, or even to build a customised version.
What are some of the projects that Verboice is being used in? (Cambodia)
THARUM: It is used in the Better Factories Cambodia (Kamako Chhnoeum) initiative by the International Labour Organisation. It uses Verboice to provide education to these workers about their working conditions and rights. They used a multiple choice quiz as a way to teach these workers. After this project was carried out successfully, they went an extra mile and used the same Verboice platform to get their workers to rate the factory environment and satisfaction with it.
We also work with Marie Stopes International, using Verboice to counsel post abortion patients. These people face a lot of challenges and prejudice in society, and when they have queries such as when to take medication or any complications arise, it is difficult for them to visit the clinic. The ability to make a simple phone call or receive scheduled reminders through their mobile phone is a huge help to these patients in need.
Another project that is not related to health is helping the agricultural scene in Cambodia. This is a project by the International Finance Corporation from World Bank, and it educates farmers in the rural areas about planting improved fragrant rice seeds to get a higher yield. Previously they used the radio to increase awareness, but found that reaching out to farmers through their mobile phones was more effective.
How can Verboice benefit Cambodians?
THARUM: It provides information to majority in the rural provinces who do not have access to Internet. This is very vital for them. Additionally, there is a huge challenge with many who cannot read or write. This technology fills a huge gap there, as voice calls are extremely basic, and an almost immediate solution for some of these issues.
What were some of the challenges when implementing Verboice in Cambodia?
THARUM: The technology itself posed no challenges, however the promotion stage did. Building the platform and hotline was the easy part, but the tough part was when project partners were getting their target to use the number.
Before the launch of the agricultural project, we travelled to the provinces to meet with the end-users (farmers), which helped greatly in understanding farmer interaction on voice call that allow us to adopt the content flow design based on that.
How has Verboice progressed since it first came to Cambodia?
JOE: Verboice has progressed thanks to the work of the iLabs in Phnom Penh and Buenos Aires. It has gotten support from the InSTEDD global team and a worldwide community of users who submit their feedback and feature ideas to our platform team. We are also thankful to receive support from organizations such as Skoll Global Threats, Rockefeller Foundation and SPIDER Center at Stockholm University which really pushes forward the progress of Verboice.
THARUM: In 2013, with the National Elections, Verboice was used to provide voting information. We had to improve the platform greatly due to the huge amount of calls received. Verboice will continue to improve with time as requirements increase.
What other project is InSTEDD working on now?
THARUM: We are working on mBuilder, which are scalable SMS applications you can build in minutes and change whenever you want. It works in the same way as Verboice, but uses text messaging instead of voice calls.
JOE: This year I’m excited to see how Verboice can plug and play with our other InSTEDD platforms tools like Resource Map and mBuilder.