If you haven’t heard of the SPICE (Structuring Partnerships for an Innovative Communications Environment) program, it is an initiative headed by Open Institute and funded by USAID to facilitate the communication between NGOs and the general rural public in the country. As the vision behind the main organization is to advance Cambodia into a country with widespread access to high quality education, information, communications and technology leading to a more developed and just society; integrating innovative technology for social and economic causes are at the core of their focus. We caught up with Javier Sola, the Chief of Party of Open Institute, to find out more about SPICE’s background, activities, and future direction!
(This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.)
Hello Javier! Could we start with a short introduction about SPICE and some of the current activities in the program?
Sure. SPICE is a USAID-funded program that facilitates social and business innovation using communications technology, and also aims to improve communications in Khmer via mobile devices. We started in October 2012, and now we have been extended till March 2015. The group believes that voice can be used as the main form of communication, and the mobile platform is of growing prominence. We are currently in the middle of a local mobile usage study, but from last year we know that 90% of Cambodians own mobile devices. 22% of that figure belongs to smartphone users, making up almost 16% penetration on the Internet. In Cambodia, voice is a powerful tool for sending messages, which builds the foundation of the IVR (Interactive Voice Response) technology.
What is the IVR all about, and how does it work?
The IVR works by automatically responding to phone calls and questions from users using pre-recorded messages, or connecting users to a person, or to an answering machine where they can leave a voice message. Callers can select which information to listen to or which service they require by selecting the correct keypad number. We have also created an IVR hosting service capable of providing information to hundreds of simultaneous callers, independently of which network operator their phone is connected to. This IVR hosting platform can be used for free by all those who want to use the IVR technology to provide information or services to Cambodian citizens.
There are a few application types of the IVR technology, with the first being the ability to offer on-demand information services. This is the most basic form of reaching out to people, where we just pass on the information. We also deal with reminders, confirmations and notifications for users to register for services through which they will receive a number of automatic informational or follow up calls. For example, mothers who are expecting (babies) might use this service to remind themselves of important information over the week specific to the point in their pregnancy in which they are. Patients who are due for huge surgeries could also use this service to remind themselves of the dates, and the important information beforehand, like not eating and drinking anything the crucial hours before.
For emergency services, the IVR technology will allow recorded phone calls to be sent to the group of people who are the recipients of emergency calls. The messages are all pre-recorded in case of any emergency occurring (flood, storm, etc.), and can help the affected group get aid. Information is key, and the IVR technology can also help to gather information (like surveys) and help other administrative duties.
Just to clarify, what language is the IVR technology in? Does the technology provide a scalable option to a worldwide audience?
The technology is available in almost any language, but we are concentrating on the local language for Cambodia. We have a team working to translate all the messages into the proper diction for the language because we want to change the current behavior of the generation. No one really goes out to get a new phone and checks for the availability of the Khmer language on it first. We want to push for the adoption of the Khmer language on mobile devices to integrate the language back into the society — because we believe that people have to communicate in their own language. Learning how to use foreign computers does not teach you English, so why not take a step forward for your own mother tongue instead?
Other than the IVR technology, are there other projects in the same line?
We recently aided the Cham community with the creation of their own script for communication. We created fonts to work on different devices and recorded their messages to help make the language visible. The problem with some languages is that they don’t have a writing system, and that’s why we have another technology called the Self IVR. This is essentially a mobile app storing all the information inside it, and only supplying them when the user uses voice commands to request for it. It can be a powerful training tool in the future. When you can push information in people’s voice at the will of a mobile app, you can announce or tell society important information anywhere, anytime and in any way.
Another project is an anonymous reporting system present in an android app to capture different media channels. This is recognized by the public and used by NGOs as a good source of information for credibility and background checks.
Before we wrap this up, do you have any last insights into the future trends of mobile usage and SPICE’s involvement?
In my opinion, the platform that really pushed the language these few years is Facebook. Facebook is extremely good for content translation and it gives voices to identities that are important. It encourages people to read news, and really engage themselves with something beyond their screens. Otherwise, mobile usage is really changing very quickly. For language diction, the better the text prediction, the faster the communication becomes. If we can achieve efficient linguistic prediction for the devices, it will definitely help to move things along much faster.
In addition to all of SPICE’s various programs, the group is also the co-sponsor of the popular BarCamp series to help strengthen the capacities of youth engaged in technology, and build their knowledge so they can play a leading role in spearheading social advances with innovative opportunities. If you want to know more about the program, follow their news updates here!