IVR Junction: Connecting Unheard Voices to Global Social Media

Most of the world's 5.9 billion mobile subscribers live in the developing world. For the vast majority of these subscribers, smart phones and Internet connections remain out of reach. Text messaging is often unusable as well, due to limited literacy and lack of support for local language fonts. In light of these constraints, most people use their phones for the simple purpose that they were originally designed for: talking to other people.

As powerful as a voice call may be for first-time mobile owners, it is a very limited mode of interaction compared to the information ecosystems that have emerged on the Internet. The World Wide Web has enabled rich communities of user-generated content, lending a platform for users to broadcast their photos, videos, and commentaries to an international audience. But in rural India, is it possible for a smallholder farmer, owning only a basic mobile phone, lacking Internet access, and literate only in the local language, to participate in this global dialogue? This is the question that motived our winning entry to the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, hosted by Humanity United and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Our solution, IVR Junction, enables anyone with a basic mobile phone to participate in global social media. The idea is to integrate an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system - accessible via a phone call - with popular Internet websites, such as YouTube, Facebook, and other social media. Once IVR Junction is set up by a local organization, a rural resident can place a phone call and record a message - on subjects spanning governance, health, agriculture, or other topics. The IVR Junction software automatically uploads that message to YouTube and Facebook, posting it on pages owned by the host organization, and also makes it available to other callers. A content moderator can optionally review the messages before they become public.

IVR Junction enables low-income populations to record and listen to posts via mobile phone, while the global community can access and contribute recordings via the Internet. This capability enables remote communities to create their own repositories of highly-relevant information, while also sharing them with audiences worldwide. IVR Junction empowers people to participate in the social media revolution irrespective of the device they are using, the network they are on or their level of literacy.

IVR Junction has already impacted thousands of lives in settings as diverse as Somaliland, Mali and India.

In Somaliland, IVR Junction provides the foundation for Ila Dhageyso: a direct communication channel between the rural tribal population and government officials to bring transparency and trust in the political processes. Government officials record messages by using the IVR service, and citizens can give their feedback or ask a follow-up question by making a simple phone call. The audio discussions are also available on a YouTube channel for the interest of Somaliland citizens in diaspora.

In war-torn Mali, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America are using IVR Junction to provide on-demand, reliable and up-to-date news in the local language. Because of this service, people now have access to breaking news, discussions on extremism and current news, and health information.

In India, IVR Junction was used by women's rights activists in response to the 2012 gang rape incident in Delhi. They built a "voice petition" where supporters from all economic backgrounds and varied literacy levels raised their voice in support of women's safety and empowerment. The contributions, which spanned from support for the victim, to plans for sensitizing local communities, were available not only on the IVR channel but also on a YouTube channel and Facebook page.

IVR Junction is free and open-source software. It is designed to be easy to install and use, especially by small non-profit organizations that lack specialized computer skills. The only requirements for running IVR Junction are a computer, a modem (available for about $100), and an Internet connection. IVR Junction then connects free Internet services, including YouTube and Facebook, with an IVR platform called Voxeo Prophecy. IVR Junction is tolerant to intermittent power and Internet outages. It also supports distributed access points, whereby phone numbers in different states or countries can contribute to a shared discussion forum, using Dropbox or SkyDrive to synchronize the content. Like the World Wide Web, this functionality greatly reduces the cost of coordinating communications across wide distances.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Humanity United and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in recognition of the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about The Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, click here