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RuralVoice – Inclusive Business with Voice-Based Services in Rural India

Bringing together advanced voice-based technology, service providers and rural people of India in a tailored ecosystem is a unique project both in scale and in approach. Our project – RuralVoice – focuses on the development and deployment of voice-based services in agriculture, healthcare, education, entertainment and banking for the 220 million illiterate and underprivileged Indians that reside in the rural area. In our Indo-Finnish project consortium we are also building inclusive business opportunities for service- and technology companies both in India and in Europe.

BACKGROUND

India is an incredible country in many ways, but perhaps this incredibility is most visible in the people of India. There are over 1.2 billion Indians, and they come from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Despite the megatrend of urbanization, 70 per cent of the population still lives in rural India, which has over 600 000 villages.

India is one of the largest economies in the world and has enjoyed sustained economic growth for over two decades, but still a large portion of the people suffers from extreme poverty. 300 million Indians live below the poverty line, and can thus be described to belong in the so called bottom of the pyramid (BoP), the poorest socio-economic group. The BoP people are practically all illiterate, and in rural areas they have to cope with poor infrastructure, energy shortages and insufficient information. At the same time, the BoP people are in serious need for various public and private services.

Despite the humble beginnings, the mobile revolution has reached also rural India and is boosted with the most low-priced calls in the world. There are now over 300 million mobile phone connections and over 6 million new connections are added each month. In the rural area the devices are often shared, which makes the number of people who have access to a mobile phone even greater. In relatively short time mobile phones have become the best and often the only way to reach also distant villagers.

VOICE-BASED SERVICES AND SPOKEN WEB

Currently, voice-based services are used successfully in many areas in many countries. They use wide but varying set of language technology depending on the extent, complexity and environment of the tasks they are developed for. Typical examples of voice-based services include transport information services, such as automated train and bus timetable services. Voice-based approach is very useful for introducing new services which are not possible or affordable with human operators (or in any other way). This is exactly the case in rural India, where human-operated services are not viable in many cases.

Spoken Web is a technological platform developed by the IBM Research Lab India that is remedying the impediments that voice-based services have in the BoP context. In short, the goal of the Spoken Web is to give the illiterate and the underprivileged the possibility to access information similar to WWW by using mobile phones, i.e. without a need to have an access to a computer or knowing how to read or write. The technology is fully server-side and thus device independent: Spoken Web sites can be accessed even through a landline phone. In addition, Spoken Web enables user generated content and linking – features that are necessities also for the word-of-mouth marketing of the services.

In order for Spoken Web to become truly successful and wide-spread system, it needs both commercial service providers, commercial application developers and commercial language technology companies that can before long do reasonable business on the platform. Technical future development areas include for example the infrastructure itself (i.e. hosting the Spoken Web applications), the language palette (i.e. more languages are needed), navigation (i.e. due to its’ sequential nature, voice content can be arduous to navigate) and multimodality support. In the sketched voice-based service ecosystem European language companies develop additions to the Spoken Web infrastructure and gain revenue from their usage.

SERVICE VERTICALS

We have identified five service areas that are of high significance to the rural people of India. These areas are agriculture, healthcare, education, entertainment and banking and microfinance. Since most of the rural Indians live on farming, agriculture is the most important service area and the initial focus of our project. In addition to technological solutions, successful service deployment requires contextual understanding about the users’ and their needs, the environment and the local stakeholders. This understanding must be gained without overestimating or romanticizing the capabilities of the people.

The major challenge for the BoP people in rural India is access to services and relevant and reliable information. This means that a significant palette of localized voice-based services can be created to improve the situation, even when considering the natural limitations that these services have compared to human operated services. For example in agriculture the services can in the simplest form include dynamic information services considering production, processing and marketing of the farm products and cash crops.

Inclusive business is still business for profit. In rural India the need to consume value added voice-based services exists but the ability to pay for these services does not. This requires a business model where the service provider i.e. food processing company, pharmaceutical company, recruitment agency and the like pays for the services instead of the consumer. The service providers and the technological stakeholders in the Spoken Web infrastructure must eventually generate profits in order to make the services sustainable. Creating such a sustainable business model is one of the key matters of RuralVoice.

PARTNER NETWORK

Our project is a joint effort of Finnish and Indian stakeholders. RuralVoice is coordinated by CIRCMI (Center for Research on Information, Customer and Innovation Management) from the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tampere, in collaboration with voice-based interaction experts from TAUCHI (Tampere Unit for Computer-Human Interaction). Indian research institutes IMI (International Management Institute) from Delhi India and UASD (University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad) from Dharwad India provide vital contextual knowledge about the service- and business environment and IBM Research Lab India offers the Spoken Web platform and operates as a technological partner. In addition, a set of both Finnish and Indian companies are taking part in the service development. The project is funded by Tekes , the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation.

Project leader CIRCMI is a networked and collaborative partner research and development unit that focuses on emergent research challenges in the area of business, ICT and organizational transformation with an innovative and multidisciplinary approach. For a number of years we have been focusing on Asian business and technology and Indo-Finnish business perspectives in particular. Our staff consists of both Finnish and Indian researchers, and we have considerable Asian partner network.

Project leader CIRCMI is a networked and collaborative partner research and development unit that focuses on emergent research challenges in the area of business, ICT and organizational transformation with an innovative and multidisciplinary approach. For a number of years we have been focusing on Asian business and technology and Indo-Finnish business perspectives in particular. Our staff consists of both Finnish and Indian researchers, and we have considerable Asian partner network.

COLLABORATION OPPORTUNITIES

We are hoping to expand and deepen our Indo-European collaboration network of experts and stakeholders. The ultimate goal of RuralVoice is to develop service concepts that can be deployed also in other developing areas in Asia, Africa and South America.