Calling in for Content: Freedom Fone

Posted by PrabhasPokharel on Sep 14, 2009

(This is part of a series of posts reporting on mobile media project from Highway Africa 2009 and Digital Citizen Indaba 4.0. Both were held in Grahamstown, South Africa, September 2009).

Brenda Burrell of in Zimbabwe runs Freedom Fone, an audio tool for information services. She presented Freedom Fone in a workshop titled “Bringing down the barriers: Interactive audio programming and mobile phones” at Digital Citizen Indaba 4.0.

FreedomFone comes from the desire to deliver information to “those who need it most,” people with simple phones without GPRS connections. Freedom Fone integrates a content management system (such as Drupal) with information services via SMS and voice.

Freedom Fone started humbly with a hacked-together code base. Funded with a major grant in 2008, the project managers decided to re-write the code entirely, and rethink its end-product. Kubatana recently started a Zimbabwe deployment to test the platform -- the INZWA project, an audio magazine that is a test-bed for Freedom Fone's deployment.

Voice technologies, especially Interactive Voice Response, often referred to as IVR, have seen little use in social development in Africa, Burrell said, especially given that one can use it in local languages and it has a low barrier to access (see this post for reports on where it has been used). She pointed out that one of the reasons is that development of tools can be technically challenging. Freedom Fone aims to provide an out-of-the-box solution that non-technical organizations can use.

The technology

The core of Freedom Fone consists of a content management system for audio content. The providers of this content will only need a laptop running linux, a way of connecting the laptop to a phone line (various hardware options exist; Freedom Fone is currently exploring the most inexpensive solutions), and a phone line (which often just means buying a SIM card).

The users, on the other hand, will just need a phone that can place calls, and will access the content content using a menu-driven interactive voice response system.

The software will be fully open source. Burrell hopes that a community of developers will build additional functionality that will make it back to Freedom Fone's core applications. She points to voice recognition technology as something she wants to see developed. Freedom Fone's core initially be simple but functional and without voice recognition technology.

The use cases themselves are varied and could range all the way from better epidemics and emergency relief information services, to information portals for minority languages and minority interest groups, for example.

The Challenges

A tool like Freedom Fone is not without challenges.  Some are technical in nature. For example, multiple phone lines might be needed to support simultaneous users. Burrell hopes call-back technology and integration with SMS services will help solve this problem. When an organization does deploy a Freedom Fone-based system, costs will also be an issue. There is legitimate concern that the users Burrell is trying to access might not be able to pay to call the IVR system. And secondly, call-back technology, if used, will put the burden of payment on the deploying organization. The startup hardware is also currently expensive.

Freedom Fone will release an alpha version at the end of September, Burrell says. It will not be the full system, but rather a preview version that will showcase only parts of Freedom Fone’s eventual capabilities.

Photo by Prabhas Pokharel.

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