During MobiSparks 2012, India’s largest mobile entrepreneurs’ discovery platform, we saw Uniphore systems showcase their voice-based product offering. Subsequently we also heard of Avaaj Otalo, a service for farmers to access relevant and timely agricultural information over the phone from Awaaz.De Streams. Voice-based mobile applications/programs have the potential to bring about a big change in the rural sector. We caught up with Neil Patel, founding member, Awaaz.De to understand the vocal-Twitter better.
YS: Tell us about your journey from being a student to an entrepreneur .
NP: I was born and raised in California, and studied computer science in college. After graduating in 2004, I worked at the Silicon Valley and loved the startup world there. But after a couple years, I felt something was missing in my life and career. I was creating useful and exiting technology but it was reaching and benefitting a small stratum of society — and that too, the wealthiest strata. I wanted my life's work to matter to people who were under-served by technology, but could stand to benefit greatly from them.
Around the same time, a small group of computer science researchers in academia were having similar ideas. They were interested in developing technology relevant and appropriate for people in developing regions around the world. Inspired, I quit my Silicon Valley career to join this group of researchers in academia. I took up a PhD with Stanford. Fortuitously, one of the pioneers in this new research area, Tapan Parikh, took a faculty position at UC Berkeley around the same time. Tapan became one of my PhD advisors and we collaborated on the research that eventually spun into Awaaz.De in December 2010.
While at grad school, I also started spending time in India to learn about the people I wanted to serve and what technology was appropriate for their needs and lives. I spent the first two years observing and learning, mostly in villages and embedded with NGOs. The observation period led to a couple insights: To make information services useful to rural people, the content has to be localized in topic and language, overcome literacy barriers, and work with the lowest-end, simple mobile phone.
In rural areas, there are a small but significant group of people who are knowledgeable about various topics (agriculture, medicine, finance, etc.) who can greatly benefit their communities by sharing what they know; but there are very few platforms that allow them do that.
YS: Awaaz.De Streams; how did the idea of conceiving such a product come about?
NP: After launching Awaaz.De, we developed a number of different voice-based information services. They are all based on the actual needs of our client organizations, who work across India in a variety of domains. Some organizations use Awaaz.De to set up voice-based information portals where they could upload voice content about their organization or initiative, have it organized into custom menus, and people can call a number to browse it. Like a voice analog to a website. Other organizations use Awaaz.De for data collection, deploying voice surveys over regular phone numbers where people enter touchtone and/or voice responses to multiple choice and open-ended questions about their farming practices, labor conditions, whether they are following a medical prescription, or anything else. Others use Awaaz.De for more interactive applications like question and answer services, discussion forums, and voice classified services.
But across all these varied uses of Awaaz.De's platform, we saw one common functionality. All our clients use Awaaz.De for, a simple function of sending out recorded voice messages to a group of people through regular phone call. And that is exactly what Streams is. You can think of it as Voice Twitter: you create a voice message group, and get members to join your group by adding them directly or having them call into your group's unique phone number and make a join request. You then post voice messages over phone or web that group members receive through regular phone call. The voice broadcasts are interactive; group members receive the phone call voice message, and can send a response (voice or touchtone) right over the same phone call. All the responses are automatically organized and made available for you to access over the phone or web.
YS: What technology goes behind Awaaz.De Streams?
NP: Streams is powered by Awaaz.De's homegrown open source software platform. The platform marries telephony network with web technologies. People make or receive phone calls from regular phone numbers to listen to or post content. The content is then made available on Awaaz.De's web portals for access by moderators and the public.
YS: What is the demography that you are planning to target with Awaaz.de Streams?
NP: We have been excited to see that Streams has been adopted by a number of individuals and organizations across India. One such user is Neetaben, a coordinator of an Anganwadi program for Manav Sadhna. With Streams, she can stay in touch with her 100+ Anganwadi teachers at all times, sometimes even sending messages in the late evening to announce a last-minute meeting or share important news. Before Streams, she would have to write out telegrams and have them hand delivered, which was time consuming, expensive, error-prone, and unreliable. The teachers love it too, because they are now able to get first-hand information straight from their coordinator.
In Bihar, a young poet, Navnit uses Streams to post his original poetry for fans across India to listen. He carefully records his poems on his computer, adding voice effects and background music for some added production value. Then he posts and loves to collect feedback from his audience.
We are pleased to see such a variety of uses of Streams. We believe it can be a useful tool for any individual or organization trying to reach disconnected people in a timely and effective way. And, because it's voice, it has the added benefit of the human touch.
YS: Which sector, do you think, can use Awaaz.de Streams in the best possible way?
NP: We have already seen that Streams creates significant value for the development sector: grassroots organizations, NGOs, and social enterprise. And that's because all of these organizations struggle with the common challenge of communicating and engaging with hard-to-reach people in local languages. But beyond this sector, we are very excited to see Streams being used in media.
For example, The Economic Times has a Stream which it recently used to coordinate its Young Leaders program. They used Streams to send reminders and other program-related information to their participants. We envision that ET can eventually adapt Streams as an alternate channel to publish news and reports, giving people a way to listen to stories on the go right over their phone.
YS: How do you foresee Awaaz.De's future with Awaaz.De Streams?
NP: Our vision is for Streams to be a platform that connects people across the entire spectrum of Indian society. Voice is a powerful medium of communication, and it is one that anyone can use to not only access, but share information. Given its accessibility, we hope that people in India will be able to connect and share like never before with Streams.
YS: What are the other innovations that you're planning?
NP: As technologies and capabilities evolve, Awaaz.De will continue to evolve with the times. In the future, we see smart mobile devices playing an increasing role in how we deliver our products and services.