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Listening Closely to a Scaling Innovation

Verboice User

An end user of Verboice, an interactive voice response (IVR) technology by InSTEDD

Verboice is an adaptable, open-source tool for anyone, speaking any language, to create and run their own customized interactive mobile voice response system.

Around the world, poverty and the burden of disease correlate directly with illiteracy and low literacy populations. Illiteracy represents a serious obstacle blocking the world’s most vulnerable populations from receiving critical information and services. The availability of mobile phones and network connectivity opens the possibility to deliver that information to the hardest to reach populations via automated text message systems. However, many programs do not realize their full potential because the inability to read excludes segments of the population which are most affected. To overcome complex problems such as illiteracy requires not only extraordinary innovations, but also solutions able to move beyond pilot stages and scale organically in the under resourced, low income countries where the problems are most prevalent.

It is often said that “necessity is the mother of innovation”, and it was an acute readability need in Cambodia that prompted InSTEDD‘s iLab Southeast Asia (SEA), an innovation lab located in Phnom Phenh, to take on the illiteracy challenge. In Cambodia, programs delivering critical information via mobile texts to citizens were disrupted by scripting of the local language, Khmer. Many of the second hand phones that the vulnerable population used did not have the ability to type or show words in the Khmer script language, making texted information unreadable and unproduceable. Introduced to the specific Khmer challenge, the iLab SEA team, alongside their sister innovation lab the iLab LatAm in Buenos Aires, Argentina, began a participatory and agile problem solving process that would mitigate not only the readability challenge, but take on illiteracy and scalable information dissemination as well.

iLab SEA developer conducting an interview
iLab SEA developer (right) conducting a participatory design interview.

Instead of building out a new technology innovation in a silo, the iLab team started with a validation and user-centered design process which involved initial interviews with those that faced the problem directly. Through initial interviews with both end users and program implementing organizations, assumptions about the problem were generated, contexts became intimately understood, and potential solutions around use of voice systems were proposed, tested and improved upon. Out of that iterative process came ‘Verboice‘ an adaptable open-source tool that made it easy for anyone, speaking any language, to create and run their own customized interactive voice response systems for mobile phones. Launched in 2011, Verboice has been used to make over 2 million calls worldwide, and is being deployed by dozens of organizations across sectors, cultures and countries for projects ranging from health related reminder calls for pregnant women in East Africa to an election information hotline in Southeast Asia.

Verboice has been used to make over 2 million calls, ranging from health-related reminder calls for pregnant women in East Africa to a election information in Southeast Asia.

The iLab teams brought the Verboice concept and its initial exploratory work to the InSTEDD global platform team, based in Silicon Valley, California. Together, advanced technical work produced the initial version of the Verboice system in 2011. The technology was rolled out in Cambodia with the iLabs acting as local technical support mechanisms and facilitators of a feedback loop of constant and honest assessments and ideas from users and administrators. With developers on staff, the iLabs were able to take these inputs and continuously improve the system. Soon additional features and use cases were realized as other programs and projects took notice of the system and engaged with the iLab to deploy for their own information collection and dissemination projects.

Developers from the InSTEDD iLab SEA team at work in Cambodia

As an outcome of the iLab methodology of participatory design and agile development, Verboice has developed stand out qualities in its interoperability and adoption ease such as the ability to create a customized call flow logic (i.e. an automated voice message system) without a technical developer and the ability to record your own voice as the automated speaking voice on the hotline, enabling many local dialects and languages to be used, thereby building additional trust around the information shared. The technology has evolved into an innovative tool that the implementing organizations are empowered to take in a direction that best suits their needs.

Without big budget marketing campaigns, Verboice has spread thanks to knowledge transfer events called “Innovation Camps” and “EpiHacks.”

Without big budget marketing campaigns, Verboice has spread nationally and regionally thanks to knowledge transfer events that the InSTEDD iLabs facilitate. These events include “Innovation Camps”, where NGOs and other civil society organizations come to the labs for a day long training on the tool and “EpiHacks”, three-to-four day international events where health and technical experts from around the world come together in the low resource environments to prototype ideas to solver the challenges they face built using open source tools. These iLab events build networks and critical connections for Verboice to scale.

InSTEDD facilitated prototyping during an international “EpiHack” in Laos, June 2014

While Verboice may not be as well-known by name as other technology for development tools, it is in part because it acts an innovation building block that can be plugged-in or build on top of existing work and tools while operating in the background. The scaling qualities of the Verboice innovation is a direct product of the innovation lab approach. Listening closely to that iLab approach offers a roadmap to those who seek sustainability in their international development innovations.

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