Voices Gives Illiterate Access to the Internet

It may not be obvious to daily Internet users, but practically everything online is based on text and accessible primarily via typing. Though satellites and cellphone towers can connect people in remote areas to the Internet, access will always be a challenge in places where illiteracy is common.

An organization called Voices (for "voice-based community-centric mobile services") is tackling this problem head-on by creating phone-based networks accessible to members of low-literacy communities in western Africa.

These networks have different goals in different places. In Senegal, mobile phones are being used to monitor and offer training on infectious diseases. Biomedical labs in remote areas are being linked to regional and national laboratories, where information can be accumulated and accessed by anyone through Voices.

In Mali, the program is geared toward organizing agricultural activities. To make sure food is not being wasted, locals get a tool that lets them tell other communities about excess food they may have. People from secluded communities can use a mobile phone to find markets where they can sell their products. Re-greening and agricultural techniques and news about workshops and events are also being spread through the service.

The Voices network is written with a language called VoiceXML, a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standard language for communication between humans and computers. This software creates voice applications similar to HTML web pages. Users call the service and hear pre-recorded audio or text-to-speech conversion of text to audio. Users navigate the service by following directions and pressing numbers on the keypad.

A service called Tabale, launched in 2012, is using Voices to create a Twitter-like message board where people can hear and record their messages. In another ambitious project, engineers from the World Wide Web Foundation are trying to expand on the capabilities of Voices by creating an index to link all available information in a single network of automatically updating servers. The goal is to have a service that can be used like any text-based search engine. The biggest hurdle in this project is that no one has developed voice recognition for many of the languages people use. The group will have to create a huge database of people speaking in those languages.

The Voices project is being developed and funded by the World Wide Web Foundation and roughly a dozen other organizations, including the European Commission and the W3C.

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