Getting News To and From Some of the Most Difficult Places on Earth


With the ongoing situation in Mali, it has become increasingly important that VOA work with ODDI to strategize an alternative means of getting news to and from this technologically-challenged region.  Currently, ODDI’s Doug Zabransky is leading the team in the development and experimental testing of what they call the Mali1 Mobile Interactive Voice Response (IVR) forum.  This technology uses IVR Junction by Microsoft Research to drastically simplify how locals can consume news and report events.


Zabransky Discusses Mali1 Mobile IVR Prototype [1min 17sec]

[Mobile video credit: Rob Bole]


What Started It All: Mali1 Micro-Blog

The precursor to Mali1 Mobile IVR was the Mali1 micro-blog site created by VOA Africa and the Office of Digital & Design Innovation (ODDI) to quickly respond to getting news into Mali as Islamists began to overrun the northern provinces of the country.  This site, leveraging Tumblr and SoundCloud, was meant to be light and easy to read on all devices, to load quickly, to provide a way to submit news via email, and to include relevant news and music in the local language provided by the VOA.  The Mali1 site has begun to build an audience of both individuals in Mali, as well as a world-wide diaspora community.  Voice of America saw the value in this tool, but wanted to provide a higher level of services directly to the population in Northern Mali.

Several potential problems still stood in the way of providing the service.  The lack of consistent electricity in the North to power to recharge phones is an issue, as well as the lack of data and wi-fi, let alone affordable Internet services in order to access even the lightest of websites was another core problem.  VOA Africa, working closely with the technical ODDI team began to explore alternative options for content delivery with a focus on mobile voice for news.

Late last year, we posted an article about mobile voice for news on the Innovation Series blog from Ben Colmery, Deputy Director of Knight International Journalism Fellowships. The article, “How to harness the power of mobile voice for news,” explored mobile citizen journalism.  Rob Bole, ODDI Director of Innovation, wrote a brief intro to Colmery’s piece about how he recently “spent some time with a group of exemplary journalists and technology experts discussing the use of voice technology in the aid of reporting the news.”  Specifically, Bole was referencing the use of interactive voice response (IVR) technology and the direction his team was about to take.


Where We Are Today: Mali1 Mobile IVR

In close collaboration, the VOA Africa and ODDI team began work on Mali1 Mobile IVR using IVR Junction by Microsoft Research.

For those who may not be familiar with IVR capabilities, you most likely encounter it on an almost daily basis.  When you call your bank, credit card company or cable company you are usually greeted with a “Press 1 for…, Press 2 for…”  That is interactive voice response and is a technology that allows computer systems to identify or interact with the tone of a human voice or the tone of pressing numbers on your keypad.

IVR Junction by Microsoft Research is an open source project that is recognizes the need for a voice service that can network multiple phone numbers from multiple locations into one back-end system and then use simple existing tools, such as YouTube to manage the comments that are left by audience members.  In that regard it is ideal for an organization like VOA Africa who might need to deploy and manage multiple IVR systems when commercial services are not readily available or are too expensive to operate through a reseller.  According to the IVR Junction product page, interactive voice forums using IVR technology “enable callers to leave messages that can be heard over the Internet and over the phone.”

[Graphic depicting how the technology works, credit: Microsoft Research]

This is particularly useful because the technology can be configured to enable mobile users to leave voicemails and retrieve messages (similar to another promising open source project, the Interactive Voice Forum for citizen journalists known as CGNet Swara).  IVR technology can also be used to send email and text messages by speaking into the mobile devices and can allow consumers to ‘opt in’ to mobile campaigns with a voice call.  Microsoft Research notes that IVR forums are already being used for “citizen news journalism, agricultural discussion, community dialogue, user-generated maps, access to health information, outreach to sex workers, group messaging, feedback on school meals, support for community radio stations, and a viral entertainment platform.”

In fact, activist groups are a growing consumer of such technology as well.  The Sunlight Foundation is currently using IVR technology (powered by Twilio, a cloud communications API) to provide a means for users “to navigate a menu tree to search a member of Congress by postal code” to listen to lawmakers recite “their biography, their top campaign donors, recent votes and allows a caller to be transferred directly to the Representative’s office.” This particular service is available in both English and Spanish.

Facebook is also aware of the value of IVR technology.  According to, “Callme, an application offered in partnership with Global Telelinks and based on IVR Technologies’ Talking SIP platform, allows Facebook users to make free voice calls with other members of the social network without revealing their phone number.”  This technology works for mobile Facebook users—even for Facebook ‘Zero’ users (provided that they log in).  (I just did a pretty in-depth write up on Facebook ‘Zero’.)

I could go on and on… the possibilities for IVR are seemingly endless.


Field Testing

So, since late last year, the ODDI team, lead by Doug Zabransky, Manager of Technology Services, have been working on tailoring the Mali1 Mobile IVR for field testing.  “The key ingredients in mind for serving digital and mobile content to Mali are lightweight and low cost solutions,” notes Zabransky, “The Mali1 Mobile Interactive Voice Response system meets these criteria.”


To better understand exactly how the product is used, Zabransky explained the step-by-step details to me…

How Mali1 Mobile IVR Works for Staff:

  • The listening junction consists of a pre-configured PC-based laptop with a GSM Standard SIM (the number that users will call) to be inserted into the modem.  (The junction must be able to access a wi-fi network.)
  • Staff must plug the network cable from the LAN port of modem into the LAN port on computer, then power up the modem and laptop.
  • Finally, staff must check that the Internet connection is working, then must call the SIM’s phone number to check that the IVR is working for users.

And that’s it.  The setup instructions are simple enough for practically anyone.

[Mali1 Mobile IVR prototype setup for staff; photo credit: Rob Bole]

How Mali1 Mobile IVR Works for Users:

  • Listener calls Bamako cell phone number (Orange telecom, local in-country rates apply)
  • Menu options are press 1 to ‘Listen to the Latest News’ or 2 to ‘Leave a Message’
  • Option 1 will play the latest 3 minute news package
  • Option 2 will allow listener to leave a message or to self-report the news
  • Messages are digitized and sent to YouTube automatically for language service moderation.

“The ability for someone to make an inexpensive, local call is key,” Zabransky continues, “Technically, in order to achieve this we have adopted open source software from MicroSoft called IVR Junction.”

“If this solution proves successful, then future expansion into other target regions will be considered with central infrastructure management in mind, customized and enhanced menu options would need to be developed,” further explains Zabransky, “and user-generated content integrations into our own content management systems” would be discussed—including “piggy-backing SMS services using the same local SIM cards.”

And, it should be mentioned that there are mobile visual IVR solutions available as well.  These solutions are generally meant for users with smart phone access, but if that is a possibility in particular regions, then users are privy to another level of potential news service.


VOA IVR Systems and Audience Growth

According to Steven Ferri, Mobile & Digital Media Manager for VOA Africa, IVR initiatives within VOA “are a recent addition to our media distribution strategy”. He adds that, “at present, our audience between 30K to 40K unique calls per day” and that “call length averages approximately 10:00 per call.”

When asked why IVR is an important and strategic channel for Africa, Ferri replied:  “There are three reasons why IVR is an important and strategic channel for Africa. The first is audience acquisition and escalation. IVR, like SMS is an entry-level content channel. It provides anyone with a phone, which in Africa is highly likely to a mobile phone, the ability to listen to a VOA audiocast. IVR positions users to move up to more sophisticated VOA products as their device and income dictates. The second is cost. IVR services are calibrated to meet the cost expectations that are within the user’s economic means. The third is affinity. IVR, as an audio-centric medium, meets the historic media consumption habits of a large portion of our potential audience.”

In addition to the Mali1 Mobile IVR used by VOA Africa, there are other IVR channels that are currently in use in Afghanistan.


Future of IVR

Zabransky says, “if the pilot goes well we would consider expansion into other regions (unknown exactly where at this point).”

“VOA believes there is a large, untapped market for our IVR products in Africa,” Ferri explains, “We envision growing IVR in those target regions where it is economically and technically possible. We want to grow IVR in parallel and integrated with our traditional radio and TV media as well as our digital platforms.”

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What are your thoughts on all this?  Post in the comments section below or tweet me @BBGinnovate.

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Thank you to Doug Zabransky, Rob Bole, Adam Gartner and Steven Ferri for their contributions to this post.

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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