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The Low-Tech Way to Reach Everyone on Earth

By Natasha Beale on June 13, 2016


We often focus on new technologies – developing the newest app or handing every teacher a tablet – as if they are magic bullets to solving the world’s development problems. While it would be great if this were true, if “innovation” was indeed the answer, we know that the reality is not so simple.

A recent article in The Guardian cautions practitioners to “avoid the lure of the shiny gadget”, arguing that the best tech doesn’t need to be the newest tech, a lesson that rings true for us at Equal Access. Our experience is in accordance with other practitioners in ICT4D who argue that older technologies cannot be dismissed, and that technology convergence, rather than the latest new ICT, holds greater transformative potential.

The Low-Tech Answer: FM Radio and IVR

FM radio is still the most pervasive medium of information in the developing world, with usage and access close to 100% in almost every country. And since mobile ownership is often limited to basic phones without access to 3G networks or sophisticated applications, SMS (for the literate) and voice-based services continue to be the main ways in which people use mobile technology.

Please RSVP now to debate the impact of FM radio and IVR with Natasha Beale and Rebecca Weissburg at the next Technology Salon in downtown San Francisco.

Equal Access emphasizes the use of voice engagement through radio program production and Interactive Voice Response (IVR). For years, we have worked with both SMS and IVR systems to engage communities, but have consistently witnessed significantly higher rates of engagement when using voice-based services compared to SMS.

This emphasis on voice services is often overlooked in the ICT4D space despite the numerous advantages it has over SMS –a larger addressable market (avoids literacy barrier), richer, more tailored content, higher quality of service, and the ability to track user behavior.

Radio and mobile is a perfect match for connecting with vulnerable people in hard to reach places. IVR supports our radio and television programs by enabling listeners to call in at any time and engage with the program through regular polls, accessing short form audio content or radio excerpts, and allowing listeners to leave open ended qualitative feedback for our production teams.

As a result, through regular feedback from the target audiences, we are able to monitor the uptake of key messages in real-time, and make mid-course corrections if we find there may be disconnect between the target messages that are broadcast and how they’re being understood on the ground.

The Convergence Impact

IVR has had a tremendous impact on our programs and has led to a flood of feedback from our listeners and viewers. Recently we teamed up with VOTO Mobile to bolster our IVR engagement in the Sahel and the results were astounding. In Chad, where we had earlier received a few calls each month to our simple voicemail inbox, we saw an almost overnight increase in listener engagement – from tens of callers each month to tens of thousands!

The union between radio and mobile, especially platforms that leverage IVR, makes a resilient combination and has a much higher probability of fomenting change than either medium on its own. Behavior change theory would suggest that the more dedicated our listeners are, the more likely they are to adopt positive behaviors.

Radio allows for crucial information to reach a critical mass of the most disenfranchised people, and combining it with mobile voice-based services allows the most marginalized groups an opportunity to give their feedback and make their voices heard.

Equal Access has also harnessed IVR to allow listeners to access content from the radio programs on-demand, by hosting radio excerpts on the IVR system. Indeed, almost two thirds of our listeners call in expressly to listen to radio content. Listeners can thus listen to radio programs at times that are most convenient for them, listen to content again, and even share content with others.

Radio and IVR create a full feedback loop that is reliable, constructive and cost-effective. As a result of IVR integration with radio and television programs, our audiences have a much greater stake in media programming. Mobile engagement also encourages a more dedicated fan base for our radio programs as listeners feel more included in the production cycle and have a sense of ownership when the programs amplify their voices.

Heather Gilberds also contributed to this post.

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Written by
Natasha Beale is the ICT4D Specialist at Equal Access International and has managed a range of ICT4D projects in a variety of sectors from maternal and child health to education system strengthening as well as agricultural development.
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