Uniphore recently received some very exciting news: VoiceNet, our innovative platform that enables people to exchange information and conduct transactions through speech on their mobile phones, was recognized by the mHealth Alliance and Rockefeller Foundation. Long-time champion and collaborator Ashok Jhunjhunwala, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras and Chair of the Rural Technology and Business Incubator (RTBI) at IIT, was selected as a winner of mHealth Alliance’s 2011 Innovators Challenge for his application of Uniphore’s VoiceNet platform. This challenge recognizes pioneering mobile health (mHealth) professionals who have used mobile technology in innovative ways to improve health systems and outcomes around the world.
Two years ago, Professor Jhunjhunwala was approach by NRDC (an enterprise of the Government of India) for guidance on how to enhance one of their most important rural outreach programs, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). This initiative combats malnutrition and improves maternal and child health through a variety of activities, including a supplementary feeding scheme. In addition to providing children with supplementary nutrition packets, the scheme monitors their weight to detect faltering growth and assess nutritional status.
However, the paper-based process of data collection that was being used in ICDS was hampering the success of the entire operation. The time it took to collect, record, and aggregate information from beneficiaries limited the possibility of accurate or timely interpretation. Furthermore, there was a high incidence of internal tampering with the data, causing a lot of incorrect analysis.
In brainstorming a solution, Professor Jhunjhunwala recognized that the target population for this program was mostly illiterate, so the solution would have to be voice-based and available in local languages. He turned to Uniphore for its unique capabilities in speech-based mobile applications. Together, Uniphore and RTBI collaborated to define and develop a customized solution for ICDS.
In addition to the requirement of multilingual speech recognition, we considered the following factors:
- ICDS is administered in rural areas, so the solution must enable remote data collection that is always online, despite limited connectivity
- To avoid falsification of data, user authentication through speech biometrics would be a critical part of the solution
- The system would be used by people with little tech literacy, so it should be easy to use and require little training
- In order to achieve a comprehensive perspective of the progress that ICDS was achieving, the mobile application must to be linked to an intelligent analytics tools at the backend
- ICDS is a huge program that is intended to serve rural populations across India, so we needed to build a platform that could easily scale across states and geographies without a significant increase in investment for the government
In a short time, Uniphore and RTBI developed a solution on our VoiceNet platform that met all of the above criteria. The application was introduced in the Anganwadi centers (rural healthcare outreach centers) in Madhya Pradesh, where ICDS drives its operations. The process is simple: After enrolling herself in our voice biometric system, a mother uses our application on her mobile phone to authenticate her identity and vocally enter information about her child’s health and the benefits she has received from ICDS. This data is immediately uploaded on a web portal, where the administrators view it in real-time. This web portal stores all the information regarding the child’s weight, supplementary nutrition packets received, immunization schedules, growth charts, etc.
The implementation of our solution had immediate and enormous impact: information was accurate, the process was transparent, and followup was immediate. The enhanced data collection process enabled better service delivery and more efficient operations.
The use of VoiceNet in ICDS was intended as a pilot initiative to examine the impact of such innovative technologies on rural development and welfare schemes. But with the success and recognition that this pilot has received, Professor Jhunjhunwala is thrilled with the prospects of what will happen next:
“There are huge numbers of government programs dedicated to supporting the wellness and development of rural populations. In these areas, there are many different languages, and the literacy levels are limited. But despite all these challenges, voice is an omnipresent opportunity that we can use to effectively administer these programs.”
At the same time, Jhunjhunwala recognizes that this kind of technology is very new to many of its beneficiaries – and that this could present an obstacle to widespread dissemination and adoption. However, as he works with Uniphore to continue to develop the most user-friendly, accurate solutions, he is confident that people’s comfort level with the technology will exponentially increase. “When they feel like they are talking to a human, not a machine, and when they know they can trust the system, it is then that we will win.”
Uniphore is honored to be a part of this journey with Professor Jhunjhunwala and RTBI. We’re excited to be at the cutting edge of innovation as well as social impact, forging the pathway for efficient, personalized service delivery through voice.
Caitlin Marinelli is a 2011 Villgro Fellow working in marketing and product development at Uniphore, a technology startup which uses its revolutionary speech technologies to facilitate rural development. Caitlin has a Masters in International Social Welfare from Columbia University, with a concentration in socioeconomic development. Prior to Villgro, Caitlin’s work experience involved a unique combination of direct social work and policy advocacy in Guatemala, Ecuador, and Sri Lanka.