IBM pushes IT towards the Base of the Pyramid

Pyr.mea.IT – Permeating IT towards the Base of the Pyramid is an exploratory research project which was started by the IBM India Research Laboratory (IRL) in New Dehli in August 2006. Its aim is to create technologies which would provide IT solutions relevant to the needs of people in developing regions of the world.


The project team including Sheetal K. Agarwal, Arun Kumar, Amit A. Nanavati and Nitendra Rajput have recently demonstrated the use of VoiGen and VoiKiosks. These systems allow the creation and browsing of VoiceSites forming a “spoken web”. The systems developed by Pyr.mea.IT consists of the deployment of software called VoiGen through which IRL is looking to enable rural users to input and create content in the spoken web. Complimentary to VoiGen and the content generation process is a service called VoiKiosk which would allow information users to access the available content. Voice kiosks are envisaged as telecentres enabling the use of the spoken web through the proximal literacy of kiosk operators.

In order to create a voice site, a uaer would need to dail a numeber and follow the instructions provided by VoiGen.  The software asks users to record, in their local language, information such as a welcome greeting and contact details, while creating behind the scenes a VoiceSite. A phone number, analogous to a URL, is then assigned to the user’s content. Anyone who dials that number gets access to the recorded information and is given help navigating to related information. The way a caller navigates the VoiceSite is based on a templates developed by IRL, including voice site templates for advertisements and for auctions. Not unlike classified, the voice sites created through VoiGen are meant to enhance the trade opportunities of Indian small businesses offering and looking to buy anything from vegetables to jewellery, to electronics.

According to the New Scientist, 24 October 2008, “the spoken web is a network of VoiceSites, just as the internet is a network of websites. A VoiceSite can only be accessed by a phone, and only requires the user to be able to speak and listen. Callers can create their own VoiceSites or access those of others. They can also surf the spoken web, jumping from VoiceSite to VoiceSite using speech.”  The spoken web is an attempt to bring the benefits of the internet to rural India where people tend to earn only $4 per day or less.

The Pyr.mea.IT project has been targeted towards the use of voice communication because studies of mobile phone use in India, carried out by IRL have shown the dominance of voice as a communication medium. Not unlike many other places in the developing world, the popularity of text messages and WAP communication channels in India is affected by users’ literacy and technological literacy levels.

Pyr.mea.IT is an exciting project because by making voice the primary mode of communication and information exchange, it takes a step towards adjusting the development of technological solutions to the information needs, and literacy requirements of end users. Still, many challenges remain. Voice services are traditionally challenged by users’ propensity to hang up because of time pressures, because of users’ dissatisfaction with the progress they have been able to make, or because users have reached a node where none of the available navigation choices seems appropriate. Additionally, the navigation process could be challenged by the suitability of the voice recognition technologies currently available to the specifics of Indian rural languages and dialects.

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