Author: Natasha Beale, July 7 2016 - Discourse in the ICT4D field can often get ahead of itself, focusing so much on new technologies that developing the newest app or handing every teacher a tablet becomes the magic bullet to solving the world’s development problems. While it would be great if this were true, if new technologies were indeed the answer, most practitioners and project managers 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. Equal Access (EA) is a social and behavior change communications organization that combines mass media production in radio and television with community outreach and mobile engagement to bring about positive change in the West African Sahel and South and East Asia. EA is based in San Francisco, coincidentally across the street from Twitter, and we often find ourselves surrounded by technology enthusiasts who desperately wish to create "high-tech" solutions to solve major challenges in the developing world. As a “tech-forward” organization, we would love to run full speed ahead with new ideas and embrace the myriad possibilities that more advanced technologies afford us, but we have learned from our work in media for development that despite the promise of new ICTs, “low-tech” technology is far more accessible to marginalized populations.

Indeed, radio is still the most pervasive medium of information in the developing world, with radio penetration and access close to 100% in many developing nations. Our experience is in accordance with other practitioners and researchers in the field of ICT4D and Communications for Development, who argue that older technologies cannot be dismissed, and that technology convergence, rather than the latest new ICT, holds greater transformative potential

As mobile penetration continues to increase exponentially across the developing world, traditional barriers to access, such as illiteracy and cost, prevent the most vulnerable populations from accessing all the new, super innovative, life changing smartphone applications. As a result, in many areas, an increase in smartphones simply widens the gap between the information haves and have-nots. For the majority of people in the developing world, mobile ownership is 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. EA understands the need to couple our radio productions with mobile engagement to improve feedback mechanisms between radio broadcasters and the communities they serve. Given barriers to smartphone technologies and the limitations of SMS to overcome multiple languages and low levels of literacy, we emphasize the use of voice engagement through 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. EA’s radio and television programs reach millions of people in places where field workers might not be able to tread such as southern Afghanistan, FATA in Pakistan, and even northeast Nigeria. Mobile phones are almost ubiquitous in the countries where we currently work. 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.

IVR has had a tremendous impact on EA programs and has led to a flood of feedback from our listeners and viewers. Recently EA 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 limited number of 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. Radio allows for crucial information to reach a critical mass of the most disenfranchised people, enabling them to access knowledge to improve their lives, whether it’s better agricultural practices and techniques, life skills for youth, or concepts of living in peaceful coexistence. Focusing on mobile voice-based services allows the most marginalized groups an opportunity to give their feedback and make their voices heard. In this way, IVR provides a chance for people to participate in meaningful dialogue about how they can improve their lives, while radio amplifies their voices through mass media.

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, EA’s 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. Behavior change theory would suggest that the more dedicated our listeners are, the more likely they are to adopt positive behaviors.