RuralVoice - Mobile Voice Based Services for Rural and Unprivileged areas of India and other Emerging Economies

Research summary

Bringing together advanced mobile voice-based technology, service providers and rural people of India in a tailored ecosystem is a unique project both in scale and in approach. Our project – RuralVoice – focuses on the development and deployment of voice-based services in agriculture, healthcare, education, entertainment and banking for the 220 million illiterate and underprivileged Indians that reside in the rural area. In our Indo-Finnish project consortium we are also building sustainable development and inclusive business opportunities for service- and technology companies both in India and in Europe.

Keywords: Sustainable development, India, base of the pyramid, frugal innovations, voice-based services, illiterate people, mobile applications, participation, collaboration, localisation


India is an incredible country in many ways, but perhaps this incredibility is most visible in the people of India. There are over 1.2 billion Indians, and they come from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Despite the megatrend of urbanization, 70 per cent of the population still lives in rural India, which has over 600 000 villages. India is one of the largest economies in the world and has enjoyed sustained economic growth for over two decades, but still a large portion of the people suffers from extreme poverty. 300 million Indians live below the poverty line, and can thus be described to belong in the so called bottom of the pyramid (BoP), the poorest socio-economic group. The BoP people are practically all illiterate, and in rural areas they have to cope with poor infrastructure, energy shortages and insufficient information. At the same time, the BoP people are in serious need for various public and private services.
Despite the humble beginnings, the mobile revolution has reached also rural India and is boosted with the most low-priced calls in the world. There are now over 300 million mobile phone connections and over 6 million new connections are added each month. In the rural area the devices are often shared, which makes the number of people who have access to a mobile phone even greater. In relatively short time mobile phones have become the best and often the only way to reach also distant villagers.
Voice-based services and Spoken Web
Currently, voice-based services are used successfully in many areas in many countries. They use wide but varying set of language technology depending on the extent, complexity and environment of the tasks they are developed for. Typical examples of voice-based services include transport information services, such as automated train and bus timetable services. Voice-based approach can be very useful for users if they introduce new services which are not possible or affordable with human operators (or in any other way). This is exactly the case in rural India, where human-operated services are not viable in many cases.
Spoken Web is a technological platform developed by the IBM Research Lab India that is remedying the impediments that voice-based services have in BoP context. In short, the goal of the Spoken Web is to give the illiterate and the underprivileged the possibility to access information similar to WWW by using mobile phones, i.e. without a need to have an access to a computer or knowing how to read or write. The technology is fully server-side and thus device independent: Spoken Web sites can be accessed even through a landline phone. In addition, Spoken Web enables user generated content and linking – features that are necessities also for the word-of-mouth marketing of the services.
In order for Spoken Web to become truly successful and wide-spread system, it needs both commercial service providers, commercial application developers and commercial language technology companies that can before long do reasonable business on the platform. Technical future development areas include for example the infrastructure itself (i.e. hosting the Spoken Web applications), the language palette (i.e. more languages are needed), navigation (i.e. due to its’ sequential nature, voice content can be arduous to navigate) and multimodality support. In the sketched voice-based service ecosystem European language companies develop additions to the Spoken Web infrastructure and gain revenue from their usage.
Service verticals and fieldwork
We have identified five service areas that are of high significance to the rural people of India. These areas are agriculture, healthcare, education, entertainment and banking and microfinance. Since most of the rural Indians live on farming, agriculture is the most important service area and the initial focus of our project. In addition to technological solutions, successful service deployment requires contextual understanding about the users’ and their needs, the environment and the local stakeholders. This understanding must be gained without overestimating or romanticizing the capabilities of the people. The major challenge for the BoP people in rural India is access to services and relevant and reliable information. This means that a significant palette of localized voice-based services can be created to improve the situation, even when considering the natural limitations that these services have compared to human operated services. For example in agriculture the services can in the simplest form include dynamic information services considering production, processing and marketing of the farm products and cash crops.

Inclusive business is still business for profit. In rural India the need to consume value added voice-based services exists but the ability to pay for these services does not. This requires a business model where the service provider i.e. food processing company, pharmaceutical company, recruitment agency and the like pays for the services instead of the consumer. The service providers and the technological stakeholders in the Spoken Web infrastructure must eventually generate profits in order to make the services sustainable. Creating such a sustainable business model is one of the key matters of RuralVoice. The ecosystem is composed of the users (agricultural service consumers), domain knowledge expert, the Spoken Web platform, voice-based applications built on the Spoken Web platform, companies delivering the services using these applications, and the research teams designing the structural relationships between the different players. This involves Indian and Finnish players, making it an international ecosystem.

The users are Indian farmers in the BoP. The domain knowledge expert is University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad (UASD), a top notch agricultural research university in India. The Spoken Web platform is developed by IBM Research Labs in India. The voice-based applications on the Spoken Web platform will be developed by Finnish MSMEs, given their expertise in voice-based systems in their work in the Nokia centric ecosystem in Finland. The companies delivering the services will be Indian companies that serve the agricultural market. The research teams are based at the University of Tampere (UTA) in Finland and the International Management Institute (IMI) in India. The critical success factors for this ecosystem to be vibrant will be the acceptability of this service delivery mode with the agricultural service consumers, the ability of the Finnish MSMEs to develop voice applications in the Spoken Web platform, and a business model that will be sustainable in the long run to continue delivering these services.

Our field study was conducted to understand acceptability of this service delivery mode with the farmers. This field study was carried out in the northern villages of the state of Karnataka in India. A prototype voice site with agricultural information content was designed and implemented in order to obtain usability and acceptability feedback from farmers. A total of 51 farmers were interviewed out of which 35 were men and 16 were women. This sample included the following categories of farmers:

- Marginal farmer (holds below 1 hectare of land)
- Small farmer (holds 1-2 hectares of land)
- Medium farmer (holds 2-4 hectares of land)
- Large farmer (holds 4 and above hectares of land)
The key findings of the field study conducted on the sample of 51 farmers were as follows.
- All farmers liked the prototype and its approach to delivering agricultural information services.
- A particularly attractive feature of the service was that it was in the local dialect that made understanding easy.
- The other existing sources of agricultural information are elders in the family, radio and television. Radio and television do not have the advantage of information on demand that the voice site provides.
- Most of them are aware of IVR (Interactive Voice Response) services. They use them mostly for downloading ringtones for their mobile phones and to check the talk-time currency available on their mobile phone. They are also use IVR to access agricultural information from the agricultural help lines. Getting used to a voice site was, therefore, not a significant transition.
- 46 out of the 51 farmers said they cannot afford to pay for these services and would like these services could to be given free of cost. These were marginal, small and medium farmers. 5 out of the 51 farmers said they were willing to pay a small monthly subscription charge for the service. These were large farmers. It, therefore, appears that for this service to be consumed it must be given free of cost.
Network of participation and collaboration
Our project is a joint effort of Finnish and Indian stakeholders. RuralVoice is coordinated by CIRCMI group Research on Information, Customer and Innovation Management from the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tampere, in collaboration with voice-based interaction experts from TAUCHI (Tampere Unit for Computer-Human Interaction and Indian research institutes. University of Agricultural Sciences from Dharwad provide vital contextual knowledge about the service- and business environment and IBM Research Lab India offers the Spoken Web platform and operates as a technological partner. In addition, a set of both Finnish and Indian companies are taking part in the service development. The project is funded by Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation. Project leader group CIRCMI is a networked and collaborative partner research and development unit that focuses on emergent research challenges in the area of business, ICT and organizational transformation with an innovative and multidisciplinary approach. For a number of years we have been focusing on Asian business and technology and Indo-Finnish business perspectives in particular. Our staff consists of both Finnish and Indian researchers, and we have considerable Asian partner network. We are hoping to expand and deepen our collaboration network of experts and stakeholders. The ultimate goal of RuralVoice is to develop service concepts that can be deployed also in other developing areas in Asia, Africa and South America.

Selected project references

Das, H., Ruohonen, M. & Mahajan, G. (2015) Ecosystem Modeling for Mobile Voice Based Services; Rural India’s Bottom of the Pyramid View. In Macedo, M., Gauzente, C., Nunes, M. B. & Peng, G.C. (eds) Proceedings of the International Conferences on E-Health, E-Commerce and Digital Marketing and Information Systems Post-Implementation and Change Management (ISPCM) 2015, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, July 21 - 23, International Association for Development of the Information Society, IADIS Press. ISBN: 978-989-8533-42-5. pp. 161-168.
Ruohonen, M., Turunen, M., Hakulinen, J., Mahajan, G., Linna, J., Kumar, V., Das, H., Nanavati, A. & Rajput, N. (2012) Puhepohjaisten matkapuhelinpalvelujen kehittäminen Intian maaseudulla. Futura 2/2012 (In Finnish).
Ruohonen, M., Turunen, M. & Nykänen, P. (2013) Voice-based Mobile Service Innovations for Primary Healthcare in Rural India; Research in Progress. FIIB Business Review (FBR) 2(3), July – August.
Ruohonen, M., Turunen, M., Kumar, V., Linna, J. & Das, H. (2013) Mobile Voice-based Educational Services for Rural India: Project RuralVoice. In Ley, al. IFIP AICT 395, IFIP, Springer. pp. 3-11.
Ruohonen, M., Turunen, M., Hakulinen, J., Linna, J., Nanavati, A. & Rajput, N. (2013) E-Inclusion Innovation for Rural India: Mobile Voice and Tablet Based Educational Services. Presented in Torun, Poland and published in Reynolds, N. & Webb, M. (eds) (2013) WCCE 2013 10th IFIP World Conference on Computers in Education, Torun, Poland July 1-7, 2013, Vol. 2, Nicolaus Copernicus University Press, ISBN 978-83-231-3093-2, pp. 218-227.
Shrivastava, S., Rajput, N. & Mahajan, G. (2012) SWAicons: Spoken Web Audio icons – Design, Implications and Evaluation. Presented and published in Computer Supported Collaborative Work conference, 11–15.2, 2012, Seattle, Washington, USA. ACM 978-1-4503-0556-3/12/02.

More information

Project information

Research info

Research title
RuralVoice - Mobile Voice Based Services for Rural and Unprivileged areas of India and other Emerging Economies

Research timeline
1.8.2012 - 1.8.2017

agriculture Bottom of the Pyramid Education entertainment frugal innovations healthcare illiteracy microbanking microfinance mobile phones rural areas services tablets unprivileged areas voice-based


Botswana, Finland, India, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, United Republic Of, Uganda, Zimbabwe

University of Tampere
School of Information Sciences

Funding instrument
Business Finland, Other

Project budget
1-2 million euros

Head of research
Mikko Ruohonen and Markku Turunen

Research team
Mikko Ruohonen, Markku Turunen, Juhani Linna, Sumita Sharma, Nicholas Mavengere, Gururaj Mahajan, Jaakko Hakulinen, Pekka Kallioniemi, Vivek Kumar, Himadri Das (India), Amit Nanavati (India), Nitendra Rajput (India)

IBM Research, India, IIT Guwahati, India, IIT Bombay, India, IIIT Bangalore, India, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad India, International Management Institute India, Great Lakes Institute of Management, India

Contact information
Mikko Ruohonen
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