Info Lady delivers livelihood information door-to-door in a cheaper and effective way through advanced ICT tools in Bangladesh
Reversing poverty through information
Poverty is multidimensional. Poverty of information or the lack of access to information is one of the main causes of poverty. In Bangladesh, villagers often have lack of information that they need to help improve their livelihoods. The poor people do not generally have access to presently available information resources. They do not own TV and Radio, they cannot buy newspapers and in fact most of them do not know how to read newspapers. They do not also have adequate access to the government extension services. Even ICT kiosks or telecentres, though successful in various parts of the world, did not provide an immediate solution. It was apparent that what was needed was a combination of technology and human interface that would bridge the gap between the people and the new ICTs imaginatively.
Creating the mobile information lady
An impending need to create a comprehensive and responsive platform that bears a human-friendly interface, networks community people and fosters accessibility and interactive communication led the creation of mobile lady. Though 'Mobile Lady' can be either a male or a female but emphasis is given on female because in the context of household culture, a man can't access every household whereas a women can get entry in any house and communicate with the house members. Mobile lady can give phone services and digital photography services. The idea of creating mobile lady evolved from the fact that in Bangladesh, mobile phones have a much higher penetration than fixed land phones, estimated as covering 85 percent of the territory, and considered cheaper than making phone calls through fixed phones. Also, mobile services are uniquely popular in most parts of the country, including rural areas.
The D.Net initiative
Following the global ICT boom and some successful applications in development, in 2004, a young team at D.Net (Development Research Network), Bangladesh, worked on expanding the access of the new ICTs to rural areas. D.Net (Development Research Network) decided to explore the value addition rendered by mobile phones as well the quantum of use and application of mobile telephony as information service in Bangladesh. D.Net also tried to decipher the functional effectiveness of mobile telephony in rural areas and for the same conducted a field research to explore new initiatives and ideas of delivering livelihood information through mobile phones and then began the experiment of a 'Help Line for the Poor'.
D. Net identified certain key ingredients to make the concept of the helpline a success. These ingredients are:
- The Mobile lady,
- Help Desk with a Searchable Knowledge base in Bangla language (the official language of Bangladesh)
- A Directory Database to refer the users to service provider and
- Partners including local, national or international organisations whom Help Line can refer the users.
Once questions were put to the Help Desk, an associate at the service end, usually a domain expert replied to the query, using the specially created computerized knowledge base created by D.Net. To make information easily understood, both the database and the search engine are in the local language, Bangla. Most frequent queries are about where to access certain services. The help desk expert searches an online directory, created through an extensive and rigorous survey and suggests the relevant options. The users pay for the phone call only. Requisite information can also be retrieved dynamically from the telecentres' offline livelihood content (if user has the opportunity to visit telecentre) which is stored in the PC of the telecentre. At the D.Net end, both the knowledge base and directory database are being updated regularly for providing latest information to the information seekers.
Enabling the Info Lady
It was identified that if a bundle of services are integrated with mobile lady then overall financial sustainability might be possible and mobile lady will become a telecentre in herself. The modified mobile lady or the 'Info Lady' was thus created. Info Lady possesses the following components for giving the entire livelihood information services in a cheaper and expedient way:
- Portable laptop device like ASUS EEE or Classmate PCs.
- GPRS Modem with SIM for Internet Connectivity.
- Headphone for making messenger calls.
- Webcam (may be built in the PC) for voice call through messengers.
- Digital Camera for photography Services.
- Livelihood Local Language Content
- Mobile Phone for commercial use.
The services offered by Info lady are:
a. New way of providing help line service: Info lady can offer Pallitathya Help Line (a livelihood information service provider) services to every villager. This again can be offered in two ways:
- She can connect through mobile phone and charge for example BDT 3-4 per minute. If she pays per minute charge to a mobile phone operator, the rest of the profit can easily be her income.
- She can connect the Help desk (www.dnet.org.bd/Pallitathya_pcc.pdf) to contact the expert through Instant Messenger (IM) like Skype or Google talk (whichever works better in a particular area), for which there is no per minute charge to the mobile phone operator. The info lady can offer a flat rate for calling the Help Line, for example BDT 10 for first five minutes, which would be much cheaper for the villager and s/he can describe the problem without any hurry as there is no per minute bill.
b. Traditional commercial phone services: The info lady can offer common commercial phone service, like any other mobile phone with her mobile phone.
c. Photography services at the door step: If she uses a Standard digital camera then info lady can offer photography service at the door step and earn money. Currently, the photography service is offered through the Telecentres, where villagers have to visit. The volume of photography would be doubled or tripled if it can be offered instantly at the doorstep.
d. Livelihood information and knowledge services make it a mobile telecentre: The info lady can offer a whole range of livelihood information and knowledge services from off-line version of the “Jeeon-IKB (www.jeeon.com)”, loaded in the ASUS EEE or Classmate PC, as at least two GB memory slot is available. The info lady with the ASUS EEE or Classmate PC can go to field for talking to farmers; inside houses to converse with housewives or physically handicapped people for giving livelihood knowledge and information. This facility could enhance outreach dramatically and also raise income.
e. International and local voice call services: The info lady can also provide voice call services to the villages through the Internet & messengers for making calls within and outside the country, which could be a huge income source.
f. Video and Animation services: The info lady can show video and animation files on various livelihood and awareness related issues at homes of the rural people. This can be an effective tool for awareness campaign for health, education, human rights etc.
g. Internet-based information services: The info lady can offer browsing service for extracting Jeeon-IKB content online and other contents, which cannot be useful without real-time browsing. For example, filling the diversity visa form; downloading a government form, seeing the results of public exams etc.
h. Problem of financial viability resolved overwhelmingly: The estimate shows that an info lady's monthly gross-profit can be within USD 75 to USD 200, depending on mobility and demand for the services, which can be offered using ASUS EEE or Classmate PC, as the demands may vary from location to location. This estimate considers all fixed costs and variable costs. Fixed costs have been distributed over three years on a monthly basis.
i. Availability of telecentre services across the country: If information and knowledge services are not there, a telecentre may be a mere cybercaf