November 2010

Betting Big on voice?

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Next-generation speech technologies, coupled with the mobile services revolution, can make e-Gov a truly mass phenomenon

IT in governance was introduced in India during the seventies with a focus on in-house government applications. There was a deployment of ICT to manage data intensive processes such as elections, census and tax administration. IT emerged as a transforming force in the early nineties with the deployment of wider-scale applications, with an emphasis on bridging the rural-urban divide and including all sections of the society into a then developing framework of e-Governance.

Gone are the days when e-Governance projects used to be for only internal government systems; today there is a high level of emphasis on government-to-citizen systems. There is a focus now on using technology to connect, network and set up systems for processing information and delivering services. Today, the urban businessman and the rural farmer are equally important targets for all e-Governance initiatives.

The increase in the deployment of IT has empowered a fairly large population of Indian citizens to freely interact with various government departments—anytime, anywhere with minimal effort. The thrust has varied across initiatives, with some focusing on enabling the citizen-state interface for various government services as some others focus on bettering livelihoods.

Govt spend on IT is rising

According to Springboard Research, IT spend by government in India is expected to grow to $5.1 billion by 2011, at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 19 percent for the period 2007 to 2011.

Nasscom estimates that in the next five years, state governments in India will spend close to Rs 15,000 crore on computerising their operations.

It is also understood that the government in India is emerging as the fourth largest vertical spender for IT after telecom, manufacturing and banking & finance.

While these figures spin an inspiring story indicating an opportunity with great potential, one also needs a discerning eye for the concerns that exist from a commoner’s perspective.

It will be counter-productive to be blinded by how much has been earmarked for spending and in the process lose sight of what can be achieved and for whom the exercise will be meaningful. Without a clear vision, huge investments in the name of e-Governance may not really contribute to improve the quality of life of citizens, despite huge potential. It is therefore important to take stock of the challenges.

A heterogeneous demography

While the Indian cultural and demographic fabric is vibrant in its diversity, it also throws up stark differences. We are a nation that houses the literate, the semi-literate and the completely illiterate, all within the space of a few kilometres. Therefore finding a medium that binds the myriad consumer needs and preferences is a key challenge.

Most of the current e-Governance programmes are powered by computers and broadband connections, which come to a standstill in rural areas and smaller cities that lack the infrastructure. In this context, effectiveness of e-Governance is implicitly dependent on the e-readiness quotient of a state usually measured using the broad parameters of network access, network learning, network policy, and network economy.

Mobile as an e-Gov catalyst

e-Governance must allow for easier, regular and inclusive interaction. The goal of equity needs to be achieved at many levels since the digital divide itself is a story of multiple divides. The ground realities point at the urban-rural divide and at inadequate focus on the concerns of the illiterate, the marginal farmers
and women.

A critical mass of people is required to push e-Governance to the next level.

The unprecedented growth in the mobile telephony sector clearly shows a path. Data suggests that India is on track to realise tele-density targets and it is hearty to note that telecommunications is touching lives of people who are otherwise marginalised.

According to TRAI, India had more than 584.32 million subscriptions at the end of March, 2010 which indicates that 49.6 percent of Indians were having mobile connections. The resulting opportunities are tremendous, giving citizens a chance to exploit new modes of access in newer and more innovative ways.

State m-Gov initiatives

A perfect example is m-Sampark, an e-Governance initiative from the Chandigarh Administration, which enables citizens to access information on a whole range of e-Sampark services from their mobile phones by simply sending an SMS. To avail the m-Sampark services, all a citizen is required to do is to SMS ‘SMENU’ to 58888. M-Sampark provides services such as getting the electricity bill, water bill, or a list of all documents accepted for age proof and residence proof. It is really convenient for citizens to know of the different services through their cellular phones even in the absence of Internet connectivity.

Another interesting example where mobile technology is being harnessed at the grass-root level to provide government service is a pilot project in Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh called Anant Sampark. Set up by Harnessing Wireless Access (ASHWA), it is aimed at establishing practicable e-Governance infrastructures that will connect rural areas with the district headquarter.

Through ASHWA, villagers can apply for various records such as death, birth, income, and domicile and land over the mobile phone. The project will help in keeping a close watch on government functionaries, including teachers of primary schools in villages, Aganwadi workers and doctors posted in rural areas. It will also help the state government monitor different programs run in villages such as the mid-day meal scheme and the national guarantee employment scheme, among others.

In addition, recently, Government of Madhya Pradesh has launched a pilot project using SCO Mobile Server. This enables electronic provisioning of services and access to government information using a mobile phone. Since mobile service coverage in rural areas is readily available, nearly every citizen in Indore will gain electronic access to services and information. The services include online bill payment, applying for land records, income certificates, loans, driving licenses, birth and death certificates and various government
entitlement programs.

Benefits of speech technology

For social mobilisation and awareness generation programmes to succeed one needs to take into consideration the demographics and local conditions for deployment that can facilitate citizen-to-government interfaces. There should be seamless access to information and also seamless flow of information. With the aim to make e-Governance services available to every citizen, the government is piloting advanced mobile technology and speech technologies to
tackle the illiteracy problem.

Speech being the most natural means of communication, it has provided a consummate platform for man-machine interaction. India is a country where there are numerous dialects, and people prefer using their own language to communicate. Speech recognition solutions today encompass all prominent Indian regional languages, which will go a long way in strengthening e-Governance initiatives. In rural and remote areas, citizen information services can be provided more effectively by using speech interfaces, thus effectively overcoming barriers of literacy, language and infrastructure. And it is in this context that mobile phones, supplemented by speech technology,can play a crucial role in accelerating e-Governance deliverables.

Unleashing the power of speech

A recent example of speech technology in e-Governance is the deployment of speech-to- text technology in Karnataka high courts to help write judgments. Government of Karnataka adopted speech technology for quick disposal of cases and to provide better services to citizens, as the shortage of stenographers was hampering the functioning of judiciary.

Voice verification technologies are being used for authenticating and recording attendance in social schemes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). It has helped in eliminating the cases of fake attendances at NREGA.

Value added services (VAS) providers have already started deploying speech-based technologies to provide better services to their customers. SBI Mutual Fund and YES Bank customer services are enabling customers to use voice instead of traditional touch-tones for self-service. This next generation IVR will be able to provide a number of services that are currently being done by agents manually. With this, the customers need not wait for agents to be available as the process gets automated and is geared for quick response.

Sustaining the momentum

Speech, voice verification and text-to-speech technologies, by utilising upgraded and ubiquitous mobile infrastructure, have the power to transform the current face of e-Governance to make it a far-reaching and all encompassing wave.

Rapid technological advancement and quick adoption, mainly fostered by mobile access have made social and technology inclusion achievable rather than a far-fetched dream of a developing nation. The need of the hour seems to be to harness the unexplored potential of the mobile and speech platforms.

It will be important to see how governments are able to share knowledge and learning and ride on this opportunity. Finally, it will be particularly critical to note whether the disadvantaged and the marginalised can and will influence the face of e-Governance using these technologies.

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