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Archive for the 'Freedom Fone' Category

Liberate your voice

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Friday, September 30th, 2011 by Bev Clark

Check out how Kubatana has been using Freedom Fone in Zimbabwe.

Free Kiswahili synthetic voice for Freedom Fone a possibility

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Friday, January 15th, 2010 by Brenda Burrell

Freedom Fone’s ability to fulfill it’s promise as a must have tool for bridging the digital divide has yet to be determined. Millions of poor people have access to mobile phones, but with tariffs as high as they are in countries like Zimbabwe, experimentation in this field is still costly. And of course, for our project these are early days. The development team is still in the process of creating the variety of features that will distinguish Freedom Fone from the technically intimidating (to ordinary folk) IVR products like FreePBX, Trixbox and PBX in a Flash.

One of the recalibrations for me has been a growing appreciation of the relevance of text-to-speech synthetic voices for our platform. This isn’t news to our Project Architect, Alberto Escudero Pascual. He’s been convinced of its relevance from the start. In fact, in order to build an interactive online demo for Freedom Fone he integrated a commercial synthetic voice from Cepstral called Allison as a quick option for building and testing a voice menu.

As you can imagine, English speaking Allison, as good as she sounds given she’s synthetic, is not an ideal voice for enunciating other languages.

As a project located in Africa we are keen to develop/acquire free synthetic voices for some of the continent’s many languages and include them with the Freedom Fone software. As an open source project I hope that we can attract the contribution of free synthetic voices for many of the world’s languages over time.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with Etienne Barnard at Meraka Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. To my delight he indicated that work already done in Kenya on text-to-speech for Kiswahili by a team led by Dr Mucemi Gakuru at the University of Nairobi some years ago, might be updated and made available in time for our July release of Freedom Fone version 2.

In recognition of the competitive mobile phone tariffs prevailing in east Africa and the willingness of organisations there to experiment with information on demand voice services, we will create our first localisation of the Freedom Fone GUI for Kiswahili in February 2010. The possibility of including a free synthetic voice for this audience is exciting.

So why this interest in synthetic voice? Doesn’t this just mean a horrible robotic sounding Kiswahili voice? Obviously original audio files with perfect inflection are the first choice, but not all information requires the effort associated with recording audio files. Freedom Fone helps with the automatic conversion of audio files for voice menus, and it will be improved over time to make it as easy as possible to create audio files using a basic microphone attached to a computer. Still, it would be a lot quicker to automatically convey information received/produced in text format, like product prices, weather reports, breaking news using text-to-speech.

And … not all synthetic voice sounds dreadful. Build and test your own voice menu in English using Allison and our online demo. Make it the default audio menu and call in to listen for free using Skype. To do this you will need to add Skypiax4 as a Skype contact. Let us know what you think of the experience!

Molo and Kubatana’s partnership helps put information in the hands of Zimbabweans

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Thursday, January 14th, 2010 by Brenda Burrell

Kubatana, a Zimbabwean non-profit organisation committed to democratising access to information, was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant in May 2008 for its Freedom Fone software development project. The Freedom Fone project aspires to help civic organisations extend their information in an audio format to mobile phone users.

In Zimbabwe the mass media is monopolised by an entrenched and unpopular government. There are no licensed radio or television stations outside the direct control of the government. There are no community radio stations. There are no independent daily newspapers. Voice over Internet (VoIP) has not been legalised and wireless networking is tightly regulated. Working in this environment Kubatana realised the importance of leveraging the growing access to mobile telephony by people across income and interest groups. Frustrated by the limitations of SMS, Kubatana investigated the potential for manipulating call-in voice menus to convey frequently updated rather than static information. The primary objective was to add to the information outreach capacity of organisations in the non-profit sector by providing them with easy to install and use software to deliver their information, in languages of their choice, to phone users in the general public. Since interactive voice menu (IVR) systems incorporate voice mail or ‘leave-a-message’ functionality Kubatana also recognised the potential for developing rich two-way communications with communities and for facilitating citizen journalism.

With the Knight News Challenge award, we have been able to commission the redevelopment of our platform to incorporate lessons learnt to-date and the latest advancements in open source telephony development.

Since software development is an involved process, Kubatana was keen to work with an interim solution to facilitate experimentation with IVR in Zimbabwe whilst full-scale development progressed. We investigated commercial IVR providers in South Africa and were delighted to find a responsive company in Pretoria: Molo Innovation. Charl Barnard, a director in the company, was very interested in the innovative ideas we had for extending the use of IVR into the non-profit and development sectors. Importantly, he was prepared to assist us at heavily subsidised rates with quickly re-gigging an existing Asterisk-based product for our interim use.

The value of Molo’s support cannot be measured in dollar terms – it goes well beyond that. Our expedited productivity gave birth to an innovation called ‘Inzwa’ which means ‘to listen’ in the vernacular. For the first time in many years in Zimbabwe, the general public were able to call-in, at their convenience, and access non-state controlled audio information via their phones.

Our Inzwa experience enabled us to quickly and constructively feed into the planning and development of the Freedom Fone platform as well as test the waters in Zimbabwe and start to assess local interest in phoning in for information. It gave us hands on experience and the ability to speak with greater conviction about the potential of Freedom Fone as a useful product; an appreciation of the skills and resources needed to run an information on demand audio service and allowed us to share a real-life deployment with others interested in doing something similar.

And Zimbabwe is just the start! A deployment partner, Farm Radio International, has been keen for some time to experiment with IVR as a support for and extension of their community radio programming for small-scale poultry farmers. They installed our interim version for training and pilot purposes in Tanzania and Ghana in November 2009.

Commercial support to non-profit initiatives can have far-reaching and rewarding results and we would encourage others to follow in Molo’s socially responsible footsteps.

It’s 7:05pm in Dar es Salaam

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Tuesday, November 24th, 2009 by Bev Clark

Amanda and I have just returned from Dar es Salaam. We were on the road with Freedom Fone.

Last Tuesday it was 9 degrees at 9am in orderly Johannesburg and 28 degrees with sweat inducing humidity at 7pm in chaotic Dar. After negotiating the jam-packed arrivals hall we smiled in relief when we discovered John holding up a torn piece of cardboard with Freedom Fone scribbled on it. We couldn’t speak Swahili and he couldn’t speak English but we made our greetings and jumped into his car for the ride of our life to a lodge off the Old Bagamoyo Road in Michokeni B.

Dar was thrillingly alive, jumping with activity of all kinds. Flashing past us . . .

Two guys on a bicycle. One of them had a goat draped over his knees. A beggar with buckled legs dragged himself through an intersection, craning his neck to ask for money from people in cars. He wore slip slops on his hands. The storm water drains on the sides of the roads were full of water breeding malaria and other diseases. Little boys’ trawled homemade fishing lines through the muddy ditch water hoping for a catch. We saw a young man fill a water bottle from the litter-strewn canal, and we hoped that he wasn’t going to drink it.

The next day we met up with Bart, Margaret and Lilian the Farm Radio International (FRI) crew who we’d come to train to use the Freedom Fone software.

FRI is a Canadian-based, not-for-profit organization working with about 300 radio broadcasters in 39 African countries to fight poverty and food insecurity. FRI has partnered with Freedom Fone to engage our software in the support of small scale farmers in Tanzania. FRI have established 5 listening communities attached to 5 community radio stations in varied locations in Tanzania. These community radio stations broadcast programmes that assist farmers in achieving better yields as well as helping answer questions related to the various agricultural challenges they might be experiencing. FRI is currently exploring the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) to complement and extend the usefulness of radio broadcast programmes.

They selected Radio Maria, a Christian radio station based in Dar es Salaam, to deploy Freedom Fone. FRI’s listening groups with Radio Maria have expressed a particular desire for information about raising chickens. Local chickens are an excellent income source for small-scale farmers, as they have low input costs and high demand and a ready market. However, many farmers experience high chicken loss due to poor management: not keeping the chickens safely, feeding them properly or looking after their hygiene sufficiently. Better information helps farmers lose fewer chickens, and thus make more money out of them. FRI’s Freedom Fone deployment will draw on this desire for more information about chicken management, and their broadcast programme called, Heka Heka Vijijini (Busy Busy in the Village), will be adapted into short segment audio programmes using Freedom Fone software.

FRI also intends to use Freedom Fone in Ghana . . . stay tuned!

Violence, the simple and not so simple answers

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Friday, August 7th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

In a previous blog of mine entitled Violence and masculine performers a reader raised the following questions:

I want to know if the project on Violence would help to reduce the prevalence of violence in the Zimbabwean communities or not. I just want to know your fair minded judgement based on what the fourteen participants contributed on that topic of violence. Is the film going to help all the people (men and women) or women only or vise versa? If it cannot help, what are the areas that were not clear that will leave the people still wanting more information concerning violence?

The simple answer is yes.  I believe all of the participants walked away from the week having absorbed new knowledge and inspired ideas around what violence entails, why violence is a coward’s solution, and how to better lead life in non-violent ways.  One reason I say yes is because the fourteen participants were willing to speak at length and in detail as well as willing to speak honestly and in relation to their personal experiences.  That’s no small feat.  All too often discussions about violence in Zimbabwe are predictable and merely go the route of referencing “other” people who commit acts of violence.  When individuals look inwardly to unravel their own beliefs and actions then the conversations get real and begin to pave the way for meaningful paths toward change.   Therefore, I stand by a point in the original blog.  Change must come from within.  Within individuals.  Within communities.  Within institutions.  Within societies.  One by one, and it’s a process which takes time.  Tho, all the little things help.

At the same time, the questions which have been posed do not neatly have simple answers.  As I noted, the honesty among the participants was key in building discussions which were true to life and constructive.  But honesty is not always synonymous with hearing what you hope to hear.   Much of the honesty among the male and female participants incorporated belief that there are situations where violence against women is warranted.  Intermingled or likely one reason for that belief is what I saw as unsettling blind faith and one-dimensional this is just the way it is adherence to the notions that women are the weaker sex, that labola is tradition and a form of payment for a wife, that good wives must allow husbands to exercise their conjugal rights, and so on.  I mean come on.  Is that really just the way it is?  Or, is it not the case that all human beings harmoniously deserve respect, love, companionship, admiration, laughter, compassion, and equality from their fellow human beings?

The reader asked for my fair minded judgment.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I can be fair.  While I have the utmost respect for how honest the participants were, there were moments during the week where my jaw dropped.  I was in shock.  How can people think violence is ok?  And to try to rationalize justifications for violence, it made my body hurt.   In fact, during the week of filming I had nightmares.  And continue to have nightmares.  They are nightmares where people needlessly resort to violence.  So yeah, it’s tough for me to fair.  Intellectually a lot of what was expressed during the week I did not agree with.  Emotionally the week was taxing for me.  I would like to say I don’t have a violent bone in my body; however, in reality, no person can live up to that assertion.  But what I can do, and I hope the film participants also do, is recognize that every human being has the ability to make choices around whether or not to be violent.

Back to my simple answer.  Yes.  The week of filming was successful.   I remain hopeful.  I believe there are many courageous Zimbabweans, people who are willing to take a hard look at themselves and in turn, to let that self-reflective journey inspire them toward travelling down roads of non-violence and helping others do the same.  And as I said, little things do help.  Like this film project and others which International Video Fair Trust (IVFT) is implementing.  Disseminating films where the filmed participants speak up is surely a recipe for success and an effective way to encourage others to address the difficult issues in life.   And you know, there is a nice synergy with Kubatana’s Inzwa Weekly Audio Magazine.  Just as much as the people who work for the Adult Rape Clinic and the people who access those services are everyday heroes so too is it importantly heroic to make the information available.  To stand up and say, for those of you who might benefit from the services at the Adult Rape Clinic, please make use of them and we support you in the most heartfelt ways.

Inzwa: Listen up!

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Wednesday, July 15th, 2009 by Amanda Atwood

This week, Kubatana launched Inzwa, our Zimbabwean experiment with audio information via mobile phones. We’ll be updating our information every Tuesday, and we are interested in any feedback to help us improve the service.

How does it work?

Tune into Inzwa by phoning +263 913 444 321-8 and . . .
- Press 1 for 60 seconds fresh bringing you current news and views
- Bata 2 to enter the doorway to chibanzi for job vacancies, scholarships or resources
- Press 3 to find out about everyday heroes and take a new look at Zimbabwean activists and activism
- Hit 4 to listen to Zanele unleash the music and introduce us to new musicians
- And . . . Speak Out Sistas and Bruthaz . . . to leave us a message, punch 5

So try it out! Phone +263 913 444 312-8 any time, day or night, and tell us what you think.