Anywhere else, but not India. This was the response Professors Markku Turunen and Mikko Ruohonen and Researcher Juhani Linna got from some of their colleagues when told about the RuralVoice study.
Undeterred, they braved stomach bugs and went on to develop mobile applications that make everyday life easier for the people living in small villages in rural India.
“We developed mobile services that can be used in the rural areas and investigated how we could develop a sustainable business model involving both Indians and Finns,” researcher Juhani Linna says.
There are already 350 million mobile phones in the Indian countryside, and their number grows by about two million every month. Phone calls are cheap and mobile phones are a frequently used communication channel in rural areas.
However, around half of the rural population is illiterate.
The voice-based mobile applications are based on the idea that the technology will help people to overcome the problem of illiteracy and the limited service provision in the countryside.
“Everyone can talk even if not everyone can read or write,” Linna explains.
Up-to-date information for farmers
Three different applications were tested in the countryside. Pregnant women were one target group of one application, which based on hand gestures, and another application was created for students with special educational needs.
However, a farming application was developed the furthest. The app enables farmers to obtain information about the plants they are farming, plant diseases, weather conditions and the market price of their crops.
The application made use of data on forty plant species collected by the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad. The data was then transformed into speech.
“Previously, the farmers used to listen to their community radio, which broadcasts information on farming in the mornings and evenings. With this new application, they get the information they need sent directly to the fields,” says Mikko Ruohonen, professor of information systems.
The goal is to develop the mobile service into a two-way communication channel and to make more information available to the farmers.
Usability tests showed encouraging results.
“Our local partner is a strong proponent of making the service profitable at the state level. Both the end users and the community want us to start marketing the service,” says Markku Turunen, professor of interactive technology.
“If we could make the application available across the entire Karnataka state, it would be huge.”
Everything from a guru to an iPhone
The usability testing of the applications was conducted in Karnataka, in the south of India. Karnataka is one of the country’s more progressive states.
On the one hand, the researchers saw farmers using iPhones and applying advanced biodynamic farming methods. On the other hand, they encountered very traditional village hierarchies where religious mentors were held in high esteem.
“Even if it is a cliché, the old and the new truly meet in India,” Turunen says.
Before starting the project, Mikko Ruohonen and his family lived in India for three months. He says that the time had an enormous effect on the success of the project, since making personal contacts and creating relations of trust are very important.
Patience is a virtue when starting a new project in India. According to Ruohonen, spreading an understanding of the project and getting the locals to commit can be complicated.
“In the first meeting with our cooperation university, they had a very clear-cut picture of what we were going to do. They thought our project was some sort of a text message thing,” Ruohonen says.
The project went ahead when the Director of Development at the University of Agricultural Sciences at Dharwad came on board and was able to convince the leadership of his university about the benefits of the project.
Opportunities for specialists
The Indian economy has grown significantly for over the last twenty years. Millions of people advance to a new social class every year and start buying new goods and services.
The researchers hope that people start believing in India’s enormous business potential.
RuralVoice mainly involved very small businesses, which – like in Finland – would rather work with large companies than forge ahead on their own.
“It is quite unlikely that we could go to India led by small enterprises. What was positive, however, was that when we talk about technology and know-how, even a relatively small business can become international when it has the right partners,” says Juhani Linna, who researched the business models for the project.
Markku Turunen confirms that if the right networks are in place, even the narrow specialists of the IT sector have what it takes to succeed in India.
“In one of our case studies, we were partnered by a company that is only just starting up in Finland. That company could be a pioneer in India and control huge markets in its narrow technology sector, whereas the competition is already stiff in Finland and the other Nordic countries,” Turunen says.
India, a country that is in an upward economic spiral, is enthusiastic about technological solutions. This makes it an inspiring destination for researchers and businesses.
Turunen encourages researchers to go work in countries less familiar than those in Europe and North America.
“At present, researchers still lack the courage to go visit new cultures that could offer entirely new perspectives and application options for interaction research, for example,” Turunen says.
India is one of the easier Asian countries for Western researchers because English is relatively widely spoken.
“We have many organisations and the political will that enable people to go to India. Several years ago already, the Finnish government and the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation woke up to the fact that India is a large and interesting region with plenty of opportunities,” Linna says.
Mobile applications for the Indian countryside
- About 800 million people live in the Indian countryside. 350 million of them have a mobile phone.
- The RuralVoice project, funded by the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, developed mobile applications based on voice technology to be used in the Indian countryside. The project was coordinated by Professors Mikko Ruohonen and Markku Turunen from the School of Information Sciences. The partners at the University of Tampere include the CIRCMI and TAUCHI research centres.This narrowing of arterial walls is caused by atherosclerosis.
- RuralVoice is about to conclude, but the research is likely to continue in a new project conducted by IBM and a local Indian university.
A difficult language provides opportunities
Developing applications to be used in India that are based on language is not as difficult they may appear at first. Several languages are spoken in India, but the areas where the languages are spoken are also large. The RuralVoice project’s spoken applications were made in Kannada, a language used by 40 million people.
“The Finnish language is very different from other languages, such as English, so we had to be flexible when we thought about the technology of our voice-based applications,” says Professor Markku Turunen.
The most frequently used methods in voice recognition cannot be applied to Finnish, so voice recognition had to be built on a different premise. With just five million speakers, the Finnish language does not represent a very big market for an application.
However, this is not an obstacle but a resource.
“Finnish businesses that deal with languages are excellent because the Finnish language is so damn hard,” researcher Juhani Linna points out.
Text: Tiina Lankinen
Translation: Laura Tohka