Assistant Professor Awarded Grant to Expand Information-Exchange Project

Photo: The project Avaaj Otalo, originally launched in Gujarat, India, will be expanded to allow farmers across the nation to exchange questions and provide feedback to one another about different farming techniques.
Christopher McDermut/Staff
The project Avaaj Otalo, originally launched in Gujarat, India, will be expanded to allow farmers across the nation to exchange questions and provide feedback to one another about different farming techniques.

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Information-Exchange Helps Farmers

Amruta Trivedi expands on the project that allows farmers to improve their farming techniques.

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A UC Berkeley assistant professor recently awarded a grant of about $500,000 will be able to expand his project allowing farmers in rural India to exchange information on farming techniques through a voice-based discussion board.

Tapan Parikh, an assistant professor in the UC Berkeley School of Information, was awarded the five-year grant by the National Science Foundation and, with his team, will use the money to explore ways the voice-based interface can be made more user-friendly for low-literacy users.

The project, titled Avaaj Otalo, meaning "voice stoop," was deployed as a pilot project in 2009 with 63 farmers in the rural state of Gujarat, India and had over 3,500 calls to the automated call system in the first month. It was fully launched in January 2010, allowing farmers across the state to exchange questions and provide feedback to one another in the call system maintained by the nonprofit organization Development Support Centre.

"The farmers ask questions about pests they may have, what crops to plant, whether to plant a variety of crops, how much land to use," Parikh said. "A lot of farmers answer each other's questions, but they also hear from experts."

Over 75 percent of the questions farmers posed during the pilot phase were answered by other farmers participating in the program, as opposed to outside experts, from whom farmers would often get advice before the discussion board was created.

Parikh said a farmer once asked how to keep a bull out of his crops and off his property. Another farmer responded by describing a rotating light he designed that keeps bulls away at night.

According to Neil Patel, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University and Parikh's co-advisee in the project, farmers implemented advice taken from peer farmers more quickly than advice taken from authority figures or experts.

"Currently in rural India, information access is very top-down," Patel said. "Farmers hear advice through the radio or from a government agricultural worker but not from one another. One of the goals of the project is to give the opportunity for rural people to provide advice to others."

By making information access to rural communities more interactive, Patel said this project has allowed farming communities to use internal resources to disseminate information.

According to Patel, one of the biggest challenges that researchers continue to face is motivating the farmers to participate as information resources. To motivate farmers to ask questions, the group currently offers incentives, such as giving one free advice session for asking two questions.

Parikh said the group also tries to make the user interface and automated system more user-friendly. According to Patel, rural users of the automated phone system were much more comfortable pressing digits to select menu items, rather than using voice commands, even though most were not highly literate.

"This allows people to get comfortable with automated systems," he said.

Using the grant money over the next five years, Parikh and his team will focus on making the system's information dissemination more efficient. The group will conduct a randomized control trial to measure the practical impact of the system.

"We can ask, 'Is having an automated system helping productivity?'" Patel said. "But even before then we can ask, 'Are the farmers becoming more informed?'"

Since its launch, the program has expanded to four other Indian states. The researchers plan to use the grant funding in the coming years to broaden the project from providing information access to rural farmers to exploring the use of voice-based technology in rural health care and education, as well as in labor and women's rights, Patel said.

"Giving access over the phone is very effective; now, we want to explore using voice content and information dissemination to make it as widely accessible as possible," he said. "Not just in India, but around the world."


Contact Amruta Trivedi at [email protected]

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