Started in 2008-09, GramVaani (meaning voice of the village), has been building technology for community radio stations, IVR based applications and last year, launched a mobile based radio network called Goonj, which acts as a voice based social network for the bottom of the pyramid. Goonj is operating in select districts of Jharkhand state, receiving over 2000 calls a day, while GramVaani’s technology is currently being used by 2 million users across 15 Indian States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Namibia and South Africa. In the first part of our interaction with GramVaani Co-founder Aaditeshwar Seth, he talks to us about the technology that they use, listener-ship, data collection, programming on Goonj network and the kind of impact generated by the data collected.
On Technology Being Built & The Move To IVR
Medianama: What does your company work on?
GramVaani: We started GramVaani 4 years ago in 2008-09. The focus has always been to help the people at the bottom of the pyramid. However, the question has been to find ways to connect them to the different stakeholders that the rural masses are unable to reach out to. We started this through community radio stations. When we began, community radio stations were coming up in a big way in India. We built a low cost network to set up these community stations. The idea was that we would provide the technology for these stations managed by NGOs and other non-profit organisations. But that did not happen and the growth of community radios did not happen at the expected pace. Besides, community radio stations take 2 years to set up. So we had move to Interactive Voice Response System (IVR).
IVR was more agile and NGOs could use it. We now have 10 partners who have been using these products in interesting ways. Traditionally, non-profits organisations are not used to using these kinds of technologies. It would take a long time before we educate them and convince them to use our products and then scale so even IVR could not be scaled with speed. So that’s when we came up with a new concept called Goonj, a mobile radio network which started in January, 2012.
We see Goonj as social media platform for the bottom of the pyramid. We are viewing it very much in the same way as Facebook or Twitter. Unlike traditional radio stations, no regulations need to be complied with to set up and run Goonj since it is a mobile based radio network (Ed: We’re not sure if that is the case). Currently, we have a deployment in Jharkhand. People are using the network for folk songs, to make announcements, to share what’s working, what’s not working etc. Going forward we want to place the emphasis more on Goonj even though we have other products.
Medianama: How does Goonj work?
GramVaani: It is basically an IVR based platform built on an open source software called Free Switch. We have built our application on top of this software. It has two parts. When someone calls, they can either leave a message or listen to other users’ messages. Our web based moderators in Delhi and Ranchi then listen to the messages left by the community and publish the appropriate ones so that the other people can listen to it when they call.
Medianama: On scaling to other states, how do you plan to solve the language problem on IVR based technology that is used in Goonj?
GramVaani: It will be different instances of the service in different states. We will use a different number for each state or region. Of course, this is something that we are yet to explore but we will be using different numbers for each state or region. The phone number will be like the url just like india.google.com. From there people can branch to what they want to listen to.
Medianama: How many people in the Jharkhand districts have access to a phone?
GramVaani: Going by pure statistics and not going by research, there is 40-50% phone reach in the state of Jharkhand which is predominantly a rural state.
Medianama: How many people listen are active on your community radio and Goonj network?
GramVaani: Presently we have 30 community radio deployments in India. They are run by different NGOs. Each station caters to anywhere between 50,000 to 1 lakh population summing up to a fairly large population of 2 to 3 million people. Goonj is comparatively smaller but this network is more intensive where people call to share about their community. We so far have about 20,000 users on the Goonj network.
Medianama: How many messages do you receive in a day?
GramVaani: We receive 2000 calls in a day and we publish about 60 – 70 messages a day. Going forward, we are introducing the concept of channels like radio. When you call, you will land on the front page like a newspaper, then people can skip and go to the specific channel of their choice like health, music or agriculture etc. We will also be introducing language based channels for the tribal people. Using the familiar radio metaphor will make this platform easier for them to use since people don’t know how to use the platform otherwise.
Data Collection and Impact
Medianama: What has been done with the data collected? How is it being used to initiate action?
GramVaani: The data collected on Goonj network has been used in some very interesting ways. Running Goonj as a platform for people to come and engage, has brought different stakeholders like the District Collector etc also to use the platform.
Recently, we had a discussion on water conservation. We wanted to start a conversation on the kind of water sources around specific villages in Jharkhand. We found out that they all had some water body that was funded by MNREGA but none of them were being used for the purpose which they were intended for. There were only one or two places where the water body was being used for its intended purpose. Otherwise, most of them were being used for washing clothes or watering the animals. We found out that the size was too small or the water body was not properly built. Although, MNREGA had reach, it has not been utilized properly. We have sent this report to the concerned collectors. We are now waiting for them to use this data for the next round of planning.
Apart from that, we have many partner organisations who work with advocacy groups or activists who raise different issues based on our data. Many UID officials were taking bribe to register people and there were complaints about this on our network. One of our partners heard these complaints and reported it to the collector who took action against the UID officials. Aganwadi workers hadn’t been paid for several months for doing census work and that was reported in the network. Other similar cases have also come up on the network.
Programming on Goonj Network
Medianama: How does the schedule of the Goonj network work?
GramVaani: This is also something that we are working on. One way to manage the network schedule is to use the concept of channels. The other way is to have dedicated time slots like Tuesday evening as health hour, an agriculture hour etc. These are some of the things that we are going to work with. We have to check which of the two are the communities are comfortable with – channels or time slot based system.
Medianama: What is the incentive for the users to use your network?
GramVaani: For the users, it is mostly self expression, the ability to get heard. Second, people call and talk about local news like a career fair that is happening or other local announcements.There is also creative talent related content that also goes up creating interesting feedback loops for listeners. We are a medium to get their voices across to the right people.
Medianama: How different are you from the government stations?
GramVaani: With Goonj, 90% of the content is community generated. AIR’s content is not community generated. Experts, professionals create the content there. We are more like Youtube but in voice with just messages from the people.
Editorial note: This model is not a social network. It does not allow direct connectivity between individuals. It is a model with a central system and all the community players are connected to this central system.