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In India, Voice Messaging Mobilizes More Effectively Than SMS

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, December 11 2013

Drought-dry dirt. (Flickr/Mundoo)

In the midst of the terrible drought that struck the Indian state Maharashtra in March 2012, a political scandal broke and revealed a top minister was helping divert water from farmers to power plants. Greenpeace India launched an awareness building campaign on May 22 by unfurling a 250 foot banner that read “Water For Farmers / Not Power Plants” over a dam. Although an online petition garnered support from urbanites, Greenpeace India needed to reach people in rural areas, the ones hurt most by the drought. The Digital Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace (MobLab) blog took a critical look at what worked and what didn't, and interactive voice response (IVR) comes out a winner.

Greenpeace India sent out their message via two different mediums, SMS texts and IVR messages. The SMS encouraged villagers to call a number and hang up—what's known as a missed call—to show their support for the campaign. (This talk by Jeremy Heimans at the Personal Democracy Forum 2013 touches on the mobilizing power of the missed call.) The IVR messages were recorded voice messages, read by a Sarpanch (an elected village leader).

From the MobLab blog post:

Sample IVR Content (in English, original message in Marathi): I, Pankaj Amle, Sarpanch of Chinusta Grampanchayat also secratary of Amravati District Council appeal to the public that while Maharashtra is suffering water scarcity, draught and famine, the water meant for agriculture is being sold and diverted to plants. This must be stopped immediately and water should be released back for farming (Farmers). I request you to support this initiative. Please join the mobile petition to demand so, by pressing any button after this. Thank you!!. [sic]

Approximately 23,000 people called after receiving an SMS, or roughly 4.5 percent of the population reached.

Of those contacted via IVR, on the other hand, nearly 71.5 percent, or 232,000 people, indicated their support.

Some phones won't receive messages in the local dialect, a serious disadvantage to using SMS. Literacy is another complication. On the other hand, MobLab points out, “Voice messages only allow for 20 seconds to explain the importance and urgency of a campaign, whereas people have the opportunity to read a text message over and over again.”

As for Ajit Paware, the official who helped divert water from farmers in need to power plants? He has resigned in disgrace, and the whistleblower who helped collect the proof of his corruption has retired from his government services job and has launched himself into the political arena.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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