Silly phone game puts illiterate Pakistanis in touch with potential employers

April 18, 2013

A silly telephone game that became a viral phenomenon in Pakistan has demonstrated some serious potential for teaching poorly educated people about automated voice services and provided a new tool for them to learn about jobs, say researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Pakistan's Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

The game, called Polly, is simplicity itself: a caller records a message and Polly adds funny sound effects, such as changing a male's voice to a female voice (or vice versa), or making the caller sound like a drunk chipmunk. The caller can then forward the message to one or more friends, who in turn can forward it along or reply to it.

Polly may not sound like a research project, but Roni Rosenfeld, professor in Carnegie Mellon's Language Technologies Institute, said it is pioneering the use of entertainment to reach illiterate and low-literate people and introduce them to the potential of telephone-based services. Such phone services could help non-affluent, poorly educated people find jobs, find or sell merchandise, become politically active, create speech-based mailing lists and even support .

But people can't use these services if they don't know how.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

Even though most people in Pakistan have access to a phone, many don't understand the technology behind an automated telephone-based service, said Agha Ali Raza, a Ph.D. student in language technology and a native Pakistani. "They expect to talk to a person on the other end of the line," he explained. "When they hear, 'Press 1 to do this,' or 'Press 2 to do that,' they don't press anything; they just start talking."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

With Polly, Rosenfeld, Raza and Umar Saif, an associate professor of at LUMS, have shown that if the training is fun, people will not only learn how to use phone-based services, but will eagerly spread the word and even show each other how to use it. Polly was launched in Lahore, Pakistan in May 2012 by giving its phone number to five poor, low-skilled workers. By mid-September, 85,000 people had used it almost half a million times.

Though budget pressures forced researchers to begin limiting calls to Polly in September, the total number of users climbed to more than 160,000 people, including some non-Pakistanis, as of mid-April. Overall, the system has handled almost 2.5 million calls. The project continues to run.

What's more, Polly doesn't just deliver funny messages; it also includes job listings. "We daily scan Pakistani newspapers for advertisements for jobs that are appropriate for low-skilled, low-literate workers, record them in the local language and make them available for audio-browsing during the interaction with Polly," Rosenfeld said. As of mid-April, the ads had been listened to more than 380,000 times and had been forwarded more than 21,000 times.

Raza, the lead author, will present results of the research on May 1 at CHI 2013, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in Paris, where the report has received a Best Paper award.

Rosenfeld said the entertainment value of Polly helped it spread rapidly, but can't sustain it over time, noting game play dropped rapidly as its novelty wore off. But adding services, such as the job ads, can keep people calling in.

"We found that users took to the job information in large numbers and that many of them started calling Polly specifically for that service—exactly the result we had hoped for," he said.

The researchers now are determining whether the system can be scaled up to serve a larger population base over an extended period of time and be made more cost efficient. They also hope to use Polly to train people in other countries.

Explore further: Google Tests Directory Assistance for Phones

More information:

Related Stories

Google Tests Directory Assistance for Phones

April 8, 2007

Computer Web search leader Google stepped up an experiment to use speech recognition on telephones so consumers can ask for local information, in a challenge to directory assistance providers.

Let freedom ring with Google Voice

August 5, 2009

With the exception of touch-tone phones, Caller ID and cell phones, talking on the phone hasn't changed a lot during the past few decades. That's a big reason why people are increasingly choosing to text, e-mail and send ...

Climate change makes more shrew species, 70 genetic varieties

October 23, 2012

Anyone who went outside this summer felt the effects of climate change. Now the Eurasian shrew, Sorex araneus, can say the same. A new study by P. David Polly of Indiana University found that climate change caused shrews ...

Recommended for you

Internet giants race to faster mobile news apps

October 4, 2015

US tech giants are turning to the news in their competition for mobile users, developing new, faster ways to deliver content, but the benefits for struggling media outlets remain unclear.

Radio frequency 'harvesting' tech unveiled in UK

September 30, 2015

An energy harvesting technology that its developers say will be able to turn ambient radio frequency waves into usable electricity to charge low power devices was unveiled in London on Wednesday.

Professors say US has fallen behind on offshore wind power

September 29, 2015

University of Delaware faculty from the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE), the College of Engineering and the Alfred Lerner School of Business and Economics say that the U.S. has fallen behind in offshore wind ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.