#17 sharing
Brenda Burrell

Calling Freedom

Humans in remote areas or sensitive situations often find themselves detached from the flow of information – Freedom Fone is a software to tackle this.

Wherever information is not accessible – whether due to a repressive government, a lack of infrastructure, or time constraints in the aftermath of an epidemic – people are often left uninformed. This prevents them from using crucial information to take part in both political and life-saving information processes. Lacking an information and communication infrastructure (ICT), such as radio or Internet, people in remote areas find themselves unable to transmit crucial information back to a specific receiver in emergency situations. A villager trying to communicate symptoms of a cholera outbreak in remote Sri Lanka, for example, may be unable to reach an international health NGO.

Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe, an activist information initiative, has set up Freedom Fone to fill this gap - an open source telephony, two-way communication system. Running solely on mobile network coverage, businesses and organizations use it to communicate and receive crucial information on the basis of on demand, call-in information retrieval. DDD had the chance to interview Brenda Burrell, a Kubatana Trust board member, to talk to her about the evolution of freedom of information, the importance of information sharing for development, and the ongoing relevance of a mobile-based open source program in times of Internet coverage picking up pace.

DDD: Given the rather technical nature of Freedom Fone, could you briefly tell the readers how it works and the idea behind it?

In Zimbabwe, mass media channels are monitored, managed, licensed and regulated by the government.

Brenda Burrell: Freedom Fone was conceived back in 2005. The idea was to develop an alternate channel for communications and an alternative to mass media channels such as printed publications, radio, and television. In Zimbabwe, mass media channels are monitored, managed, licensed and regulated by the government. So during contentious periods like elections, it is quite difficult to get information out to the public. This inspired us to co-opt a product used by business to share short segments of audio content via voice menu systems. A person reaches a voice menu that might say “Press 1 for information on contraception; press 2 for information on your legal rights” et cetera. You could use Freedom Fone as a sort of sexual reproductive rights hotline. And because the code is open source, people modify the platform as they see fit. If they can raise funding to do other cool stuff, we would be very happy to see that. We had a lot of ideas that we would have liked to have realized, but in the end, we were unable to find a business model for Freedom Fone. As funding began to run out, we had to accept the fact that the product would only have the features we had developed and rely on other people out in the world to take it further.

DDD: If I wanted to use Freedom Fone, how would I get started?

Brenda Burrell: Freedom Fone runs on a computer, so you would basically download the free software from our website. We’d install Ubuntu Linux onto your computer and a complete telephony server that has all kinds of bits and pieces. It comes with some demo data, but in order to connect it to telephony, you have to buy one of the very low-end, low-cost Huawei voice enabled dongles we support and the particular Huawei model that we specify, because it does not run with every device. Unfortunately, as time goes by, these dongles get older and become potentially harder to find, but you can typically find them on Ebay. You basically plug it into the USB socket on the computer you are using for Freedom Fone and then you configure your Freedom Fone service using a very user-friendly interface to receive calls and SMS on that particular dongle. So when an SMS or phone call arrives on the SIM card in the dongle you plugged in, your Freedom Fone service will be able to answer that phone call and connect it to a voice menu that you developed by uploading audio files to create a voice menu. Or you can invest in a high-end SIP device that can hold four SIM cards and connects via an Ethernet cable rather than USB. It is quite sophisticated and very stable, which enables you to offer more call-in lines.

DDD: So basically I would need a laptop or a PC and a device that connects me to the mobile networks and then I have to set up the voice menu.

Brenda Burrell: Yes. It is all very doable and we have written quite comprehensive documentation to help people. We have also localized our software into a variety of languages, so you can have a user interface and documentation in either English, French, Spanish, Portuguese or Kiswahili. Hopefully this means people around the world will seriously consider using this product to reach out to communities who for one reason or another do not have access to the Internet or radio, perhaps because of censorship or because it is expensive to access radio to publicize your content. It is also good for gathering feedback, especially in communities where literacy is a challenge or people prefer to express themselves verbally rather than in writing, and offering access to a variety of channels.

DDD: Freedom Fone is predominantly used in Africa, but also in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Indonesia. Have you seen variations in its use in different countries and regions and could you tell us a bit about who uses Freedom Fone and how?

In Sri Lanka, the idea was to use it as a disaster mitigation service. Heavy rainfall is a serious issue there and isolated villages often experience mud slides and other problems.

Brenda Burrell: People have used or tried to use Freedom Fone in Sri Lanka, East Africa and Pakistan, for example. In Sri Lanka, the idea was to use it as a disaster mitigation service. Heavy rainfall is a serious issue there and isolated villages often experience mud slides and other problems. Freedom Fone is a way to broadcast information to the public and allow them to dial in and share information in those sort of situations. We have seen it used in East Africa for sexual reproductive health information, for ostensibly safe abortion hotlines, where women can find out about safe abortion options and other alternatives like contraception, adoption, and their legal rights. There is Radio Ergo in Eastern Nairobi that uses Freedom Fone to reach out to a Somali population. Their equipment is in Nairobi because it was quite dangerous to host such a service in Somalia when they started it. Somalia currently lacks the infrastructure needed to support a large and scattered population. Now they use Freedom Fone largely as a voice mail facility where listeners can call in with feedback on their programming and ask their radio doctor questions. And we know that people are trying to use our software to share agricultural extension information. I think that is what they are doing in Pakistan.

DDD: Callers normally have to pay fees to their mobile providers that can be pretty high to use the Freedom Fone services offered by organisations. Critics might argue that this represents a kind of exclusion from the flow of information. How would you respond?

It is very difficult to raise sustainable funding to provide free information systems forever.

Brenda Burrell: It is very difficult to raise sustainable funding to provide free information systems forever. You can often raise a bit of funding for a short period, but if you want the service to stay up, you usually have to provide compelling enough information for which the caller is prepared to pay. That is just the reality. We actually built in functionality in the early days for what we called the callback feature. People could leave a missed call, then the computer would cue their phone numbers and call them back. Unfortunately this functionality fell away because of the cost of keeping the code going. It was outsourced to a team that moved ahead faster than we could keep up, so it became a fully-fledged product in its own right called Newfies-Dialer. Our sense is that quite a lot of communication initiatives fail once the initial funding dries up. Sustainability needs to be kept in mind when establishing a new initiative. Raising funding to mitigate a crisis is an easier task than raising funds to maintain services between crises.

DDD: You started Freedom Fone in Zimbabwe in 2005 and launched your website in 2010. By now the program has spread across almost the entire globe. How has Freedom Fone developed nationally and internationally? How did starting out in a country that closely monitors its media landscape and information channels influence its development?

The program is mainly used for agriculture, health, and community radio.

Brenda Burrell: When we started out in 2005, we actually built a prototype for the platform. Back then it was called Dialup Radio. In 2008, we won a large Knight News Challenge Grant which we used to rebrand and rebuild the product from scratch. Serious development of Freedom Fone actually started in early 2009. We haven't seen much use of the platform in Zimbabwe, because it is very easy for the government here to put pressure on the mobile network operators to terminate service on the SIM cards you use, which is very counterproductive. Until recently, calling was also very expensive in Zimbabwe, it was 25 US cents a minute. It has dropped to about 17 cents a minute, but that is still a lot higher than in East Africa or Ethiopia. Still we did some interesting things with it in Zimbabwe. We used it as a platform for a micro audio drama of five two-minute episodes and looked at the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. That was actually very popular, even though you had to pay to listen. I think people found it amusing and unusual, and the feedback was quite good. For the most part though, very few people are actually working with the software in Zimbabwe. There are a few, but it hasn't really taken off as in other parts of the world. The program is mainly used for agriculture, health, and community radio.

DDD: What positive examples have you seen of Freedom Fone's impact?

I am sure it is the last choice for most women, not something you do easily, so I can see that this service is making a big difference.

Brenda Burrell: The two examples that stand out for me are in Kenya. Radio Ergo is one. They get a lot of traffic, a lot of voice messages left by Somalis either in Kenya or Somalia. This technology creates a bridge between the two countries, which is very interesting. I think it has had a very real impact for Somalis. I imagine that it is particularly helpful that the radio doctors answer meaningful and relevant questions for populations in different and hard-to-reach areas. In Kenya as well there is a very courageous initiative called Aunty Jane that provides safe abortion information to women there. The number of women who die as a result of unsafe abortions is outrageous in Kenya. Their feedback usually comes in as text rather than voice messages. The messages are from people in very difficult situations: Fathers have left, or a woman is pregnant and she has more children than she can manage, or somebody is frightened of being thrown out of their family because of a pregnancy. There are a million reasons women need to terminate a pregnancy. I am sure it is the last choice for most women, not something you do easily, so I can see that this service is making a big difference. It is not an easy service to run, because it can be dangerous for an organisation to offer such services in any country where there is religious opposition to these alternatives. Aunty Jane’s services have gone up and down a bit, sometimes public pressure has made them step back, but they have always stepped up again. There is a sort of worldwide network of organizations trying to offer this kind of service. Especially in countries like Chile, where it is actually illegal to terminate a pregnancy, even if the mother’s life is in danger. It is very difficult to access this information through normal channels in such countries, so an alternative, bottom-up channel like a Freedom Fone service makes sense.

DDD: Freedom of information is at the core of your approach. How does it affect other areas of development?

When an epidemic like this builds, international NGOs can't get involved until they are officially invited to do so by the government.

Brenda Burrell: We had a cholera crisis in Zimbabwe back in 2008. When an epidemic like this builds, international NGOs can't get involved until they are officially invited to do so by the government. So the problem can get quite severe before meaningful inroads can be made towards addressing the situation. My feeling is that smaller organizations are not as controlled as international NGOs. We always hope that in a similar situation, health NGOs could say: “Things are looking bad. Let’s reach out to our communities by establishing a service that tells people where they can go for assistance, and explains the symptoms of cholera and first aid intervention.” I think this could make quite a meaningful difference, especially if you could raise some quick money for a toll-free number, so that people did not have to pay for the information.

DDD: Where do you see Freedom Fone heading and what challenges will the future bring?

When you pair it with radio, it is a very powerful tool for educating audiences.

Brenda Burrell: As the Internet becomes more accessible, smartphones more available and illiteracy is addressed, Freedom Fone’s relevance may begin to drop. But the sad truth is that a lot of these things will not be solved quickly, so Freedom Fone will continue to be useful. The fact that it facilitates two-way communication is great. When you pair it with radio, it is a very powerful tool for educating audiences. You have to train the audience to use this kind of service that doesn't answer, as there is no real person at the other end of the call to respond to the caller. This is one reason Freedom Fone has not been as widely adopted as the SMS-based platforms. It requires quite a lot more from an organization and a lot more sophistication from the audience you are trying to reach.

DDD: Is there anything important you think we have not covered?

Brenda Burrell: Freedom Fone has features that try to protect the identity of the caller from the person who works for the organization deploying Freedom Fone, but it cannot protect the caller from a government that has decided to monitor the telephone calls coming into a particular phone line. Obviously they are able to track the caller from the mobile network operator's end. So I think people need to be aware that security is a big challenge. For this reason, Freedom Fone is more likely to be used in agriculture, health, and education - any space where governments have no reason to interfere with the two-way sharing of information.

Freedom Fone Gallery

Interview by Eva-Maria Spiller

Further information on Freedom Fone:

Copyright: Boyd Maliki

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