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Robo-phone to the rescu


The automated humanitarian hotline, Telefon Kwa Wouj, gives people information they need — and a chance to speak back — at the push of a few buttons.

For years, people seeking to know their bank balance, check the status of a flight reservation, or buy tickets to a concert have been able to do so via their telephones — by responding to automated prompts from computer answering systems.

These systems are not always well liked by some customers who would rather have a human being on the other end of the line. Nonetheless, automated phone services have allowed businesses to provide large numbers of people with basic information, even buy products or transfer funds, quickly and at greatly reduced cost.

Now, in Haiti, an automated phone system known as Telefon Kwa Wouj is using this technology to provide free information in creole about critical health and emergency information on issues ranging from cholera prevention, sexual health, hurricane preparedness and gender-based violence.

Pioneered by the Haitian Red Cross Society and the IFRC and launched in May 2012 with the support of the national telecommunications provider Digicel Haiti, Telefon Kwa Wouj marks the first time an interactive voice response (IVR) system has been used in a humanitarian context. 

“Telefon Kwa Wouj is a unique system,” says Donald Louis Jean, a 22-year-old student living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who says he often calls the system when he needs information on topics such as cholera or HIV/AIDS prevention. “I don’t know why no one ever thought to have it before. Now, even people who live in secluded areas can get the information that they need.”

Most of Louis’s family lives in Pointe à Raquette, a remote area of Haiti that often lacks radio and television reception. IVR, therefore, is a vital resource for up-to-date information.

By working closely with national institutions, such as Haiti’s ministry of health and the department for civil protection, system managers can provide timely and critical information to a maximum number of people during a crisis. If an outbreak is reported somewhere in the country, for example, important information can quickly be recorded in Creole and uploaded to the phone line.  

Two-way street

And it’s not just a one-way conversation. Using IVR software provided by the Ottawa, Canada-based company Vocantas, Telefon Kwa Wouj can also record feedback from callers, conduct surveys and even quiz callers by registering the buttons the callers push in response to certain prompts.

During emergencies, this can be very useful. Once an outbreak is reported, the Haitian Red Cross would first use the Red Cross Red Crescent SMS system to advertise the Telefon Kwa Wouj  via a mass SMS push. The messages would encourage people to call for information and even take part in a survey that could in turn provide information to guide the response of humanitarian and health agencies.

From time to time, the system also hosts quizzes in which callers are tested on information that can be found in the IVR system. These quizzes are one way the National Society and the IFRC can determine if information provided by the system is being retained by callers. Quiz winners receive a prize from the Haitian Red Cross Society.

2 million calls

So far, the system has been widely used. In March 2014, just less than two years after it was introduced, the Red Cross interactive information line in Haiti registered its 2 millionth call.

It may seem counter-intuitive that a humanitarian organization would use computers in lieu of people to deliver information. But as the volume of calls received shows, peoples’ need for information during crisis greatly exceeds the capacity and resources of local organizations to provide individual person-to-person interaction.

Even a well-staffed, human-operated call centre would not be able to keep up with the volume of queries during a crisis. Callers would be required to hold and wait to get urgent, life-saving information — something that doesn’t have to happen with automated systems.

This is not to say that automated systems are without their problems. During the first year of the system’s operations, operators realized that the process of carefully scripting messages was more time consuming that first thought, while downloading data was at times painfully slow.

These learning experiences are likely to inform communication efforts in other countries where mobile phones are widespread and where other forms of media are not able to reach people as directly.

Innovation on the ground

Since the 2010 earthquake, Haiti has been a test bed for numerous innovations in beneficiary communications. The Haitian Red Cross and the IFRC pioneered a system for sending SMS messages, known as TERA, that used the country’s mobile phone networks to send health and hygiene information and storm warnings to people, many of whom were living in extremely vulnerable positions. Since the earthquake, the TERA system has sent out over 100 million texts.

In addition, the National Society has hosted a twice-weekly radio show featuring interviews and advice, and sound trucks have taken hygiene and health messages directly into camps set up following the earthquake.

Many of these efforts have been effective, according to the April 2013 report, Haiti Beneficiary Communications Review, which suggests that almost 90 per cent of the affected population has received information from the Haitian Red Cross Society in the wake of the earthquake. Of these people, 87 per cent said the information was useful, and 82 per cent shared the information with their family, friends or local community.

But the IFRC and the Haitian Red Cross Society have also realised that it is much harder to create a two-way communications flow, to get systematic information back from beneficiaries. The IVR helps solve that problem, giving people the chance to express what they think, want and need, and giving responders data that can make their response more effective.

There are other advantages as well. Once the system is set up and functioning, running costs are minimal, meaning the IVR can continue to provide public information and feedback long after the IFRC ends its earthquake recovery operations, thus maintaining the visibility and role of the National Society.

There are also challenges that National Societies and other humanitarian organizations should consider before launching similar systems. However, these systems require a considerable amount of time to develop and launch. It is key, therefore, to ensure from the beginning the future ownership of such a tool by the host National Society.

It also takes time to get the messages right. The correct wording of the message scripts is essential to guarantee that the information provided through the IVR system is accessible, complete and understandable to a wide audience. Unlike face-to-face communication, the IVR system does not allow Red Cross Red Crescent staff members or volunteers to directly address questions or concerns beneficiaries might have, nor ensure the information was understood. 

According to the 2013 beneficiary communications review, more information is needed to better understand the impact that IVR is having in communities and whether or not it enhances the effectiveness of operations.

The report does conclude, however, that clear mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that the data being collected can be analysed quickly so that it can translate into effective and timely action.

Communicators involved in the launch of Telefon Kwa Wouj say it’s also vital that IVR systems are not used instead of other direct, personal community engagement. Even in Haiti, where cell phone use is nearly universal, the SMS and telephone systems were seen as part of a larger package that included a twice-weekly radio show, Twitter posts, a travelling sound truck, billboards, posters, flyers and many direct visits and events organized by volunteers in affected camps and neighbourhoods.















"The IVR system is an exceptional addition to the public awareness tools that contribute to sensitizing the population about the Haitian Red Cross. The system allows callers to access the National Society around the clock, seven days a week, with important explanations on subjects such as: prevention of chronic diseases, sexually transmitted infections, blood transfusion, prevention of all forms of violence and disaster prevention."
Pericles Jean-Baptiste, director of communications and public relations directorate of the Haitian Red Cross.


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