Saskatoon-based tech team helping people access vital information through cellphone games, hotlines
When Louis Dorval went to Ghana in 2005 as a volunteer, the country was in the midst of a cellphone boom.
Only one in 10 residents of the west African nation were mobile subscribers, but that was steadily climbing to the two-thirds it’s at today, according to a report by data and analysis firm GSMA Intelligence.
This piqued the curiosity of Dorval, a 37-year-old who grew up in Montreal and by the time he started at McGill Unversity in 2000 had bought his first cellphone, a Nokia dumb phone.
“There was very, very little work being done through mobile to help co-ordinate, inform and share information related to development and livelihoods in Ghana despite the fact that over the preceding decades access to mobile phone in Ghana and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa had really exploded.”
Seven years later, he would help create Viamo, a social enterprise with Canadian roots based on harnessing that the availability and popularity of cellphones in certain developing countries to disseminate educational, everyday information some people otherwise have little access to.
He wouldn’t do it alone, though.
Mark Boots grew up in Saskatchewan and completed a PhD in physics and engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. He and Dorval had volunteered with Engineers Without Borders Canada in Canada and Ghana respectively. They connected through the organization after Dorval had worked for a global software firm in Silicon Valley and was looking to start his own company.
Together, they launched Viamo in Kumasi, Ghana, in 2012 along with Ghanaian engineers. They first decided to create software that used SMS messages to send out surveys and share information with people. However, they quickly found that these text messages weren’t engaging or getting responses from rural populations, especially women.
So, the company added a voice interactive response (IVR) channel — the kind of technology that has been around since the 1970s that you might encounter if you call a credit card company and are asked to choose from an automated menu. It was more successful.
One of Viamo’s first partnerships was with a Ghanaian organization trying to improve health for pregnant women in rural areas. They piloted a program where women could receive a weekly call in their own language informing them about their baby’s development and how to take care of them.
“Here in Canada, for example, when my wife was pregnant, obviously it’s fairly easy for us to get to the doctor’s office and have checkups. It’s also easy to go on websites like www.babycentre.ca and get a whole ton of information that helps you understand what’s going on with your first pregnancy,” said Dorval. “Those kinds of options aren’t available for a young mum in a rural village in Ghana, for example.”
One of Viamo’s largest-scale innovations and a real game-changers came after they repurposed IVR and developed the “3-2-1 Service.” Boots described it as “Wikipedia Lite but for people who have basic cells, and might not even be literate.” Viamo partners with local mobile phone operators to provide on-demand information on a range of topics from farming to trafficking simply by having people call a toll-free hotline.
Wanji Games (“Wanji” means “what” in the Ugandan language Luganda) are delivered through the 3-2-1 Service in partnership with local cell operators. The games are based on a “choose-your-own-adventure” format. Callers dial a number and are presented with a series of scenarios. Using their phone’s buttons, they are forced to make a decision. Any wrong choice can affect their “fate,” ending the game.
“I saw a message on my phone so I tried it and I had much information about family planning, cervical cancer, weather, agriculture,” said Rachael Kabeene, a 30-year-old Ugandan primary school teacher and mother who recently played the games.
One of Viamo’s most recent projects in Rwanda involved delivering remote training for the country’s health ministry in the form of a four-week curriculum on mental health issues, often a taboo topic in Africa, using IVR technology to send phone calls with interactive training content and quizzes. There are over 55,000 community health workers across the east African country, and to bring them all together physically for the training would have been expensive.
Lauren Frank, an associate professor of communications at Portland State University, has studied the games in Cambodia (preventing domestic violence) and Uganda (farming). She said “in one experiment, callers who played the game one or more times, had more confidence in their abilities and were more likely to plan to change their behaviour than those who did not play the game. Our results suggest the Wanji game can be an effective social and behavioural change intervention.”
In 2019, Viamo’s 3-2-1 Service reached more than six million people across 16 countries through Wanji Games and the other content on it.
“One thing that’s groundbreaking about the service is that through our partnerships with telecom operators, we’ve been able to find a model where it’s free for people to access the service, at least many times per month, allowing it to reach a major scale,” said Boots.
In some countries like Rwanda, 3-2-1 is reaching more unique users than Facebook. In Mali, there are more than 2,000 people listening to the 3-2-1 content at any given moment, for most of the day.
That reach means expansion for Viamo, too. It now has a total 140 global employees, with 12 in Saskatoon, and three more on the way to the city from Ghana, Rwanda and Madagascar.
Their future vision is to be serving 100 million people per year. They hope to do this with IVR services that offer interactive games, information as stories, dynamic content, recommendations based on what people previously listened to, and eventually AI experiments to let people browse by asking questions in a natural language.