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Talking Book: Bringing Knowledge to Remote Rural Villages

The Talking Book, designed by Literacy Bridge, brings health and agriculture knowledge to remote rural areas through a simple-to-use interface.

Five years ago, we set out to design technology to provide on-demand access to oral knowledge for the poorest people in the world, who cannot read. We did this because we discovered how powerful knowledge can be to farmers living on $1 per day who want to learn how to produce enough food to feed their families and how to protect their children from deadly diseases.
Local experts, such as agriculture advisors and nurses, understand the challenges and know practical solutions for the poorest people living in their region; they also speak the local language. The challenge is making their knowledge available when it’s needed in the remote rural villages that are home to hundreds of millions of the poorest people on earth, who cannot read and often lack access to electricity. To address this challenge, we developed the Talking Book—an audio computer designed for the learning needs of oral people. A recently published evaluation of the Talking Book program showed that farmers using the device to access agriculture knowledge had a 48 percent improvement in crop yield, compared to a 5 percent decrease by their peers without access.
To reach our target unit cost of less than $15 and to improve the robustness of the Talking Book, we designed an interface that uses spoken audio instructions for output, rather than a display. For input, the Talking Book includes a set of buttons for users to press in response to the audio prompts, somewhat similar to the interactive voice response (IVR) systems that most of us have used through telephones. However, during our earliest user testing, we learned that too many levels of hierarchy can be difficult to navigate if you’ve never had any formal education. Our current design prioritizes simplicity: the user presses one button to rotate through categories (e.g. heath, agriculture, and local stories) and another button to rotate through all the messages within that category.

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