Meraka Openphone:Project Overview

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OpenPhone is an open source telephone based information dissemination environment that is aimed at addressing the significant African need related to the information empowerment of its people The system aims to make it easy and inexpensive for organizations and individuals to perform information transactions on the telephone – that is, make information available to callers, and to gather information from callers. Doing this in a developing and multi cultural, multi-lingual context is very challenging. Not only does South Africa’s unique diversity calls for in depth knowledge of our human factors, language and multi-cultural aspects but also for investigating how technology can be applied within this developing context.

This project is a culmination of open source technologies, human language technologies, HCI research, social research and open source principles. It investigates the human and cultural factors that need to be considered when developing an information transaction platform


There are a few factors which necessitate the need for such a system. South Africa is a country with diverse cultures and languages. This diversity in some instances result in a lack of accommodation between traditional cultures and modern electronic media. Functionally literate citizens often form a significant fraction of the population. This constrains the delivery of electronic services which usually require fluent literacy and technological sophistication that builds such literacy. The relative scarcity of financial resources and general infrastructure means the delivery media for information services need to be even more cost-effective than in the developed world – and cannot assume that citizens will always have access to tools such as Internet-connected workstations.

OpenPhone aims to enable information access beyond the conventional web interfaces. This is important as only around 5% of South Africans have access to the Internet, whereas a much larger percentage has access to telephones.

The timely and economical gathering and dissemination of information is a significant problem in the developing world. Whereas the Internet has radically democratised this task in the developed world, the extreme limitations to Internet penetration in the developing world implies that this benefit has not accrued to many citizens of the less wealthy nations. Fortunately, telephones are much more common than Internet-connected computers, and recent technological innovations have made information gathering and dissemination using the telephone network significantly more affordable.

The telephony approach

Statistics reveal that roughly 3 million people in South Africa have access to the internet resulting in a ratio of one in fifteen. Furthermore, one in ten (4.9 million) people have access to a fixed line. The above two statistics are in sharp contrast to the amount of people in South Africa who have access to mobile phones – 13.5 subscribers resulting in a ratio of 1 in 3. It is estimated that this figure will rise to 21 million by the year 2007.

The above statistics show a rapid growth in the availability of telephone connections in South Africa. Telephone-based service requires relatively low levels of infrastructure and user sophistication. We assume that useful services can be made available to citizens equipped with nothing but a normal telephone (mobile or fixed-line), and requiring no more than the ability to understand and respond to spoken commands.

There are huge costs involved in developing PABX systems which support interactive voice response (IVR). In most cases these have to be outsourced to experts in the field and maintenance costs are incurred if changes need to be made. Hence, the need for a low-cost interactive flexible tool that will enable people to develop and maintain IVR systems in a language of choice to service a diverse multi-cultural group of people. . The OpenPhone authoring tool (DialogPalette) allows the user to develop IVR systems in a language of choice in a simplistic way and requiring basic computer skills. DialogPalette utilises an open source TTS engine enabling the user to convert text to speech. The user also has the option of developing an application with voice prompts in the language of his choice. The system gives the user flexibility as updates or changes are made easily.

OpenPhone Components

The following figure depicts the OpenPhone system.


The core of OpenPhone is the Asterisk PABX open source system ( Asterisk does voice over IP in many protocols, and can interoperate with almost all standards-based telephony equipment using relatively inexpensive hardware. DialogPalette is a graphical user interface to Asterisk and allows a user to easily create telephony applications. It can be conceptualised as an authoring tool for telephony applications. The Asterisk system has been expanded to use FLITE, a text to speech (TTS) engine designed by Carnegie Mellon University ( . FLITE enables the OpenPhone system to convert text to speech using a computer generated voice.

The primary role of DialogPalette is to act as an authoring tool which allows an information provider to design an information dissemination application. The information provider can record the prompts for the various phases in multiple languages. The application designer also has the choice of using the text to speech (TTS) to record prompts in a language of choice. The application design will be guided by the use of templates.

The information users will access the designed solution by phoning a number. This number will ideally be toll-free or sponsored. The user will listen to the voice prompts and interact with the system by entering the requested key presses.


The primary role of DialogPalette is to act as an authoring tool which allows an information provider to design a telephony application, albeit information dissemination, transactional, voice mailbox etc.

DialogPalette allows the user to develop the services or application using one or both of the following mechanisms for voice interaction:

• Recorded voice prompts. The service or application designer can record voice prompts that will be played over the phone to the end user, as specified and structured by the developed application.

• Text to speech modules. The service or application designer can make use of a text to speech module that was developed for a specific language. The prompts will then be typed in and played through a computer generated voice, over the phone to the end user.

The information users will access the designed service or application by phoning a number. The user will listen to the voice prompts and interact with the system by entering the requested key presses, depending on the application or service that was developed. Mechanisms to make the service or application more accessible to the end user include the usage of a toll free or sponsored line.

OpenPhone interaction

The OpenPhone system can be used for either informational or transactional services. The following examples include possible applications or services in a developing context:

Example 1: Cattle pricing system

A Mozambique farmer has to travel a long distance in order to determine the market selling price for cattle. Sometimes, this travel is in vain as prices are too low and will result in a loss for the farmer. The OpenPhone system allows the farmer to phone in to a toll free number and determine what the market selling price for the day will be. This saves the farmer time and money of travelling to the city if the market price is not right.

Example 2: Reuniting family members

The war in Angola has resulted in people being displaced from their family members. Using the OpenPhone system, a person seeking lost family members, can leave his/her details as well as the details of the family members he/she is seeking. This person can then periodically phone into the system for information whether his family members have been found or alternatively the platform could send him/her an SMS notification of results.

Example 3: UIF system

Unemployed people travel long distances to UIF offices only to discover that their payment is not available. An application on OpenPhone can result in people checking the status of their UIF application and availability of their payment.

Site requirements

Although, the OpenPhone environment is intended to be a lightweight telephony platform and environment, various considerations will need to be taken into account when deploying. This section will briefly address these considerations.


Electricity is a vital component to the OpenPhone platform, because the server requires electricity to run for the application to be available to its users. These applications will only be available, if the server is switched on.Keeping this in mind, the application could be made available for certain periods during the day when the electricity supply is sure to be stable and available.It is also advisable to acquire an uninterrupted power supply, as frequent power outages could damage the server and the operating system, and thus the OpenPhone platform.

Telephone line or internet connectivity

There are two ways by which the OpenPhone platform could be made available to its target audience. The first is through a telephone line. For this you would require a telephone line that is dedicated to the server, and a telephony card that is installed on the server (see installation instructions).

You could also make the application available through Voice over IP (VoIP), which requires a dedicated internet connection; dial-up internet access is not suitable for this purpose due to bandwidth constraints. If the application is to be deployed in a relatively small, contained environment, a local area network can also be used for this purpose, completely eliminating any telephone and Internet costs.

It is also possible to make use of both VoIP and standard telephone line access simultaneously, to further enhance the accessibility of the developed application.


Security should also be considered, should there be a problem in the area.

Human resources

At least one person is required to handle the setup and maintenance of the server and the application that was developed specifically for the site. A training manual is available as part of the DialogPalette application. A hardcopy manual should also be available shortly.

The person maintaining the telephony application will require basic computer knowledge and would be required to read and understand English. Currently the help filed and the interface of DialogPalette is in English, but will be extended later to incorporate other languages as well.

A person maintaining the server would require more intermediary computer skills to install the operating system. It is, however, anticipated that this type of service would not be required regularly. Complete installation instructions will also be made available to assist in the installation and setup of the system.

Various templates will be developed to make the development and maintenance of these applications easier, will be developed and can be used initially. These templates will be expandable as the requirements for the application grows. Updates to these systems will be available from .


The OpenPhone system will play a great part in bridging the digital divide by allowing a wider audience access to information previously limited to people with internet connections.

Telephone based systems require low levels of user interaction and user sophistication. Telephones do not require high levels of learning as they are a common feature in many homes. The system aims to make it easy and inexpensive for organizations and individuals to perform information transactions on the telephone.


The latest version of DialogPalette can be downloaded from SourceForge.