Updated Apr 05, 2018
Devansh MehtaSend Message
In times of pandemics and other crises, it is necessary for governments and public agencies to quickly disseminate important announcements. However, in areas without Internet access, there is no way to distribute information at scale while still tracking which users have already heard and understood the announcement. Targeted advertisements and virality are limited to areas with Internet access – only about 3.5 billion people or 50% of the world’s population. A directed and widespread flow of information is required for the remaining 50% of the underdeveloped world where, for example, mass awareness on diseases like Ebola is needed to contain an epidemic.
Due to the dearth of technologies allowing for targeted advertisements in developing areas, Liberia spent $3.33 per person during the Ebola outbreak in awareness campaigns. This is more than the daily wage of most Liberians. There is thus an opportunity to create a technology that not only quickly disseminates an announcement to the population, but also lowers the cost of doing so by creating a mechanism to track which users have understood the announcement and thus do not need to be further targetedMost solutions for this issue center around developing applications for smartphones. This ignores the reality that many parts of the world still use the old feature phones. In India, for example, feature phones accounted for 55.2% of the phones shipped to India in the third quarter of 2016, beating out smartphones. Thus, any solution that aims to be inclusive and reach the bottom half of the population needs to also work on feature phones.
Learn2Earn leverages the recent proliferation of mobile phones, as well as mobile payments, to offer a radical new approach to running public awareness campaigns. Rather than spending large amounts of money on billboards, TV or radio spots, or in-person events, we propose to take these funds directly to the target population: when people learn, they earn.
Our system works via a free phone call. After calling the number, users take a short multiple-choice quiz on a social issue. If they get any answer wrong, they are immediately informed of this and need to retake the question at the end of the quiz. Users who consecutively answer all questions correctly are rewarded with an instant mobile top-up, and can earn additional top-ups by referring the system to others.
This solution works in areas without Internet, as well as on the older feature phones. It is also an effective, data-centric model of raising awareness, since we can measure the amount of learning that occurs on the system. In the long term, we believe that Learn2Earn could represent a new paradigm for public awareness campaigns. It avoids expensive advertising and labor-intensive outreach, replacing them with a new earning opportunity for low-income populations. Moreover, it enables rigorous tracking of learning gains, which demonstrates the exact return-on-investment for donor agencies.
To the best of our knowledge, Learn2Earn is the first technology of its kind where people get paid to learn a particular piece of information. It is also novel in that it relies solely on cellular connectivity, which is more widely and freely available than 2G or 3G Internet. Another key strength of Learn2Earn is that it works with both smartphones as well as feature phones, since participation in the quiz is done through an IVR type menu where users need to simply press the number corresponding to the option they think is the right answer. These characteristics make it especially suitable for low-income communities that either do not have Internet access, or are not comfortable with using the Internet.
Conceptually, Learn2Earn is an experiment in paying people to learn about information. We envisage the creation of a rural marketing infrastructure that allows governments, political parties, NGOs and companies to reach remote populations and pay them mobile top-up for learning about their product/service/idea.
The creation of such an infrastructure can play a catalyzing role in improving connectivity in remote areas and bringing people onto the Internet.The inability to purchase expensive data packs is a major barrier to Internet access. In a survey we took in Chhattisgarh, 38/41 respondents said they travel 5-7 kilometres for a mobile top-up, while 18/20 said they would listen to ads in exchange for mobile talktime. The majority of respondents had minimal balance on their phone, only enough to allow them to place a missed call.
system, called Learn2Earn starts with a
user placing a free call to our Interactive Voice Response (IVR) server. (Since
toll-free numbers are expensive and not always understood, we invite users to
send a missed call and our server calls back for free.) The user is then made to answer a series of multiple-choice questions about a social issue, such as HIV awareness. For example, it might ask "Do you think you
get HIV by sharing a toilet with an HIV-positive person? If yes, press 1; if
not, press 2." If the user answers all questions correctly, they are
immediately rewarded with an Rs. 10 mobile top-up. If they answer a question wrong, they are immediately informed of the right answer and made to re-answer the question later.
Users are also offered an
additional top-up for every person that they refer to the system, and who
successfully complete the quiz. To keep track of which users have referred
others, we ask new users to provide the last five digits of the phone number of
the person that told them about the system, who then receive an additional top-up.
We have already demonstrated the technical feasibility, user acceptance, and scaling potential of Learn2Earn. We created an audio tutorial and quiz regarding the Forest Rights Act (legislation that enables farmers to protect their ancestral land). We worked with a local NGO in Chhattisgarh to expose 200 people to the system. Within 45 days, the system had spread via word-of-mouth to over 15,000 people who successfully completed the quiz.
We believe that Learn2Earn represents a paradigm shift compared to prior awareness campaigns. It distinguishes itself in three key ways. First, instead of spending money on expensive broadcast media, or labor-intensive counseling, we transfer funds directly to the target population (contingent on passing a quiz). In other words, Learn2Earn can be viewed as "pro-poor" in that it confers not only knowledge, but also a small amount of income, for low-income participants. Second, usage of Learn2Earn spreads via word-of-mouth from one person to another. If we seed usage with personal outreach to high-risk groups, the campaign can reach other members of those groups via "inside" referrals, above and beyond what is accessible with "outside" interventions. Finally, because we track each user's responses to quiz questions, we can directly measure the learning that was achieved as a result of the campaign.
One of the principal challenges in addressing HIV/AIDS is to build awareness about all aspects of the disease, including its causes, prevention, transmission, and treatment. While there has already been enormous investment in building awareness around HIV, current approaches have key limitations. Provision of in-person counseling is perhaps the most effective, but it is labor intensive and difficult to scale. An alternative approach is to utilize print or electronic media -- such as billboards, TV and radio advertisements, newspaper ads, and so on -- but these channels are expensive, and it is difficult to measure how many people pay attention to the messaging and what knowledge they gain from it. The problem is even more challenging because the highest risk populations are often "hidden" from mainstream view, and thus difficult to target without being embedded within the community.
We have now received $19,000 in grants from Columbia University, Ford Foundation, Development Alternatives and Microsoft Research India to deploy Learn2Earn to raise awareness on HIV in Solapur, a third tier city in Maharashtra where there is widespread ignorance on the causes of transmission of the the HIV virus and the different treatment options available. Our project addresses the challenges listed above via technology-enhanced awareness campaigns that are effective and affordable; have benefits that can be immediately measured; spread virally within at-risk populations through inside referrals; and are amenable to rapid scaling across the country.
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