Polly: Virally spread voice-based development-related information to lowliterate masses

Lahore, PakistanPakistan
Year Founded:
Project Stage:
$100,000 - $250,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

We use voice-based entertainment services over simple mobile phones to virally spread development information (jobs, healthcare,...) to low-literate masses. A simple voice game engages users; helps them overcome interface obstacles; provides information and encourages them to spread it to friends.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if voice-based games over simple phones could virally spread life-changing information to low-literate masses?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Poor, low-literate, remote and under served population segments do not have equal access to reliable, development related information (jobs, health, education, agriculture,...) like the affluent and literate. Television/radio are non-interactive; computers are expensive, difficult to operate and rely on stable electricity and internet; print media and SMS do not suit the low-literate; smartphone apps require some level of technical know-how.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Speech-based services over simple mobile phones can be used to spread development-related information to poor, remote, underserved and low-literate masses. Further challenges include training/engaging tech-shy users and spreading word about these services to the target population. We successfully employ simple entertainment and viral spread to achieve these goals. Our service "Polly" is a simple voice-based game that allows users to record their voice, modify it using funny voice modifications and forward the recording to their friends. This achieves both engagement and viral spread. Thus engaged we expose the users to voice-based development related services (recorded job ads, authentic healthcare information, citizen journalism, surveys).


Our research won the 2013 best paper award in the prestigious ACM CHI conference on Human-Computer Interaction.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Our solution involves two steps: 1. Polly game engages users and motivates them to spread it to their friends using free voice messaging 2. Engaged users are introduced to the "payload", which is always a development-related phone service: - In 2012 we launched Job-audio browser in Pakistan: Job ads suitable for low-skilled workers were selected from newspapers and recorded for audio-browsing - In 2013 we teamed up with Babajob.com (a job portal) and Jharkand Mobile Vaani (citizen radio-over-phone) in India and spread word about their IVR portals - In 2014 we launched Ebola Healthline in Guinea to spread information about Ebola - In 2015 we launched Hello Rozgar in Pakistan, a portal for employment and skill training opportunities

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

1. The first deployment of Polly in 2011 in Pakistan was seeded with 32 low-literate individuals and virally spread to 2000 users (10000 calls) in 21 days 2. In 2012, we scaled up Polly and added job-audio browser. Seeded with 5 old users, within a year Polly amassed 165000 users from all over Pakistan who took part in 636000 calls. At its peak it was spreading to 1000 new users every day. The 728 job ads in the system were listened 386000 times by 34000 users. Users included men and woman, primarily low-SES, including a large number blind users. 3. In 2013 Polly became viral in India and spread word about Babajob.com and Jharkand Mobile Vaani to 8200 users 4. In 2014 Ebola Healthline was deployed in Guinea where it spread Ebola-related information to 7600 users 5. The 2015 Hello-Rozgar has 72,288 users (2776 registered employees, 180 employers and 451 trainees).

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact?

Polly's spread is virally and exponential limited only by our airtime budget. We deliberately throttle it via usage quotas so that the airtime cost required to subsidize Polly for our users remains within our budget. Going forward we plan to: 1. Generate revenue through voice-based ads in Polly, sharing our costs with telcos and advertise Polly to clients needing information disseminate to low-literate masses 2. Add more services. We are working on grievance reporting, citizen journalism, discussion forums and information dissemination for emergency disaster/disease response

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Our major recurring expenses are: 1. Cost of subsidizing airtime for the users 2. Internet and hosting charges Currently the project is being funded by organizations interested in spreading/gathering information among low-literate, remote and hard-to-reach segments of the society. We plan to: 1. Play paid-ads (as Polly gets around 7000 calls per day (at its peak)) 2. Negotiate a cheaper call rates with telecos against a certain call volume

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

We do not know of others using voice-based games and voice messaging to spread development related services over simple mobile phones to low-literate users. However, there are others offering similar development services as our back-end services: - Web/IVR-based job portals: babajob.com, rozee.pk, monster.com. We believe or reach to the target audience is greater because Polly penetrates and spreads in low-SES strata. - Sangeet Swara and CGNet Swara are voice-based forums in India for entertainment and citizen journalism.

Founding Story

It came out of my doctoral thesis. In 2010, as a first year Computer Science PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, under the guidance of Roni Rosenfeld, I was looking into how information and communication technologies could help with socio-economic development all over the world and how mobile phone-based solutions remain limited to a handful of users because of interface hurdles. Our idea of using entertainment to overcome interface hurdles came from a paper: "Where there’s a will there’s a way: mobile media sharing in urban india" by Smyth et al. We started experimenting with various entertainment services. It took us by surprise when Polly's pilot became viral in Pakistan...


Our current team: Agha Ali Raza, Samia Razaq, Juneki Hong, Umar Saif, Roni Rosenfeld.
Please confirm how you heard about the Unilever Awards:

I heard about it through the office of sponsored projects of my university (Information Technology University, Lahore)

Please confirm your role in the initiative (eg Founder/co-Founder) and your organisational title:


Which of the 8 UN Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals) pre-selected for this competition does your solution relate most closely to? [select all that apply]

No Poverty, Gender Equality, Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Leadership and the Unilever Awards
Please provide examples of any previous entrepreneurial initiatives you have pioneered.
Beyond your existing team, who else are you working with to achieve your objectives, eg partners, advisors, mentors?

1. Roni Rosenfeld (Professor, Carnegie Mellon University)
2. Umar Saif (VC, Information Technology University; Chairman, Punjab Information Technology Board)
3. Bill Thies (Microsoft Research India)
4. Bhiksha Raj (Carnegie Mellon University)