September 2018
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Next-generation speech technologies, coupled with mobile, can make e-Gov a mass phenomenon

ICTpost Governance Bureau

policy reforms that address both talent shortages and establishment of institutional providers must be executed to meet at least the nation's basic infrastructure needs

In rural areas, citizen information services can be provided more effectively by using speech interfaces, thus effectively overcoming barriers of literacy and infrastructure

While the Indian cultural and demographic fabric is vibrant in its diversity, it also throws up stark differences. India is a nation that houses the literate, the semi-literate and the completely illiterate, all within the space of a few kilometres. Therefore finding a medium that binds the myriad consumer needs and preferences is a key challenge.
Most of the current e-Governance programmes are powered by computers and broadband connections, which come to a standstill in rural areas and smaller cities that lack the infrastructure. In this context, effectiveness of e-Governance is implicitly dependent on the e-readiness quotient of a state usually measured using the broad parameters of network access, network learning, network policy, and network economy.

 State m-Gov initiatives

A perfect example is m-Sampark, an e-Governance initiative from the Chandigarh Administration, which enables citizens to access information on a whole range of e-Sampark services from their mobile phones by simply sending an SMS. To avail the m-Sampark services, all a citizen is required to do is to SMS ‘SMENU’ to 58888. M-Sampark provides services such as getting the electricity bill, water bill, or a list of all documents accepted for age proof and residence proof. It is really convenient for citizens to know of the different services through their cellular phones even in the absence of Internet connectivity.

Another interesting example where mobile technology is being harnessed at the grass-root level to provide government service is a pilot project in Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh called Anant Sampark. Set up by Harnessing Wireless Access (ASHWA), it is aimed at establishing practicable e-Governance infrastructures that will connect rural areas with the district headquarter.

Through ASHWA, villagers can apply for various records such as death, birth, income, and domicile and land over the mobile phone. The project will help in keeping a close watch on government functionaries, including teachers of primary schools in villages, Aganwadi workers and doctors posted in rural areas. It will also help the state government monitor different programs run in villages such as the mid-day meal scheme and the national guarantee employment scheme, among others.

Benefits of speech technology

For social mobilisation and awareness generation programmes to succeed one needs to take into consideration the demographics and local conditions for deployment that can facilitate citizen-to-government interfaces. There should be seamless access to information and also seamless flow of information. With the aim to make e-Governance services available to every citizen, the government is piloting advanced mobile technology and speech technologies to tackle the illiteracy problem.

Speech being the most natural means of communication, it has provided a consummate platform for man-machine interaction. India is a country where there are numerous dialects, and people prefer using their own language to communicate. Speech recognition solutions today encompass all prominent Indian regional languages, which will go a long way in strengthening e-Governance initiatives. In rural and remote areas, citizen information services can be provided more effectively by using speech interfaces, thus effectively overcoming barriers of literacy, language and infrastructure. And it is in this context that mobile phones, supplemented by speech technology,can play a crucial role in accelerating e-Governance deliverables.

A recent example of speech technology in e-Governance is the deployment of speech-to- text technology in Karnataka high courts to help write judgments. Government of Karnataka adopted speech technology for quick disposal of cases and to provide better services to citizens, as the shortage of stenographers was hampering the functioning of judiciary.

Voice verification technologies are being used for authenticating and recording attendance in social schemes like National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). It has helped in eliminating the cases of fake attendances at NREGA.

Value added services (VAS) providers have already started deploying speech-based technologies to provide better services to their customers. SBI Mutual Fund and YES Bank customer services are enabling customers to use voice instead of traditional touch-tones for self-service. This next generation IVR is able to provide a number of services that are currently being done by agents manually. With this, the customers need not wait for agents to be available as the process gets automated and is geared for quick response.

Sustaining the momentum
Speech, voice verification and text-to-speech technologies, by utilising upgraded and ubiquitous mobile infrastructure, have the power to transform the current face of e-Governance to make it a far-reaching and all encompassing wave.
Rapid technological advancement and quick adoption, mainly fostered by mobile access have made social and technology inclusion achievable rather than a far-fetched dream of a developing nation. The need of the hour seems to be to harness the unexplored potential of the mobile and speech platforms.

It will be important to see how governments are able to share knowledge and learning and ride on this opportunity. Finally, it will be particularly critical to note whether the disadvantaged and the marginalised can and will influence the face of e-Governance using these technologies.