Rural Bangladesh to gain mobile access

Credit: Abir Abdullah / Oxfam. Mobile information systems can take advantage of a range of communication channels.

Credit: Abir Abdullah / Oxfam. Mobile information systems can take advantage of a range of communication channels.

A $3.86 million donation will give over 20,000 farmers in Bangladesh access to a mobile information system that will propel them towards economic stability and empowerment.

The donation from the Empowerment Charitable Trust will fund a system that farmers in isolated regions in the north and southwest of Bangladesh, who currently have limited access to information, can use for answers to their agricultural issues.

The project launched 7 June in Bangladesh, and is to be led by Dr Larry Stillman from the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University, and delivered through Oxfam Bangladesh.

Dr Stillman said that although Bangladesh is a poor nation, they have a sophisticated mobile network with a high proportion of the population including women, owning or having access to a mobile phone.

“Our goal is to establish a two-way interactive text/voice system. Not only will the system answer questions, but it could also send targeted notifications of issues such as rising river heights or insect infestations. Given the limited literacy, and the power of the phone as voice device, voice interactivity will be an important part of the project,” Dr Stillman said. 

“The system will provide more economic stability in the future because not only will farmers know how to deal with a tick on their cow, but also when their cows are most likely come into contact with ticks, and can take preventative action.”

The database system will use topic modelling to group voice and text messages, which can be ranked by importance/urgency. Tools such as computational geometry will determine the location of mobile phones close to a specific event, and will send a notification.

Critical to the project is the community involvement, particularly women in determining their information needs and priority in conjunction with experts, rather than experts deciding what is important.

Australian High Commissioner Greg Wilcock said he is delighted to see Monash University and Oxfam Bangladesh collaborating on an innovative, five-year development project using mobile technology to empower the poor through better access to information. 

“This initiative is yet another example of Australian philanthropy at work in Bangladesh. It complements and stands alongside the Australian Government's long-standing development partnership with Bangladesh," Mr Wilcock said.

Oxfam Bangladesh have identified two local partners who will help engage with the community in Rangpur Division, Dhaka Division and Granges Delta. The chosen areas are isolated communities that are extremely poor and face issues of environmental degradation and food insecurity.

Snehal V Soneji Country Director from Oxfam Bangladesh, said the project provides a great opportunity for Oxfam in Bangladesh to explore innovative ways to enhance community information exchange, and support communities in the country to lift themselves out of poverty, with women playing a leading role.

“Easy access to information on humanitarian disasters, how to increase crop yields and market produce, and support for victims of violence will be particularly useful for poor and vulnerable communities in remote areas,” Mr Soneji said.