'Polly' Project Uses Prank Calls To Help Guinea Fight Ebola

Prank-calling usually serves no other purpose aside from being extremely annoying.

In western Guinea however, it's being used to fight Ebola. Yes that's right, Ebola.

All the Polly project requires is a working landline.

On dialling the designated number, the caller records a message which the software can manipulate to sound like a drunk chipmunk or transform males voices into female voices (or vice versa). In true prank-calling fashion, the caller can then forward the changed message to friends.

The more serious point to the exercise is that in Guinea, which has been particularly hard hit by the virus, the messages link to recordings of health information provided by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Guinea’s Ebola Coordination Unit.

This is the first time Polly has been used as part of a public health initiative. Previously, it was piloted in Pakistan and then India to help people find jobs.

The project reportedly went viral with over 600,000 calls being made by 164,807 users in one year as the technology is inexpensive with the biggest cost being airtime.

A team at Carnegie Mellon University Pennsylvania has been working to make it applicable to public health.

Agha Ali Raza, a Fulbright scholar who just completed his PhD in language technologies said: "We knew that one of the problems was a lack of information, particularly in remote areas and in the local languages, which was exactly what we try to alleviate with Polly.”

Finally some real good has come of prank-calling.

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