Viral Entertainment as a Vehicle for Disseminating Speech-based Services to Low-literate Users in the Developing World.

A viral phone game in Pakistan trains people to use their keypad—and gives them the skills they need to hunt for a job.

MIT Technology Review

Polly is a simple game, but it exemplifies a concept that has the potential to make a big difference in the world: using entertainment to reach underprivileged populations. If Polly spreads throughout the rest of the world as fast as it spread through Pakistan, it will change millions of lives.

The Tartan

Their work, recently published at the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), has received critical acclaim, including a Best Paper award at the conference.

IEEE Signal Processing Society


June 2015: Polly was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.

May 2015: Polly is part of the ongoing anti-Ebola information campaign in the Soussou-speaking Forecariah region of Guinea, one of the remaining pockets of persistent Ebola transmission.

March 2015: Polly is now deployed in Guinea, for person-to-person spreading of approved Public Health messages about Ebola in eight local languages, in collaboration with the US embassy in Conakry. For a live demo of Polly as it is currently deployed in Guinea call:

Polly/Game: +1-412-346-6014

Polly/Healthline: +1-413-200-8503

You will be answered in English. When called locally in Guinea, Polly will default to French (it will also reject the incoming call and immediately call back, to avoid any user charges).

October 2014: We are scrambling to reconfigure Polly for ASAP deployment in any of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, for person-to-person spreading of approved Public Health messages about Ebola in many languages.

June 2014: Polly has gone viral in India and its user volume is growing exponentially. Launched in Bangalore, it has spread to West Bengal and the New Delhi Area.

May 2014: Polly has been launched in Jharkand, India, in collaboration with Jharkhand Mobile Vaani.

July 2013: Polly has been launched in Bangalore, India, in collaboration with Babajob.com.

May 2013: The second version of Polly was seeded with 5 users on May 9, 2012. As of one year later (May 08, 2013) it has amassed 164,807 users who have taken part in 636,536 calls. The overall call volume of Polly has now reached 2,524,038 calls.

February 2013: Our CHI paper just won the Best Paper award (see “Publications”).

What is Polly?

Polly is a telephone-based system for reaching low-literate populations via a simple voice-based game, then providing them with development-related voice-based services.

We tested a pilot version of Polly in 2011. In 3 weeks it amassed over 2,000 users and over 10,000 calls. We had to shut down the pilot because the growing user population overwhelmed our single telephone line. In May 2012 we procured 30 lines and re-launched. In one week we have saturated these 30 lines and have been operating under this capacity limit since May 9, 2012.

The most important addition in May 2012 was the introduction of a development-related application (what we call ‘the payload’) as part of the dialog menu: we daily scan Pakistani newspapers for advertisement for jobs that are appropriate for low-skilled, low-literate workers, record them in the local language, and make them available for audio-browsing by phone. A caller can browse job opportunities, and can even forward a promising one to a friend. So far these job ads have been listened to 386,304 times.

In July 2013, we teamed up with Babajob.com to launch Polly in Bangalore, India. Babajob.com is an entry level and informal job portal in India that maintains a database of tens of thousands of low-skill job opportunities in the BLR area. We launched Polly in India to find out if it can become viral in a different country and also to be able to measure the true impact of the back-end service through Babajob. Finding out the necessary conditions for making Polly viral in India took some time but finally we succeeded in achieving not only virality but also exponential spread.

In May 2014, we launched another version of Polly in India, in the Jharkand area, in conjunction with Jharkand Mobile Vaani (JMV). JMV is a citizen radio-over-phone platform currently receiving participation from nearly all districts in Jharkhand. In this venture Polly is used for the first time as a cross-selling service that spreads in the population and spearheads awareness about JMV. Likewise, JMV advertises about Polly. This work is still in progress.

Since March 2015, we have been deploying Polly in Guinea, for person-to-person spreading of approved Public Health messages about Ebola in 12 local languages, in collaboration with the US embassy in Conakry.

Contact Us

We are grateful for the generous support of:




Carnegie Mellon University (Langauge Technologies Institute)

Agha Ali Raza
Agha Ali Raza
Nikolas Wolf
Nikolas Wolfe
Juneki Hong
Juneki Hong
Bhiksha Raj
Bhiksha Raj
Roni Rosenfeld
Roni Rosenfeld

Lahore University of Management Sciences (School of Science & Engineering)

Farhan Ul Haq
Farhan Ul Haq
Zain Tariq
Zain Tariq
Mansoor Pervaiz
Mansoor Pervaiz
Samia Razaq
Samia Razaq
Umar Saif
Umar Saif

[1] NPR

[2] CMU
Press Release
The Tartan
The Link
8.5x11 News

[3] MIT Technology Review

[4] The Times of India

[5] IEEE Signal Processing Society

[6] Science Newsline

[7] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

[8] TechGig.com

[9] Geeks without Bounds

[10] Yahoo Finance, India

[11] GizMag

[12] WebIndia

[13] Billionbulbs

[14] redOrbit

[15] Technology Times, Pakistan

[16] SIP Trunking Report

[17] UPI Asia

[1] Agha Ali Raza, Rajat Kulshreshtha, Spandana Gella, Sean Blagsvedt, Maya Chandrasekaran, Bhiksha Raj, Roni Rosenfeld, Viral Spread via Entertainment and Voice Messaging Among Telephone Users in India. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD '16), Jun 03-06, 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

[2] Nikolas Wolfe, Juneki Hong, Agha Ali Raza, Bhiksha Raj and Roni Rosenfeld, Rapid Development of Public Health Education Systems in Low-Literacy Multilingual Environments: Combating Ebola Through Voice Messaging. In SLaTE (Workshop on Speech and Language Technology in Education), Satellite Event of INTERSPEECH 2015, September 4-5, 2015, Leipzig, Germany.

[3] Yibin Lin, Agha Ali Raza, Jay-Yoon Lee, Danai Koutra, Roni Rosenfeld and Christos Faloutsos, Influence Propagation: Patterns, Model and a CaseStudy. In PAKDD2014 (The 18th Pacific-Asia Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining), May 13-16, 2014, Tainan, Taiwan.

[4] Haohan Wang, Agha Ali Raza, Yibin Lin and Roni Rosenfeld, Behavior Analysis of Low-literate Users of a Viral Speech-based Telephone Service. In ACM DEV-4, December 6-7, 2013, Cape Town, South Africa.

[5] Agha Ali Raza, Farhan Ul Haq, Zain Tariq, Mansoor Pervaiz, Samia Razaq, Umar Saif and Roni Rosenfeld, Job Opportunities through Entertainment: Virally Spread Speech-Based Services for Low-Literate Users, in Proceedings of the 2013 ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. April 27-May 2, 2013, Paris, France. CHI Best Paper Award. (Download Extended Version)

[6] Agha Ali Raza, Farhan Ul Haq, Zain Tariq, Umar Saif and Roni Rosenfeld, Spread and Sustainability: The Geography and Economics of Speech-Based Services. In ACM DEV, January 11-12, 2013.(Download Extended Abstract)

[7] Agha Ali Raza, Mansoor Pervaiz, Christina Milo, Samia Razaq, Guy Alster, Jahanzeb Sherwani, Umar Saif, and Roni Rosenfeld. 2012. Viral entertainment as a vehicle for disseminating speech-based services to low-literate users. In Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD '12). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 350-359. DOI=10.1145/2160673.2160715 http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2160673.2160715. (Download)

Presentations and Posters

1. Guest Lecture at ITU, Lahore, Pakistan.

2. DEV-4 Presentation.

3. CHI 2013 Presentation.

4. ICTD 2012 poster.

5. A presentation describing the first launch of Polly.

Roni Rosenfeld
email: roni@cs.cmu.edu
office: Gates-Hillman Complex 8103, 5000 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh, PA, 15213.
phone: 412-268-7678
Umar Saif
email: umar@lums.edu.pk
office: Dept of Computer Science, School of Science and Engineering, Lahore University of Management Sciences, Opp. Sector-U, Phase 4, DHA, Lahore, Pakistan - Postal Code: 54792.
phone: 92-111-115-867 ext: 8198
Agha Ali Raza
email: araza@cs.cmu.edu
office: 6414 Gates and Hillman Centers, 5000 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh, PA, 15213.
phone: 92-333-420-44-96