How A Drunken Chipmunk Voice Helps Send A Public Service Message

How A Drunken Chipmunk Voice Helps Send A Public Service Message

9:54am Jun 02, 2015
Illlustration by Hanna Barczyk
Illlustration by Hanna Barczyk

You get a voicemail message from a friend. Her voice sounds a little ... weird. Like a chipmunk who had too much to drink.

After her message, you're told you can push a button on the phone and hear another kind of message: say, job listings in your neighborhood or tips on how to stop the spread of Ebola.

That's how a new game called Polly works. It was designed by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University to help get useful information to people with little or no reading skills.

Polly asks you if you want to record a message for a friend and make it sound goofy.

Drunken Chipmunk is only one option. Polly can turn a man's voice into a woman's voice (or vice versa), make you sound romantic or like you need to go to the bathroom.

Polly then sends your goofy-sounding message to the friend and asks if he or she wants to record a message and send it to a friend after Polly makes it sound goofy. If people like playing this game, it goes viral.

Now here's the serious part.

"Once we are spreading, we can add on top of that health messages or employment messages or other messages," says Roni Rosenfeld, one of Polly's creators.

He and his colleagues developed Polly as a way to reach people who can't read. A few years ago, they used Polly in Pakistan to spread information about how to find a job.

To get started, all people had to do was call a local number.

"We gave the number to 30 people [in Pakistan]," says Rosenfeld. "Then within two weeks we had to shut down the system because we got 10,000 calls, we had only a single phone line and we couldn't maintain the volume.

"A few months later when we got 30 lines, we opened it again, gave the number to five people, and it took off to thousands and then tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands."

According to the researchers, 20 percent of about 165,000 people playing the game also listened to the employment message.

Last November, Rosenfeld started working on a version of Polly for the West African nation of Guinea, where Ebola is still a problem.

Instead of giving out employment information, Polly tells Guineans what to do if they suspect someone has Ebola, how to avoid getting Ebola and what to do when someone dies of Ebola. The idea is to build on what health workers are doing on the ground.

Rosenfeld says Polly is catching on more slowly in Guinea than in Pakistan. He knows people are forwarding messages to their friends, "but the numbers remain in the thousands, not in the hundreds of thousands." So the game is being tweaked to make it more appealing.

Polly's Africa debut was largely propelled by one of Rosenfeld's grad students, Agha Ali Raza. Last November wasn't a great time for Raza to start a new project. He was trying to finish up his Ph.D. But he decided he had no choice.

"I did not want myself to be in a situation like a year from this time to think that 'OK, I was there, I could have done something, but I did not try,'" says Raza. "So I wanted to be in a situation that 'I was there, I tried my best, maybe I failed, but I tried my best.'"

Also working on the Polly release in Guinea are Nikolas Wolfe, Juneki Hong and Bhiksh Raj from Carnegie Mellon and Kimberly Phelan Royston, Emily Greem and David Kierski at the U.S. Embassy in Conakry.

Raza, meanwhile, did manage to finish his Ph.D. He plans to keep working on Polly at his new job at the Information Technology University in Lahore, Pakistan.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to hear next about a solution to a classic challenge - how to get people to pay attention to something that's important but may be dull.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is also a solution to a serious problem in the developing world. It's how to get health information to people who may not be able to read it.

MONTAGNE: Researchers have tried this solution in Guinea. It's a life or death matter, as we'll hear, but it starts with getting people to play a game on their phones. The game is the latest focus of Joe's Big Idea from NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The game is called Polly, and here's how it works. Polly calls you on your cell phone and asks you if you want to record a message for a friend and make it sound goofy, so you might start with something like this.

GREENE: Hi, Renee. It's David. I'm running a little bit late. Do you mind picking up my interviews this morning?

PALCA: And then Polly turns it into this.

GREENE: (Using Drunken Chipmunk voice) Hi, Renee. It's David. I'm running a little bit late. Do you mind picking up my interviews this morning?

PALCA: There are several different voice transformations you can choose. That one is called Drunken Chipmunk. Here's another.

GREENE: (Using I Need A Bathroom voice) Hi, Renee. It's David. I'm running a little bit late. Do you mind picking up my interviews this morning?

PALCA: That one is called I Need A Bathroom. Anyway, Polly sends Renee David's goofy-sounding message and then asks if she wants to send her own goofy message to someone else. If people like playing the game, it goes viral, and here's the serious part.

RONI ROSENFELD: Once we are spreading, we can add - as a payload, we can add on top of that health messages or employment messages or other messages.

PALCA: Roni Rosenfeld is one of Polly's developers. He's a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He and his colleagues developed Polly as a way to reach people who can't read. A few years ago, they used Polly in Pakistan to spread information about how to find a job. In Pakistan, to get started playing with Polly, all people had to do was call a local number.

ROSENFELD: We gave the number to 30 people originally. Then within two weeks, we had to shut down the system because we got 10,000 calls. We had only a single phone line. We couldn't maintain the volume. A few months later, when we got 30 lines, we opened it again and gave the number to five people and it took off to thousands and then tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people. That was a big success story.

PALCA: Rosenfeld says a large percentage of the people playing the game also listened to the employment message. Last November, Rosenfeld started working on a version of Polly to deploy in the African nation of Guinea where Ebola is still a problem. Instead of employment information, Polly's payload in Africa tells you things like what to do if you suspect someone has Ebola, how to avoid getting Ebola, what to do when someone dies of Ebola. Rosenfeld says Polly is starting to catch on in Guinea. They know people are forwarding messages to their friends.

ROSENFELD: But in terms of numbers, the numbers remain in the thousands not in the hundreds of thousands so far.

PALCA: Rosenfeld says they're tweaking Polly to make it more appealing to people in Guinea. Getting Polly going in Africa was largely propelled by one of Rosenfeld's grad students Agha Ali Raza.

AGHA ALI RAZA: I walked into Roni's office one day, and he started talking about the Ebola epidemic.

PALCA: They quickly realized that one of the big problems in West Africa was the lack of information about the disease, a problem Polly was perfect to help solve. It wasn't a great time for Raza to start a new project - he was swamped trying to finish up his Ph.D - but he decided he had no choice.

RAZA: I did not want myself to be in a situation like a year from this time to think that OK, I was there. I could have done something, but I did not try. So I wanted to be in a situation - OK, I was there, I tried my best, maybe I failed, but that would be enough for me.

PALCA: Raza did manage to finish his Ph.D. He plans to keep working on Polly at his new job at the Information Technology University in Lahore, Pakistan. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station