For people without internet access, telephone-based services can still be an invaluable tool for things like finding jobs. Unfortunately, many poor and illiterate citizens of Pakistan simply don’t know how to use such services. In an effort to introduce them to the concepts involved, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Pakistan's Lahore University have launched a “silly phone game” known as Polly.

The game allows users to record a message, convert their recorded voice into one of several funny-sounding other voices, and then send that message to one or more recipients. Along the way, audio prompts require them to press certain keys or say certain things. Recipients likewise use the service to listen to the message, then respond to it or forward it to other people.

The people that Polly is aimed at generally haven’t had much incentive to use telephone services (even though most of them have access to phones), so they don’t know what to do on the odd occasions that they try them. “They expect to talk to a person on the other end of the line,” said Carnegie Mellon PhD student Agha Ali Raza. “When they hear, ‘Press 1 to do this,’ or ‘Press 2 to do that,’ they don't press anything; they just start talking.”

By introducing a fun and simple service, the researchers are hoping to get those people more comfortable with the technology. In order to add some value to Polly, they’ve also introduced the option of listening to local job postings while using the service.

So far, the project seems to be a success. Last May, the phone number for Polly was given to just five low-skilled workers. By the middle of September, 85,000 people had used the service nearly 500,000 times. Although budget cutbacks subsequently required the number of uses to be limited, by the middle of this month over 160,000 people had used Polly for almost 2.5 million calls.

The job postings have been listened to over 380,000 times, and forwarded over 21,000 times. Those numbers should increase as Polly’s service area is widened.

Of course, as with any novelty, recording funny phone calls won’t keep people calling back indefinitely. It’s hoped that as services such as the job listings are added, however, people will start using it for those things instead – and that already appears to be happening.

“We found that users took to the job information in large numbers and that many of them started calling Polly specifically for that service – exactly the result we had hoped for,” said Carnegie Mellon’s Prof. Roni Rosenfeld, who collaborated on the project with Raza and Lahore associate professor Umar Saif.

A demonstration of the service can be seen in the video below.