Interactive voice response systems

Interactive Voice Response, or IVR systems, run on computers. They handle incoming phone calls and provide callers with a range of automated options, allowing them to report specific events or get specific information.

You can use FreePBX, Asterisk or TrixBox to do this. These tools are powerful and have great potential for advocacy, but they are currently very challenging to install and require Linux administration skills.

Interactive voice response works like this:
Someone calls your number and is greeted by a recorded voice message, for example: "Welcome to the election monitoring action line". The caller is then presented with a range of options: to register as an election monitor, press 1; to make a positive comment on the election, press 2; to report a violation, press 3; to hear a news update on how the elections are going, press 4; to repeat these options, press 5 and so on. The caller either speaks the appropriate number or presses it on their telephone key pad. They are then either taken to a new set of menus or asked to record a message. The whole process is automated

These systems are useful for guiding callers to specific information, such as a news broadcast or update, or allowing them to leave a message. Although IVR systems are more traditionally used in high-volume call centres (typically in telephone banking or customer services), they can also help NGOs to gather and distribute information, via voice, from and to the people they serve.

What are the advantages of using an IVR system?

Once an IVR system has been set up and configured, information is automatically distributed to and collected from incoming callers, requiring little further intervention from the NGO (except for updating any news or information broadcasts and monitoring the system's use and its reliability). IVR systems can therefore be left to run without much further manual intervention.

IVR systems are very useful where some of the people served by an organisation are illiterate, because they use voice rather than text. What's more, information can be gathered and distributed in greater volume, more cheaply, and generally faster, using voice than using SMS. Finally, since people are phoning you rather than the other way around, your NGO avoids the costs of making calls or sending texts.

What skills do I need to set up an IVR system?

The person setting up an IVR system for your organisation must have a knowledge of systems, network administration and basic telephony.

When you install an IVR system such as Asterisk it will be bundled with the following applications so a working familiarity with all of these applications is a requirement. The knowledge required is for the administration and maintenance of the systems rather than for installing the systems.

  • CentOS Linux operating system
  • Asterisk
  • Apache web server
  • PHP
  • MySQL database server
  • SendMail server
  • IPtables firewall
  • WebMin
  • phpMyAdmin

On the pages about specific tools we have included links to documentation for each of the IVR systems in this toolkit. Further guidance can be found in the 'Building Voice Infrastructure in Developing Regions' guide which is available online. This guide is for technical and non-technical readers. The first part gives you the essential basic information about telephony via the Internet. For those interested in more technical details, hands-on guidelines and configuration files are included in the second part. The examples provide essential background for building your own low-cost telephony system. The last part demonstrates three realistic scenarios of how Voice over Internet Protocol can be used in rural communities in developing regions. The scenarios cover how to build a local telephony system and how to connect it to other voice networks.

What IVR tools are available?

For more about tools for creating an Interactive Voice Response system, look at TrixBox, Asterisk and FreePBX. These three tools have slightly different functions and levels of difficulty;

  • TrixBox is the easiest to use as it will install Asterisk for you on a server computer. However, be warned that it requires a dedicated server and will wipe any existing data off a computer when it is installed.
  • FreePBX gives you a more user friendly interface than Asterisk.
  • Asterisk is very challenging to use but is very configurable.

Asterisk
Set up an office phone system, make free or very cheap phone calls over the internet and create your own Interactive Voice Response systems.

Asterisk is an open source/free software system which allows you to set up a telephone private branch exchange (PBX) and to connect to other telephone services including the public telephone network. You can set up features such as voice mail, conference calling, Interactive Voice Response and automatic call forwarding.

Cost: Free

FreePBX
Set up and manage an office phone system - a simpler version of Asterisk

FreePBX is a free software application which has some pre-programmed functions that aren't available in Asterisk. It allows you to create and manage extensions, voicemail, IVR (Interactive Voice Response), and some other features. These functions are accessed via a user-friendly web interface.

Cost: Free

TrixBox
A more user-friendly version of Asterisk which incorporates FreePBX

TrixBox is a telephone system based on Asterisk (see above).