Freedom Fone had its first public debut at the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) 2008 Forum in Cape Town, 14-17 November. The event was a great opportunity to deploy Freedom Fone — even in its software prototype state.

We prepared different content for each of the four days of the conference, and ran four “channels,” or options which users could access when they phoned in: Highlighted Sessions, Interviews with Presenters, Culture and Inspiration, and the Feminist Tech Hunt, which was run in association with Take Back the Tech.

We took advantage of South Africa’s deregulated VoIP and rented a VoIP number for the conference period. Whilst our prototype had not been originally created to run on VoIP, it took relatively few minor tweaks to make it accessible through VoIP. Doing this ourselves also provided a valuable opportunity to get to know the software, and the Asterisk core behind it, a bit better.

Much to our delight, the service itself ran fine. But the experience was not entirely smooth sailing. We knew that being able to receive people’s feedback directly over the phone would be a big attraction but our prototype does not have any kind of “leave a message” facility built into it. Asterisk has voice-mail functionality, and a solid day’s work on the backup server at our Harare office before the conference left us ebullient — we had created a viable work-around to enable callers to leave a message. It wasn’t the most elegant solution — and processing voice messages received would be awkward — but at least, we thought it would do the trick. Unfortunately, on arrival in Cape Town, the same few steps didn’t work on the server we had brought — and the problem ended up beyond our abilities.

We also experienced first hand the enormous challenge of getting conference participants, already suffering from information overload, to use our mobile information service.

Despite these challenges, the trip provided many important learning moments as we progress. We also made some important connections with women and organizations which we are hoping will be among the early users of Freedom Fone.

bead_phone_small.jpgHere’s a snap of one of the bead mobile phone key rings that we gave out to conference participants. Each key ring had a label publicizing the Freedom Fone number and a feminist quotation, like:

Why is it that only girls stand on the sides of their feet? As if they’re afraid to plant themselves?
~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams, 1990

Listen here to one of our favourite bits of content — the vox pops we recorded from participants in response to the question “How do you ground your feminism?”