UPDATE from Northern Uganda Medical Mission: It's official! NUMEM Health Centre will introduce our Rural Emergency Medical Communication System this July, sharing our goal of universal and quality health care access with community members. We are now in possession of eight top of the line Question Boxes that we will be installing throughout the district, and are in the process of purchasing a motorbike we will use to reach patients who live in the hard-to-reach areas. By the end of June we will have connected to a closed caller group through AirTel, and have begun surveying community members to gauge community need. We are so excited about launching the system and improving access to health care in Pader!
Hello friends of Question Box. We've got some big news - EIGHT new Question Boxes, built by our partner manufacturing facility in Taiwan, are right now making their way to Pader, Uganda! They are going to a great grassroots organization - the Northern Uganda Medical Mission. NUMEM is founded by local clinicians from Pader, who have founded a medical facility in the area. The Question Boxes will link directly to the clinicians during office hours, allowing people in 8 villages access to a medical specialist right away when something is of concern. Additionally, the Question Boxes will serve as a 24/7 ambulance dispatch, for the only ambulance in the District! The nearest hospital is 2-3 hours away, and this service will ensure that people in need can get transport in time. If you'd like to support or learn more about the project, please connect with us, or with NUMEM.
We are working with a great local group, Northern Uganda Medical Mission - to bring 8 Question Boxes to villages in Pader, Uganda. Take a look at the great video NUMEM made, explaining why this new medical hotline is important, and how the introduction of Question Boxes will link communities to medical care:
Mark Beckford of nComputing wrote a great article about Open Mind - Question Box.Essentially, he explains how Question Box vaults over the slow bandwidth speeds found in most of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Read the original post, or read it after the jump:
October 8, 2009 — 06:00 am
Question Box in India
A Simple Solution for the Information Divide
I guarantee that anybody reading this blog takes for granted the wealth of information at their fingertips. Looking for something? Google it.
But for the billions of of people in the developing world that don't even have a mobile phone, what do they do?
Last year at SoCAP '08 I met a young woman with an intriguing social venture called Open Mind. She had attended the panel I was hosting on ICT for Development and approached me after the session about a project called Question Box. Her name was Rose Shuman and she had an idea for a free telephone hotline service to bring information to those in the developing world that don't have access to a phone or computer.
The value proposition she presented was remarkably simple: put a box in rural communities where people don't have fixed-line or mobile phone service. They just push a button and are connected to an operator who has a PC with an internet connection. The operator can look up the question using the internet and provide that information for free.
She was looking for feedback on the idea, and if I recall correctly, I believe I told her I saw two potential obstacles. The first was the ability to scale a non-profit project that was dependent on manufacturing and deploying these devices to villages across India. The second was the proliferation of the mobile phone and how she could tap into that device as a way to deploy the service. Both of these had to do with getting the business model right.
I hadn't talked to her about the project since then, but last week she forwarded me an article about Question Box in the New York Times. She has since partnered with the Grameen Foundation and has received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, so I'm happy to see her finding early successes.
She has expanded this service to Africa. In Uganda, they had to modify the service away from a device-centric model to a mobile-phone centric model. Africa has terrible broadband connectivity. Wayan Vota, who writes and manages the OLPCNews and Education Technology Debate blogs, sent me this screen shot of his broadband speed in Nigeria:
As you can see above, he was getting modem speeds of around 14.4 to 28.8 kbps. Open Mind thus decided to hire Question Box "agents" who have mobile phones and wear prominent shirts in order to identify them.
These agents then phone into the a call center in a central location with decent broadband connectivity and ask the question on behalf of the individual. The agents get compensated with free cellphone air time. They plan to expand the service to existing mobile phone users who can text or call the center directly.
A new similar service recently cropped in the US cryptically called KGB. You text a question to 542542 (which is KGBKGB on your phone key pad) and for 99 cents they text you back the answer. The service wasn't that impressive when I tried it out specifically for this article. I asked the question: "Are there other similar services like KGB in developing countries like India?" The unhelpful answer was: "KGB does have simmular services in other countries but we do not divulge the mane of the services." That is not my incorrect spelling, that answer is verbatim from my mobile phone. And there are other services.
I have often discussed the three requirements of a disruptive innovation. It must be simple, easy to use, and provide a unique value to the user. And to be successful, it needs to adopt a business model that works for that specific user group. Rose's venture meets all of these requirements, especially in simplicity.
You can't get much simpler than a service that requires you to just push a button.
Swine Flu is a concern to Question Box users in both India and Uganda. Today in Loni, India, we got our first swine flu question, asking about its symptoms. There has been a major outbreak of swine flu in Pune/Mumbai, and Pune has been proclaimed an epidemic affected region. Schools/colleges/public gatherings have been closed till 17 August
CKW Paul Nkoola in the field
Recently in Uganda, we saved a young man's livelihood. Grameen Foundation reports:
Impact from AppLab Question Box
Cost saving realized through improved decision making
CKW: Paul Nkoola
Anecdote: A young man in Paul’s village saved all his earnings to invest in piglets. When people learned about the spread of swine flu, they advised him to kill his pigs. He was extremely concerned and did not want to kill them but did not know what he should do. He knew that Paul was offering a service that allowed farmers to ask any question to an expert hotline and asked Paul for advice. Paul called AppLab Question Box and learned that swine flu is not spread through pigs and that the disease had not been detected in Uganda. The young man was relieved and continued rearing his pigs. By increasing his knowledge, the client averted a mistake that would have severely damaged his future prospects.
Becky Hurwitz, Michael Manoochehri and Charlene Chen of Berkley's I-School visit the Question Box call center at Appfrica Labs in Kampala, Uganda.
A little bit about our work in Uganda...
Perhaps, the most exciting aspect of Question Box is that it's the perfect example of cross-cultural solutions to local problems. The Question Box was first piloted in India in a very different form. Actual boxes that were placed on walls. The box has a mobile phone in it that's pre-programmed to dial a specific number (the local QB call center). Users approach the box and push a button that triggers the call. Once connected, they ask an operator a question in their local language and get their answer back in that same language. In India the operators search the internet, they simply place the operators in a place with a good internet connection. But the software solution developed in Uganda offers the opportunity to improve the service in India as well by searching locally focused verticals and logging queries offline instead of relying upon the masssively unfocused world wide web. Likewise, the mobile-solar question box developed in India is an ideal solution for use in Uganda's semi-tropical climate. With these two bottom-of-the-pyramid countries sharing knowledge and experience, there's no limit to the concepts that can be tested and implemented.