Freakonomics Profiles Question Box

At the front of the room, two phone operators busily answered ringing phones for QuestionBox, a pilot project with The Grameen Foundation. The service acts as a Google for rural Africans, providing information to those without Internet access. People can call in with questions or relay them to the staffers QuestionBox dispatches to rural villages.

Question Box Saves Piglets! & Swine Flu in Loni

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.

Question Box in new town

The Question Box has just made its debut in Manjiri, a town outside of Pune. Question Box engineers Satish and Sachin (on left, Sachin with mask) are shown with the grocery story proprietor.

Satish's sister has just joined as a community awareness worker, and she will be circulating amongst the population to educate them on the Question Box.

We immediately got questions on poisonous snakes and the price of Toor Dahl.

See and download the full gallery on posterous

The Guardian covers Question Box at TED Global 2009

Jon spoke with The Guardian about Question Box and how it is being used to find out what Ugandans really want to know. home

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TEDGlobal: Mobile phone search service for Uganda

Jon Gosier of Appfrica has launched a simple project using a corp of mostly volunteers with mobile phones to find out what Ugandans want to know

World Wants to Know
A real-time list of questions Ugandans are asking community knowledge workers

One of the features of TEDGlobal was two sessions called TED University where attendees could give short presentations on ideas or projects they were working on. The Grameen Foundation recently contacted African designer, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jon Gosier of because they wanted to know: What do people in Africa want to know?

They knew if they opened up a hotline and offered to answer anyone's question about what they wanted to know that they would quickly be overwhelmed. Working with 'community knowledge workers' who were usually retirees looking for a way to give back to their community, people in a village in Uganda could ask these workers questions. The workers then would relay those questions back to operators using an offline internet application to find the answer in real-time. Gosier said:

We gathered so much insight into a part of the world that we don't know much about.

Passionate about data visualisations, Gosier also wanted to release the information in a way that easily showed where the questions were coming from and also the range of the topics. You can see the questions that are being asked in real time at the site, World Wants to Know. While the West and Gosier enjoys social networking tools like Facebook and many choices in terms of real-time communications, he was interested to offer something from "such a rural part of the world"

Word cloud of topics asked by Ugandans

A visualisation of topics asked by Ugandans involved in the project

I spoke to him more about the project and it's aims, and here is what he had to say:

Jon Gosier and Question Box - a highlight of TED Global 2009

Jessica Griggs, a reporter for New Scientist, learned about Question Box at TED Global 2009 and was impressed.

Heading - NewScientist

Heading - Short Sharp Science

Whooping and saving the world at TED

pinhead.JPGJessica Griggs, reporter

I am at the TED Global 2009 conference at Oxford, UK.

TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. They say it is the only conference in the world that actually makes a profit - not surprising when tickets are $4500 a pop.

Highlights included Jonathan Gosier, the founder of a software startup called AppAfrica. Gosier introduced us to Question Box, a service which effectively provides a speaking Wikipedia for people in remote villages in India and Africa without access to the internet and those unable to read.

Forbes Features Jon Gosier, Open Mind - Question Box CTO

Question Box CTO Jon Gosier got great coverage from

A Google For Rural Africa
Bruce Upbin, 07.23.09, 6:00 PM ET

OXFORD, England -

Jonathan Gosier, one of the TED Fellows at the conference here, presented his project called QuestionBox that promises to bring answers to the curious in the most remote parts of the developing world. Gosier started by asking the question, how do we know what people want to know? Google knows what we want to know, and builds its search engine around those requests, but that service covers those of us in rich countries with widespread access to PCs and broadband. What about in rural Uganda?

With the help from the Grameen Foundation and a not-for-profit called OpenMind he staffed up a small call-center where mobile phone owners can call up and ask about weather, history, science, whatever they want. For those with no phones, QuestionBox sends men and women in easily identifiable T-shirts and hats into villages to take people's questions. Gosier showed a sweet video in which a farmer in Uganda walked into a town, and asked a volunteer sitting by a hut if the Egyptian pyramids were still standing. The volunteer got on the phone, registered the question with the call center, and gave the man the answer he wanted. Smiles all around. Check it out at

Pune Monsoon Season

Our Pune Question Boxes are being pelted by monsoon rains. Chief Engineer Rama Sundaram reports, "Here is what Pune is looking like now. Add in power cuts and because there is now power there is water being pumped ... Having said that, Pune is still nice!"

To counteract the rain, we have built a new rain shield for the Loni Question Box. When the rain gets really terrible, the Loni shopkeeper who looks after the Box hides it inside his shop/house.

See and download the full gallery on posterous

A Box with Great Potential

What excites me the most about Question Box are the seemingly endless possibilities that it holds for enriching the lives of the disenfranchised. Apart from providing access to otherwise unavailable information, Question Box holds the potential to be used for Mobile Health and Commerce initiatives that could change the lives of rural villagers in unforeseen ways. For all of the people without access to any sort of medical facility, a Question Box system with established health protocols could save the lives of countless villagers. For people without access to credit or the services provided by banks, Question Box can provide a link to the global network of commerce, including the ability to receive remittances from family members that have moved to cities or other countries.

To learn more about Mobile Health and Commerce initiatives already operating in India, check out the following links.



Slashdot Technology Story | Searching Google, Where Internet Access is Scarce

Internet searching means that finding information mundane, obscure, or fantastically useful is just a few keystrokes away — but not if you're without a connection to the Internet (or can't read), both the norm for many of the world's poor. itwbennett writes "Rose Shuman developed a contraption for this under-served population called Question Box that is essentially a one-step-removed Internet search : 'A villager presses a call button on a physical intercom device, located in their village, which connects them to a trained operator in a nearby town who's sitting in front of a computer attached to the Internet. A question is asked. While the questioner holds, the operator looks up the answer on the Internet and reads it back. All questions and answers are logged. For the villager there is no keyboard to deal with. No complex technology. No literacy issues.' This week, Jon Gosier, of Appfrica, launched a web site called World Wants to Know that displays the QuestionBox questions being asked in real time. As Jon put it, it's allowing 'searching where Google can't.' And providing remarkable insight into the real information needs of off-the-grid populations."


QuestionBox get's Slashdotted!

Question Box Featured on

Driving around lost late at night in a U-Haul, Nathaniel Whittemore, Founding Director of the Center for Global Engagement at Northwestern University, realized what it's like to be in a bind without information.

"...That's why I'm so excited about projects that open access to information, such as Question Box , a service which allows people in rural villages to call an operator who then uses the Internet to help that caller find specific pieces of information they're looking for. It's simple, but I can see many applications where it could provide vital information for a segment of the population that would be otherwise more or less totally overlooked by modern telecommunications."

Read more

AgInfo News from IAALD

Under the tagline 'Realtime Web for the Bottom Billion', a new type of service for farmers is emerging.

Piloting in India and Uganda, Question Box "brings information to people who cannot or do not access the Internet directly." It "leaps over illiteracy, computer illiteracy, lack of networks, and language barriers."

Combining mobile phones with the power of the Internet, rural people can pose their questions to local call centers where operators research answers. The questions and answers are in local languages and, notably, don't require users to be able to read and write. ( Note, the Kothmale Internet Project in Sri Lanka did something similar by combining rural radio with questions and answers)


Questions from July 9

Why types of questions have we received lately at Question Box?

  • How can one control Avocado fruits from getting rotten and falling off?
  • Which criteria can a farmer use to select eggs which can hatch only cocks
  • An s.6 student wants to invest but he has only 100.000/=, how can u help him invest in something good without getting a loan?
  • how can one control the moto weed which destroys crops?
  • how long does it take for banana suckers to dry without being affected by diseases?
  • the man's pig has wounds on its ears what should he use to treat it ?

Currently our service is being used as part of an Agricultural study with our partners at the Grameen and the Gates Foundations. So questions like the ones about livestock and farming are expected. However, it's always interesting for us when we get questions that don't fall into those categories. For instance, the question above about investment is particularly interesting to Question Box.


Because there are a lack of viable financial solutions and related education solutions for rural populations. Are there other students in this area that are interested in saving/investing? If not, can this particular student be motivated in some way to help us serve his community? Are there programs in place that can even facilitate this type of investment? 100.000 Ugandan Shillings is about fifty dollars and half to a third of the cost of average school fees here which is actually a lot of money in this particular region.

PC World Spotlights Question Box

Great feature on QB from

Because many users are, to all intents and purposes, off-grid, some of the data Question Box has been collecting is priceless. When you allow rural people in developing countries to ask any question, what do they ask? What's important to them? Does it follow our health information model, or market prices idea, or an anticipated need for paid employment? Rose, Jon and the team continue to work through the data, but I can tell you that the results are not only cool, they're fascinating.


Volunteer Medical Professionals Needed to Answer Questions

In both Uganda and India, the Question Box service receives a lot of health related questions. We are looking for medical professionals who are qualified to answer questions from the rural developing world. Here's a sample of recent unanswered medical queries from Uganda:

Can a person get swine fever / flu when he eats pork?

What is the best drug for candida?

I have chronic head ache and I can't even carry anything on my head and I get thirsty all the time?

The man developed high blood pressure and later a wound on his leg and its not curing yet he has been at Mulago Hospital but no change what should he do?

What are the dangerous signs of pregnancy in women?

Why do some women have deep voices like men?

If you're interested in helping out, please contact us !