Barbara Gruber interviews some of the Question Box operators in Uganda along with Jon Gosier (CEO Appfrica), Eric Cantor (Applab Grameen).
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.
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!
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."
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)
Great feature on QB from PCWorld.com...
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.