Question Box featured in PBS & NDN blogs

We have just discovered two wonderful blog posts written about Question Box last Fall. Both posts highlight that voice remains the primary communication method of choice in the developing world. Question Box works from that reality, delivering information to people the way they want it, in their language.


Sam duPont of the Global Mobile Technology Initiative at NDN writes, "This kind of innovation is what's needed now (in the mobile space)-- with such a new technology, we'll only get anywhere by trying everything, and seeing what really works for the end users." Read post



Prabhas Pokharel, a Knight News Challenge Winner, writes in IdeaLab, "(Question Box) leverages the voice capabilities of mobile phones to deliver important information in interesting ways." Read post

Squawk Box

Brown Alumna Rose Shuman talks about her venture Question Box.

"In 2006, Rose Shuman found herself in a hotel room waiting to be summoned by the technology company that had flown her out to California for an interview. To prepare to impress her potential employer, she started brainstorming ideas that would demonstrate her creativity. Suddenly, the image of the intercoms that sit on the wall beside the entrances of Brown dorms popped into her head. She realized they could be the basis for a vast network linking the developing world..." Read More

An initiative puts the developing-world poor just a phone call away from an internet search

Design Observer Logo Recently, reporter Julia Galef caught up with Question Box Founder Rose Shuman.

"Technology designers tend to focus on creating new gadgets, but some of the most useful design solutions are those that adapt old gadgets for a new audience. A daunting example: making the vast stores of information on the internet accessible to people who can't read or write — and who may never have heard of the internet.

Daunting, but not impossible. Recently, Rose Shuman, a business and international development consultant, set out to design..." Read More

Two new Question Boxes!

Recently, Open Mind inaugurated two new Question Boxes in Pune, at Maher homes for women and children, run by Sister Lucy. Amit Mandora, our MBA student intern from Europe Asia Business School, narrates: "It was a very good event. We had a lot of kids.... Everybody was very excited about the Question box and was eager to ask questions. A successful event."

The new question boxes set up at Vadu and Wadgaonsheri were inaugurated by the former principal of Wadia College, Pune in presence of the Open Mind team. With the inauguration of these two boxes, Open Mind takes a step forward in its mission of making access to information easier for more people.



Interview with Rose Shuman on WomanzWorld

logo300x300Founder and CEO Rose Shuman recently was interviewed on WomanzWorld, a blog for women entrepreneurs. Rose shares her experience in building Question Box and advice on how to move the organization forward.

Read Complete Interview on WomanzWorld

Social Entrepreneur Rose Shuman Thinks Outside Of The Box

Interview by Natalie Sisson

I was fortunate enough to meet the phenomenal Rose Shuman in Santa Monica, LA over my Christmas break. Over coffee I got to learn more about this human ball of energy and inspiration. A TED Fellow and Social Entrepreneur, Rose is incredibly engaging and her enthusiasm is infectious.

What I admire most about Rose is that she cares passionately about every aspect of her enterprise. She describes herself as very opinionated and uppity as well as strongly motivated and unafraid of challenging situations..

Question Box is no exception. She knew that 4 billion people in the world aren’t online but increasing numbers have mobile phones. She asked how do you take the promise of the internet and deliver it to people speaking obscure regional languages? Her answer – why not build something that does it for you and uses the networking ability of GPS and mobile phone network infrastructures that even Grandma could use?

She spent three years incubating it and 5 iterations of software and produced a brilliant yet simple innovation. Literally a box with a big button on the front that’s hooked up by mobile phone, it helps users ask for exactly what information they want, when they want it, and how they want it – live, in their local language.

It’s currently being used in Pune, India and piloted last summer in rural Mbale and Bushenyi, Uganda. Callers ask about anything they wish – agriculture, education, sports, health.

As Founder and CEO of Open Mind, she’s on a mission to bring Internet information to everyone who lacks access. On a daily basis she handles major strategy and company vision, investor relations and fundraising, business development, marketing/collateral development, complex international project management, research, operations management. What’s more she directs 15 team members on three continents, including engineering staff!

Read Complete Interview

‘Question Box’ answering the call to better agriculture for farmers

Africa Reporting Project

With new seeds being made for farmers in Africa, new methods of farming being promoted and linking farming to markets being emphasized, the need for farmers to have appropriate information on seeds, practices and market prices has been highlighted as a key intervention in improving agricultural productivity and helping empower especially small holder farmers........Read More

Google in a box? Just an out-of-the-box idea

Pranav KulkarniUma VishnuPosted: Sunday , Nov 22, 2009 at 0353 hrs

Pranali Kalbhor stands on her toes and peers into the little box outside her father’s kirana store. Then, she presses the green button on the box like she has seen her father do, clears her voice and asks in Marathi: “Bharatache pahile pradhanmantri kon (Who was the first Prime Minister of India)?” The voice at the other end says “Jawaharlal Nehru” and Pranali preens. The nine-year-old’s teacher had asked the class to find the answer to the question and now she knows....Read More

New Question Box website soon to come - time for big thank you

Question Box Heroes!

A shout-out to a fabulous team that has been working around the clock to relaunch in time for TEDIndia!

Big kudos to:

Geetika Agrawal (she'll be at TED and deserves a high-five)
Megan MacMurray
Ronnie Chih Fan Ting
Tom Gastall

Thank you to all! Thank you for dedicating your weekends and nights for so many months. We are all excited to see it up and in action in November.

- Team Question Box

Question Box is down with Electro-Funk!

The 2012 Electro-Funk Xperiment: Asia Tour Trilogy is supporting Question Box! Through the tour's Charity Support Campaign, Question Box and Peace Players International will receive a portion of proceeds from the tour.

The 2012 Electro-Funk Xperiment: Asia Tour Trilogy is a three year series of Cross-Continent, Multi-Cultural Live Concerts by US-based Electro-Master Artists held in large club venues in Japan, Korea,Taiwan and Singapore during each Spring 2010, 2011 & 2012. The 2012EFX Tour Trilogy Master Artist Line-up includes well-known electro pioneers and legends Arabian Prince (original member of NWA), Professor X and Egyptian Lover.

If you're in Asia in March or April anytime over the next three years, check it out!

Question Box Featured in!

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:

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.

Question Box Featured in New York Times!

Dialing for Answers Where Web Can’t Reach


Published: September 27, 2009

KAMPALA, Uganda — The caller was frustrated. A new pest was eating away at his just-planted coffee crop, and he wanted to know what to do. Tyssa Muhima jotted down notes as the caller spoke, and promised to call back in 10 minutes with an answer.

Each day, Ms. Muhima and two other young women at this small call center on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital city answer about 40 such calls. They are operators for Question Box, a free, nonprofit telephone hot line that is meant to get information to people in remote areas who lack access to computers.

The premise behind Question Box is that many barriers keep most of the developing world from taking advantage of the wealth of knowledge available through Web search engines, said Rose Shuman, the service’s creator. That could be a drag on economic development.

“So I was thinking, why not bring the information to them in a way that’s most convenient and useful to them?” said Ms. Shuman, who is based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Jon Gosier

Question Box connects operators like Phiona Joyo Tee, left, Lydia Apio and Charlene Rwemereza Abireebe with people who have questions, especially about agriculture.

Instead of searching for information themselves, people in two rural agricultural communities in Uganda can turn to 40 Question Box workers who have cellphones.

The workers dial into the call center and ask questions on behalf of the locals, or they put the call on speakerphone so the locals can ask for themselves. The operators then look up the requested information in a database and convey it to the workers, who pass it along to the villagers. The workers are compensated with cellphone airtime.

The service is a joint effort of Open Mind, a nonprofit group founded by Ms. Shuman, and the Grameen Foundation, which is best known for promoting small loans for the poor. It has received financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Question Box service was first introduced in remote villages in India two years ago, and it came to Uganda in April. The Ugandan version takes advantage of the explosive popularity of cellphones in Africa. Cellphone use has more than tripled in the last few years, and nearly 300 million Africans now have cellphones.

Where rural villages were once cut off and isolated from urban centers, cellphones now offer a lifeline, providing access to banking, news and business opportunities.

Grameen Foundation

In Bushenyi, Uganda, Protazio Byamugisha, left, works for Question Box, a hot line for people in remote areas.

That is a big technological advance, but for most Africans, Internet access is still too costly and slow. Question Box was conceived as a way of overcoming both the expense and the scarcity of Internet connections. Eventually, Question Box will allow farmers and others to use the hot line with their own cellphones or through text messages.

In June, Google introduced a similar effort in Uganda, also involving the Grameen Foundation, that allows people to find information on topics like health and agriculture via text messaging.

Nathan Eagle, a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who has done research on cellphones and development in Africa, said that while services like these can be helpful, they must be responsive to the needs of their users.

“We can’t sit in our offices in America and decide what is useful to people and what is meaningful in their lives,” said Mr. Eagle, who also runs a cellphone-based business in Kenya. “The services only add value if they are open-ended.”

Ms. Shuman said this was the aim of Question Box. The service, she said, is first and foremost a tool for economic development. Uganda’s agricultural sector employs over 80 percent of the country’s work force, and receiving timely information about crop prices or the most current planting techniques is crucial.

“In this way we are helping farmers make decisions regarding where to sell, what to plant and how to best take care for their crops,” Ms. Shuman said. “It’s all about giving communities the ability to help themselves.”

Not all of the questions that come in are business-minded. Some are about sports — “Which is the better football team, Manchester United or Barcelona?” — or historical trivia.

In India, villagers can use Question Box through an actual box — a metal one with a push-to-talk button. They ask a question and an operator in a distant city will either look up the answer on the Web immediately or ask the callers to wait a few minutes before getting back to them.

In Uganda, though, that model proved unworkable because Internet connections are so slow. So the operators at Question Box search a locally stored database created by Appfrica Labs, a Ugandan company that hosts the call center. The database contains answers to past questions as well as a repository of documents, government statistics and research papers.

“A lot of this information isn’t even available on the Internet,” said Jon Gosier, chief technology officer of Question Box and founder of Appfrica Labs. “The real value in this database is that it contains a wealth of data that only pertains to the local areas.”


Rose Shuman created the service.

Most of Uganda’s rural agricultural communities are simply too remote to make it cost effective for Internet providers to offer service there, Mr. Gosier said. “Even in the next 10 years I don’t think you’re going to see areas like this being wired. That’s why Question Box will continue to be an important tool for getting people in these areas the information they need.”

To read the article on New York Times' website, please click here.

CEO Rose Shuman Made TEDIndia Fellow!

Rose Shuman has just been named a TED Fellow. Joining the ranks of a hundred distinguished innovators, Rose will be attending TEDIndia in November. Jon Gosier, Open Mind - Question Box CTO, is also a TED Fellow.

Rose will make an announcement about an exciting new Question Box development at TEDIndia. Watch this space!


NEW YORK, Sept. 14, 2009 — Organizers of the TED Conference will bring 103 TEDIndia Fellows to Mysore, India, to participate in TEDIndia, the first-ever TED in Asia. TEDIndia, “The Future Beckons,” will take place Nov. 4-7, 2009, on the high-tech campus of Infosys Technologies Ltd.

The TEDIndia Fellows are a diverse group of men and women, representing not only India, Pakistan and Bangladesh but also Indonesia, Canada, Tajikistan, the United States, China, Nigeria and Oman. TEDIndia Fellows include engineers, environmental scientists and pollution experts, human-rights activists, musicians, athletes and filmmakers. One is a female Olympic-class sailor. One runs an innovative rickshaw business. One is a robotics developer. All are committed to the spread of great ideas.

“As the world's influence moves to the East, the TEDIndia Fellows program is proud to showcase the work of 103 visionaries born or working in South Asia, especially in India, but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the rest of the world,” says Tom Rielly, TED Fellows Director and TED Community Director.

Mumbai Lions Club Gives Warm Reception

Open Mind - Question Box Founder and CEO Rose Shuman visited the Mumbai offices of Lion Ashok Mehta, Past President of Lions Clubs International.

In attendance were current and former Mumbai Lions Clubs Governors Jaysinh Babla, Shirish Jhaveri, Anil Goradia, Shirish Chiniwala, and Sudarshan Nair. They presented a very nice commemorative Lions Club clock to Rose.

The group had warm discussions about Lions Clubs and Open Mind - Question Box collaboration. We look forward to moving forward together to bring live information to the underserved.

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