Question Box: Bringing the Power of the Internet to People Without Computers Question Box: Bringing the Power of the Internet to People Without Computers

Rose Shuman is bringing the life-saving value of a fast Google-type search to even the most remote parts of the globe.


Google is great. Ask basic questions, get instant answers. You do it every day, and are more efficient for it. That access to information can be a matter of life or death or business survival in rural villages in the developing world, but the people who need basic information the most often don’t have internet access or computers. They may not even be able to read or write. So Rose Shuman, of the nonprofit Open Mind, came up with a plan to bring the value of a Google-type search to even the most remote parts of the globe.

Question Box is like a "fairy Godmother internet librarian for the village," Shuman explained to the Guardian's Activate conference in New York. It's a powerful idea, but Shuman’s willingness to change course when it wasn’t working also provides a lesson for development aid organizations, as she explained to GOOD.

The original idea was to stick a call box on the wall in a village square or public street. You push a button to ring an operator—usually an educated woman with a knack for searching the internet in local languages sitting in a nearby city. Then you speak your question as the operator does the Google searching for you, and get quick answers.

Shuman gave GOOD an example to show the power of a quick answer: A lot of parents in the developing world accidentally kill their babies while trying to treat diarrhea. Many mothers stop feeding their child or withhold water. It seems like a logical solution, but the baby needs to stay hydrated above all else. The best strategy, easily explained by phone, is to boil the water, and administer a few other basic remedies. But if an uneducated mother in a rural village doesn't know anybody familiar with the treatments and the nearest clinic is half a day away, she may have no one to ask. A box on a wall is a great leap forward.

The strength of the idea is in its versatility. One can ask anything from an arbitrary query—Why do some pregnant women eat dirt? Are the pyramids still there?—to the practical. For instance, a farmer preparing to negotiate with a middleman might ask how much potatoes sell for in the city. (See video above for why this information is vital.)

But Shuman soon discovered that this system had limitations. "We learned there were a lot of advantages to [the box on a wall]," she says. "But if you move to places where there isn’t a lot of electricity" or where there isn't enough density to have a central call box location, like rural Uganda, then the box aspect "didn’t make that much sense."

So, with a tech start-up mentality, Shuman began fine-tuning the idea. She realized that a lot of people in the community also had the answers to common questions.

So now Shuman provides a suite of software and training tools that go under the broader name of Open Question. They're designed to let any local community group set up a hotline for whatever they want. The local group determines what information their clients need, and Open Question tools help them equip a call center for that purpose. Calls could go to a Google-searcher at a desk, or may go straight to a doctor in a health clinic.

The Open Question pilot in Uganda, which is run in partnership with the Grameen Foundation, routed calls to three educated women in Kampala sitting in front of a computer with special software, a growing database of answers to common agricultural questions—and yes, Google.

There were also about 40 people with T-shirts that said 'ask me.' These community outreach workers traveled around rural areas, making the original "box" concept convenient for farmers by putting it in the form of a real person.

“Over time, these agents, by getting the same questions over and over, and repeating them over and over, began internalizing the answers to the most common questions,” Shuman explains. So this iteration of Question Box was actually creating new experts in a natural way. And by measuring how the tools were used, Shuman and her team realized there was still room for more fine tuning.

"One thing we found in Uganda," she says, was that "our pilot was supposed to be an agricultural [question] line, but 10 percent of the questions we were getting were health questions." For liability reasons, they couldn't answer them. Still, that drew her attention to another real need.

“A good doctor, just using what’s in their head, can answer most questions in about two to three minutes," she says. "So it’s the kind of thing where you could interrupt the flow of your work and pretty quickly dispense with a lot of urgent situations.”

Quick answers can mean anything from explaining how to make a tourniquet to telling a sick person that they absolutely need to make that five-hour trip to the clinic. Or, conversely, that they don't have to, saving them time and scant money.

Shuman has started starts beta testing the Open Question tools next month with her nonprofit, Open Mind, in countries like Haiti, India, South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, and Sierra Leone. About 30 groups are interested in testing the tools to start their own hotlines; many are health organizations, but there are also women's empowerment groups, student groups, and even an architects' organization interested.

Now, what started as a call box on a wall connected to a woman staring at Google, is a flexible suite of software, tools, and tactics for delivering information to even the most disparate parts of the world. But now, it caters to needs on the ground, and harnesses and reinforces local expertise as a matter of design. The iterative approach, and willingness to move beyond the catchy, photogenic box she began with, is letting Rose Shuman, and Question Box the project, have a far greater reach.

Images courtesy of Question Box.

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