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

by Alex Goldmark

June 7, 2011

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."

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