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.


Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

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The healthcare systems in the United States and the United Kingdom couldn't be more different.

The UK's National Health Service is the largest government-run healthcare system in the world and the US's is largest private sector system.

Almost all essential health services in the UK are free, whereas in America cost can vary wildly based on insurance, co pays and what the hospitals and physicians choose to charge.

A medical bill in the US

One of the largest differences is cost. The average person in the UK spends £2,989 ($3915) per year on healthcare (most of which is collected through taxes), whereas the average American spends around $10,739 a year.

So Americans should obviously be getting better care, right? Well, the average life expectancy in the UK is higher and infant mortality rate is lower than that in the US.

RELATED: The World Health Organization declares war on the out of control price of insulin

Plus, in the U.S., only 84% of people are covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Sixteen percent of the population are forced to pay out of pocket.

In the UK, everyone is covered unless they are visiting the country or an undocumented resident.

Prescription drugs can cost Americans an arm and a leg, but in the UK, prescriptions or either free or capped at £8.60 ($11.27).

via Wikimedia Commons

The one drawback to the NHS system is responsiveness. In the UK people tend to wait longer for inessential surgeries, doctor's appointments, and in emergency rooms. Whereas, the US is ranked as the most responsive country in the world.

RELATED: Alarmingly high insulin prices are forcing Americans to flock to Canada to buy the drug

The New York Times printed a fair evaluation of the UK's system:

The service is known for its simplicity: It is free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. Paperwork is minimal, and most patients never see a bill. … No one needs to delay medical treatment until he or she can afford it, and virtually everyone is covered. …

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States spent 17.2 percent of its economic output on health care in 2016, compared with 9.7 percent in Britain. Yet Britain has a higher life expectancy at birth and lower infant mortality.

Citizens in each country have an interesting perspective on each other's healthcare systems. UK citizens think it's inhumane for Americans have to pay through the nose when they're sick or injured. While Americans are skeptical of socialist medicine.

A reporter from Politics Joe hit the streets of London and asked everyday people what they think Americans pay for healthcare and they were completely shocked.