The Question Box

Mar 5, 2008 12:31pm

If you live in parts of rural India, or sub-Saharan Africa, or too many other places on this planet, you’ll know a kind of poverty that we in the comfort of America find hard to picture.  Internet access is out of the question, especially in villages where electricity, and literacy, are in short supply.  Now there’s an experiment to try to change that. Call it the Question Box.  In the Indian villages of Ethida and Poolpur, a few hours from New Delhi, a young American entrepreneur named Rose Shuman has installed a low-tech system for getting information online.  It was no small matter, considering that the villages did not have phone service.  It consists of an intercom with a push-to-talk button.  That’s all.  At the other end is a trained operator, in a larger town with enough bandwidth to access the net.  Village residents can go to the Question Box, ask for some information, and in a minute or two the operator gets back to them with answers. The Question Box project has a website HERE, on which Shuman and her fellow organizers write, "Question Boxes leap over illiteracy, computer illiteracy, lack of networks, and language barriers. "They provide immediate, relevant information to people using their preferred mode of communication: speaking and listening." What do people ask when they have access to information for the first time?  Everything from farming advice to homework help to cricket scores, say the organizers — plus many other things that would never have occurred to Shuman and her collaborators.  What are the villages like?  Shuman has posted three pages of images on Flickr; take a look HERE. A British technologist named Ken Banks has written about Question Box HERE.  His interest has been in spreading cell phones around the developing world — in rural places, frequently a better way of getting web access — but he says he was impressed by Shuman’s work.  "Often when we plan and build mobile solutions for developing (or emerging) markets, we forget, neglect or are just plain unsure how to ask the users what it is that they want. The irony might be that, here at least, Question Box might end up being the answer we’re looking for." Boing Boing, the technology blog, picked up Banks’ post the next day, linking to the Question Box site — and sometimes crashing it.

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