Monday, September 28, 2009

Question Box > CellPhone Reference / Extension Service For The Developing World

New York Times . September 28, 2009
 
Dialing for Answers Where Web Can’t Reach / RON NIXON

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.

[snip]

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.

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.

[snip]

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.”

[snip]

Source


!!! Thanks To Bernie Sloan For The HeadsUp !!!

Related / See Also

Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?


Africa > Mobile Phone > Powerful Instrument Of Learning

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