Ask, and you shall receive. When it comes to information in much of the developing world, this simply isn’t true. Connectivity is like air in industrialized nations: We take it for granted that we can go online with a question in mind and search a good portion of human knowledge to find the answer.
But the next time you’re in a bar settling an argument by checking IMDb on your smartphone, think about how people in other parts of the world have to resolve these questions, or even more important ones. Rural areas without decent roads or schools, never mind an Internet connection, have little to link them to the outside world. For these places, there is now Question Box.
Question Box is an encyclopedia, Google, a library, and teacher combined into one small metallic box, which has started appearing in villages around the world–from Uganda to India. The “simple telephone intercom service,” conceived by the California NGO Open Mind, holds a live phone line to an operator who speaks the local languages and can access the Internet or computer databases. It only needs mobile phone coverage, a handset, and a power supply to work.
Anyone can ask any question. Those queries range from help with math homework to deadly serious ones about health and crop pests. For places such as Uganda, where even the Internet may not have the answer (or is simply too slow), Question Box operators have built invaluable databases of local information that can be accessed instantly.
Open Mind is now expanding to Haiti, India, South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, and Sierra Leone with funding from the Grameen and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations. As establishing an Internet connection will not be possible for years in many remote regions, Question Box is one of the only sources of outside information (though a handful of text-based messaging services allow users to find answers through their mobile phones).
Most boxes are fixed to the wall of a school or store, but Open Mind is also going portable: it is hiring human ambassadors who walk around to field questions directly, as well as a next generation of solar-powered Question Boxes that can be easily moved and reprogrammed for local needs. It has even open-sourced its software, Open Question, for collecting information via phone in extreme environments.” The free software, available here, was designed by Ugandan software developers to organize and disseminate verbal communication from humans, SMS, and the web that is often difficult to automate.
Question Box, and similar solutions, may be the last mile for the world’s remote regions hungry for information.