Idea File: No internet? Just call Question Box

A stripped down version of the internet (read: no Facebook or YouTube) is now available in some developing areas.

Idea

What causes rotting of cassava roots? Why are my tomato leaves turning white? Can a mother with HIV pass it on to her baby? How can we control soil erosion in our village?

These questions and more can now be easily answered in Uganda through Question Box, a project of the nonprofit Open Mind that aims to make Internet access in developing countries as common as soccer.

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In Pune, the team recently created a Question Box with solar panels. They're also about to launch a box that can reach multiple information lines (e.g. the hospital, government, etc.). Photo via blogger Paul Smith (bitter wallet).

Here’s how it works: the curious call a given number. At the receiving end, operators search online and answer the caller’s question in one of Uganda’s 14 national languages or regional dialects. If the internet or power is out, operators can browse an offline repository of local knowledge to pass on the needed information.

In Pune, India where Question Box is currently being piloted, this idea of a box is taken in the most literal sense. All locals need to do is push a green button on a metal box hanging somewhere in the streets, and are connected to an operator faster than you can say namaste.

Both the Indian and Uganda models are all about ease: “Any solution must require the person to take no more than one step from what they already know.”

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Circumvents the limitations of the web. If you’re like me and speak one of the top ten languages on the internet, then you probably take for granted that we have access to an incredible wealth of information with just one click. But the world has 1,000+ languages, and Google is available in “nearly 40″ of them.
  • Gives most everyone access. Reaches people on the margins: the illiterate, women who are excluded from communication, the visually impaired, and those who are too poor to even have a mobile phone.
  • Provides employment. Operators have the opportunity to use their language skills, and make some money while they’re at it.
  • Utilizes local knowledge. In many villages, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation, or neighbor to neighbor. Question Box not only places values on its importance, but helps capture it for future use.

How you can replicate it

Luckily for you, the folks at Question Box want you to take their idea and run with it. Here’s how:

  • Organizations, government or companies: If you want to set up your own, on their website right now is a friendly invitation for you to partner with them. They’ll adapt the hotline to your needs, and help you get it going.
  • Community organizations: Indigo Trust recently gave Question Box a grant to complete development of Open Question, an initiative that combines open source tools and how-to manuals so that anyone anywhere can set a hotline up themselves. They’re currently looking for testers.

Could you see Question Box working in your community or another you’ve adopted? Why or why not?

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Comments (2)


  1. Rose Shuman writes:
    July 14, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you for spreading the word about Question Box! Community Organizations – we would love to help you set up your own Question Boxes and hotlines. Please get in touch at info (at) questionbox.org if you are interested, or if you’d like to be on our mailing list.


  2. Dionne Galloway writes:
    July 20, 2011 at 8:55 am

    I think this initiative is amazing, and I thank you for posting this article. Question Box, would most certainly be useful in any area/community, especially in emergency situations. I can only image how great a resource this would be if someone encountered an individual in need and was able to help them with the aid of this tool.


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