In the know

We read a lot about the delivery, and popularity, of SMS services such as market prices, health advice and job alerts in developing countries, information there is clearly a need for. These are the services you’ll get to hear most about when you search the web, trawl the blogosphere and attend various conferences on the subject. It all seems pretty sewn up on the content side – I mean, what else could people earning a few dollars a day (at most) possibly want?

I remember my days back in Nigeria, where I worked for the best part of 2002 at a primate sanctuary in Calabar. The mobile phone networks weren’t quite operational yet – there was sometimes a signal and sometimes it worked – but the number of internet cafes was on the rise. I remember going in during the evenings, usually to find people doing one of four things – entering competitions to win cars or holidays, looking at females (and males) in varying degrees of undress, trying to find a partner on a dating site, or sending and receiving email (which was perhaps, in some cases, related to one of the first three activities). Clearly, this wasn’t the only use of the internet in Calabar, but nevertheless it interested me to see what people did online once you gave them the opportunity to get there. Let’s put it this way, few people were doing their homework, looking up university education options, checking the price of matoke or learning how to stay fit and healthy.

Last Autumn I met Rose Shuman, a young entrepreneur based out of UC Berkeley, California. With a background working in developing countries and a Masters in International Development from Brown University, Rose had developed a clever ‘intercom’ style box which, when placed in a rural location, allowed people access to the information they sought in a slightly unusual, but innovative manner. It was a ‘one-step-removed’ type of internet access.

It works like this. A villager presses a call button on a physical intercom device, located in their village, which connects them to a trained operator in a nearby town who’s sitting in front of a computer attached to the internet. A question is asked. While the questioner holds, the operator looks up the answer on the internet and reads it back. For the villager there is no keyboard to deal with. No complex technology. No literacy issues. And during early trials at least, no cost. Put simply, Question Box provides immediate, relevant information to people using their preferred mode of communication – speaking and listening. I thought it was great.

When I met Rose she was trialling her first Question Box, which had been placed in Phoolpur village in Greater Noida, close to New Delhi, in September 2007. These early prototypes have been using landlines to connect the Box to the operator, and this has proved to be the weakest link in the technological chain. A reliance on landlines also severely restricts the location where a Box can be placed. It was clear we had a fixed-line problem waiting for a mobile solution. That’s what Rose and I talked about five months ago. Soon we’ll begin exploring options, both technological and financial.

Last week Rose sent me the data from the first trial. It’s priceless. When you allow rural people in developing countries – in this case a single village in India – to ask any question they like, what do they ask? What’s important to them? Does it follow our health information model, or market prices idea, or an anticipated need for paid employment? Rose is still working through the data, trying to knock it into meaningful shape so we can present it to potential funders, so I can’t go into too much detail right now for obvious reasons. But I can tell you that the results are cool.

Sure, there were a few of the more likely suspects in there – people asking for exam results, health questions, enquires about land rights and food commodity prices. But there was also a demand for all sorts of other types of data, much of which I’d never have anticipated.

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.

(This Question Box blog entry was picked up by Boing Boing the very next day, and an interesting discussion ensued. Visit Boing Boing to see what people there had to say. Then, a couple of days later Ned Potter, the science correspondent for ABC’s “World News with Charles Gibson” reported on Question Box. What a great week for the project).