NY Times News Service, Kampala
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, 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.
“So I was thinking, why not bring the information to them in a way that’s most convenient and useful to them?” said Shuman, who is based in Santa Monica, California.
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 phone 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 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 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 have them.
Where rural villages were once cut off and isolated from urban centers, cellphones 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.
Nathan Eagle, a fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico who has done research on cellphones and development in Africa, said that while services like these can be helpful, they must be responsive to the needs of their users.
“We can’t sit in our offices in America and decide what is useful to people and what is meaningful in their lives,” said Eagle, who also runs a cellphone-based business in Kenya. “The services only add value if they are open-ended.”
Shuman said this was the aim of Question Box. The service, she said, is first and foremost a tool for economic development. Uganda’s agricultural sector employs more than 80 percent of the country’s work force, and receiving timely information about crop prices or the most current planting techniques is crucial.
“In this way we are helping farmers make decisions regarding where to sell, what to plant and how to best take care of their crops,” Shuman said. “It’s all about giving communities the ability to help themselves.”
Not all of the questions that come in are business-minded. Some are about sports — “Which is the better soccer team, Manchester United or Barcelona?” — or historical trivia.
In India, villagers can use Question Box through an actual box — a metal one with a push-to-talk button. They ask a question and an operator in a distant city will either look up the answer on the Web immediately or ask the callers to wait a few minutes before getting back to them.
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.”
Most of Uganda’s rural agricultural communities are simply too remote to make it cost effective for Internet providers to offer service there, Gosier said.
“Even in the next 10 years I don’t think you’re going to see areas like this being wired. That’s why Question Box will continue to be an important tool for getting people in these areas the information they need,” he said.
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