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A project to enable rural people, many of them illiterate, to get whatever question they want answered has been deemed a success by its inventors.

Curious villagers obtained answers to their questions — ranging from why their ground nuts had no seeds to who is the captain of Arsenal Football Club — at the touch of a button, according to a study to be presented at the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development 2010 in the United Kingdom this week (13–16 December). 

Question Box is an initiative to reach people in remote areas who might otherwise struggle to access information they need because of language or technology barriers. It uses simple technology, such as a phone box set up in a village, and a trained operator with Internet access waiting to answer people's questions.

This search engine for offline communities in remote parts of the world could empower illiterate people who lack skills or technology, Rose Shuman, chief executive officer of Question Box, told SciDev.Net. Instead of expecting people to acquire new skills, such as speaking English or working on a computer, information providers should work within the skill set people already have, Shuman said.

"Question Box allows users to get adequate information using the skills they already have, in their own language."

In India, they used phone boxes operated by a push button. In Uganda, mobile phones were given to 40 agents in two districts who then made the calls for people seeking information.

Most people in the Uganda project asked questions about agriculture, health and education.

"Through our pilots we came to a conclusion that this was a widely valuable and useful tool — we thought many organisations would appreciate taking advantage of [this tool] and it could help further their work," said Shuman.

For example, Arohana Dairy Private Limited, a Indian dairy products company, set up the boxes at milk collection centres, giving farmers a direct connection to Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University where experts can answer their questions.

Nikhil Agarwal, the chair of Open Mind Trust — the Indian branch of charity Open Mind, which aims to connect isolated populations with the information they need — told SciDev.Net the system works well in India because there is low Internet penetration and a lot of illiteracy amongst the rural population.

There were several problems in the beginning, such as theft of the boxes, power shortages, the need to train villagers on how to use Question Box effectively, and lack of real-time information on some critical issues that the villagers were asking about.

"The problems of digital divide are everywhere [in the developing world] and we need a device which can help people reach out to information quickly and effectively. We cannot make people literate enough to use computers in next two to three decades but we can create methods so that illiterate people can have same benefits from information as anybody else."

Link to full paper presented at the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development 2010 [184kB]

See Question Box's video below:

QB TED edit from Mike Paterson on Vimeo.