A basic device is helping Indians get online without being in front of a computer. The Question Box lets users tap into the Web via telephone operators. Its founders say it could help bridge the world's digital divide.
A new Question Box was recently installed in Shirur
Living without the Internet has put much of the world's population at a disadvantage. Farmers have been forced to sell crops without knowing the market price, students can't access the full range of available information and job seekers miss out on the latest opportunities.
For Gawri Bapusaheb Dhokle, it meant ignoring her curiosity. The 12-year-old student lives in Pune, in India's western state of Maharashtra, which was heavily affected by swine flu. Gawri wanted to know more, but she was unsatisfied after reading the local newspapers . With no way to get online, her questions simply went unanswered.
More than five billion people are trapped in this information vacuum - and the Question Box is being touted as a potential solution. The rectangular device uses a mobile phone, which connects to a local operator sitting in front of a computer with Internet access. The user can ask any question in their local language and the operator will surf the web to track down the information.
Question Boxes cost between 100 and 250 euros, plus operator salaries
Shirur village finds answers
Gawri's small village of Shirur recently had a Question Box installed. On the first day of operation, she stepped up to the speaker, pushed a green button and asked for help in her local language, Marathi.
"How many people were detected with swine flu in Pune?" she asked.
There was a brief delay while the operator searched, then an answer came back: "Forty-six people died and 864 people are living with swine flu."
Finally, Gawri had the information she'd been searching for. She said in the future, she'll ask Question Box.
Question Boxes are installed at 10 locations in Pune, from rural villages to urban slums. The devices are cheap to build and run, with the simplest version costing 100 euros, while a more sophisticated version equipped with GPS technology costs 250 euros. An additional expense is the 300-euro monthly salary of the local language operator. Funding comes from the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) and private donors.
Ugandans successfully utilized Question Boxes to answer agricultural questions
The Question Box in Shirur is located at the Maher ashram, a refuge for 180 women and children. Nestled between sugar cane farms and modest village houses, the ashram provides shelter to people with nowhere else to go, including female divorcees and young orphans.
Maher founder Sister Lucy Kurien, 54, said Question Box was useful for students who need help with homework and want to find out about exam results. Although that information has been available online, students couldn't access it - until now.
"It has been very difficult for them, unless they get (the information) from the newspaper or the radio," she said. "And we have a simple television program, but we don't have a television cable connection. It has been very difficult."
The Question Box also enables the ashram's women and older children to ask about taboo topics like sexual health. Sexual education is limited in Indian schools and even prohibited in some states due to religious opposition. Sister Lucy Kurien said the stigma surrounding sex leaves some too embarrassed to ask ashram staff.
What Indians want to know
When exam results are released or crops are ready for market, each Question Box is inundated with up to 50 calls. On slower days, it is just a handful. Heavy traffic also occurs during important cricket matches. The crowd in Shirur asked how India had fared against South Africa in a test match. When the operator announced the South African team had thrashed the home team, the group groaned and booed.
Students at the Maher ashram in Shirur can use the device for homework help
Dr. Nikhil Agarwal, chairman of Open Mind Trust India and director of the Europe Asia Business School, oversees Question Box's Indian operation. Dr. Agarwal said the main benefit of the Question Box was allowing people to gain access to current information. In a country where only 81 million out of a total 1.1 billion people are online, that's a rare luxury.
“Still, there are a lot of people who do not have access to basic information, which is available to the educated, urban class," he said. Despite India's 490 million mobile phone users - the second highest number worldwide - Dr. Agarwal said the country still faces a "great digital divide."
Testing the technology
Question Box has been in operation in India since 2007. Trial boxes were first installed in Noida but have since been relocated to Pune due to a lack of supporting infrastructure.
The technology was also tested last year in Uganda in partnership with the Grameen Foundation and focused on solving agricultural problems. The five-month trial was deemed successful, with almost 2,000 farming-related questions asked.
But operators ran into several major obstacles: They lacked access to crop prices in the local market and were slowed by Uganda's poor Internet speed and reliability. Without additional funding, there are no plans to continue operating in Uganda.
Dr. Agarwal said Question Box encountered a universal problem in both India and Uganda. Users were so daunted by the wealth of information available to them for the first time, they didn't know where to start.
And there was another unexpected challenge: In one Pune village, a row broke out between political parties after rival groups took credit for the Question Box.
Infrastructure problems in Noida led to the relocation of test boxes in Pune
Plans to expand the reach of Question Box are under way. An online toolkit is being developed, which will allow organizations to download and use the technology with local hotlines, regardless of their location.
An application is also before the Indian central government's Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to fund 100 additional Question Boxes in Pune.
If the proposal is approved, jostling between local political parties could prove intense, as each group scrambles to claim responsibility. But with enough Question Boxes at their fingertips, locals will have the tools to find out who really deserves the credit.
Author: Michael Atkin
Editor: Anke Rasper