Recently there’s been an explosion in the relevance of ‘real-time’ applications like Friend Feed and Twitter. The ability to get information from the masses on one part of the planet to the masses somewhere else has never been greater. Still, despite all the wonders that devices like the iPhone, apps like Twitterific and search engines like Scoopler provide, does any of it really matter to billions of people who still send messages hundreds of miles by foot or auto-rickshaw because it’s their fastest option? Currently there are approximately three billion people on the planet who don’t have access to the internet or other forms of information technology. Even the most common knowledge you’d find at your local public library eludes them for most of their lives. At Questionbox.org we’re very aware of this and we apply technology in ways that ensures information is available to all the world’s people.
Question Box is a service being piloted in Uganda and India that allows anyone to call and ask questions to operators that speak their local language. Literacy both in written languages and especially in computing technology is a luxury for most of the people on the planet. In developed nations, we often take this for granted when developing solutions for the poor. If people can’t read, what good is it to bombard them with free SMS messages (no matter how informative they might be)? Likewise, if women aren’t allowed in places where men congregate (in some countries this is the culture), how can we ensure they have access to the same basic information as men, especially in areas of health and personal well-being? How do NGO’s and other organizations know where solutions might be better deployed if it turns out the data they’re using for scoping an area is outdated? These are the the types of problems that Question Box hopes to offer scalable solutions to.
Recently, I began thinking about the data we were collecting and of ways to make it more accessible. Because there was a real time-input (people calling the service), I decided I would try to offer a real-time feed of the questions coming in from people who have no computers, sometimes even no phones. How can they not have phones you ask? Well, in our current pilot with Grameen-Uganda, Question Box works by sending people called Community Knowledge Workers into the field to aggregate questions from rural communities. The CKW then dials a call center (located at Appfrica Labs) with operators on standby waiting to look up the answers. As the operators enter a search (complete with the demographic info of the question asker) the application is populated with those queries, as they occur in real-time. If you’ve ever been to Google’s Mountain View campus, they have a monitor displaying search terms as they are being entered by billions of people around the world, this is the same general concept applied to people who normally live their lives far beyond reach of the web.
The application is called World Wants to Know or WW2K. It’s an exercise in data visualization and offers insight as to the types of information these populations are interested in. Before you ask what the answers are, we do give them to the callers but to protect their identities as well as the interests of our pilot partners, that information (unfortunately) cannot be shared. Over the next few weeks I hope to add many new visualizations to the site based on the data we’re collecting in India and Uganda.
The WW2K application works by querying a server located at my office in Uganda which is currently on a 192kbps connection with spotty power, so please forgive the reliability of the data feed!
You can check out the World Wants to Know application now at worldwantstoknow.com.
The graph above (found on the worldwantstoknow website) shows the number of men and women asking questions in Uganda, and what categories their questions fall in.
This map shows the region of Uganda we are collecting questions from. Right now the app is still buggy, but a real-time XML feed occasionally shows where the callers are located with green pins.