Question Box

The NY Times reported yesterday on Question Box, an innovative joint effort of Rose Shuman's Open Mind, and the Grameen Foundation, active in both India and Uganda.  The service allows individuals to dial into a call center-- either through an actual phone box, or via a mobile-equipped Question Box employee-- to ask questions and get information on agriculture, commodity prices, or any number of other things.

Question BoxOn the user end, the program is basically a variant on Grameen Phone's "phone lady" concept-- using a communal phone to provide access for those without their own.  As handset prices drop, and more and more people have their own phones, this model is less and less relevant. 

The other half of Question Box-- the call center-- is more unique.  In India, callers talk to people sitting in front of computers, who can answer their questions on the web.  In Uganda, because of shoddy internet connectivity, callers are connected to people with access to a database of relevant local information and previously asked questions.

The Western analog of this program might be KGB, a company you may know from their TV ads encouraging you to text in whatever asinine question pops into your head, and receive an answer moments later. Yet more evidence that, while this technology is making life a bit more convenient in the parts of the world with ubiquitous internet access, it's making life massively more comfortable, more profitable, and more survivable for people in the developing world.

Sure, this program is small-bore. There's no scalable business model to support it, and the database of answerable questions is obviously limited. The rapid spread of mobile phones is making it less relevant, and as 3G networks allow the internet to penetrate deeper into India and (eventually) Africa, the call centers will also become obsolete.

Still, this kind of innovation is what's needed now-- with such a new technology, we'll only get anywhere by trying everything, and seeing what really works for the end users.

(h/t MOM)