A while back now, I was delighted to meet Rose Schuman, a young graduate of Brown University of Rhode Island, and now travelling the world from her base in California. You don't have to travel far in India or Africa to find places where Internet access is out of the question, especially in villages where mains electricity and ADSL are in short supply. Now there's a series of practical trials to try to change that.
Rose called it the Question Box. In the Indian villages of Ethida and Poolpur, a few hours from New Delhi, they have installed a simple system for getting information online. Rose explains in this interview at SxSW how they have tackled the problem of access to relevant information. As community radio starts to become more widespread in India, I can see the radio station providing the portal in local languages, and broadcasting the answers to FAQ's over the radio.
Update; August 2011. Following the trials in Uganda, question box has now moved to being a very different organisation. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, she explains.
People loved the service — when it was working. The first thing we learned was that Indian landlines were awful. In one village, only five lines had been allocated to serve the entire population. As such, we needed to "borrow" a village leader's rights to his landline, and then work with the phone bureaucracy in order to get his line installed at our service point. (Because landlines are unstable even in the cities, many Indian companies employ people whose only job is to deal with the government landline authority. We could have used one of those people.)
So in our next series of pilots, we moved from landline to mobile, redesigning the Question Box to run on a $30 Nokia mobile phone that had been opened up and doctored. Borrowing from the language of mobile phones, our next Question Box had a green "Call" button and a red "Hang Up" one, as our original single-button interface was not intuitive. We also moved to graphical rather than text instructions on the Boxes.
Even though we offered the same Question Boxes and the same service, each community developed its own idea about what the Question Box was used for. For example, at one school, a dignitary at the inauguration of the Box asked, "What is the population of Pune?" From then on at that location, Question Box became Population Box. In more rural areas, Question Box was primarily used to check weather and crop market prices. Farmers rely on middlemen to bring their produce to market, and are dependent on the middlemen to offer fair prices. Using Question Box, they could learn what the real prices were, and hence have better success in negotiating. Universally, people wanted to know about train schedules and children wanted help with their homework.