Consulting the ‘Oracle’ – Transcending literacy issues with the web in poor/emerging areas

Proving that the internet???s information doesn???t always have to appear on-screen, Question Box brings the web???s intelligence to offline communities. At the heart of the venture is a solar-powered intercom box that features a large green button. By pressing the button, a user is connected to an operator sitting in front of a computer. The caller asks a question and the operator does a web search to find the answer.

Two Question Boxes are currently operational in the Indian state of Maharastra, where the first box was installed by California-based non-profit Open Mind in September 2007. In March 2009, the Applab Question Box service was launched in Uganda???tweaking the model by enabling callers to contact call centre operators from their own mobile phones. Both services log previously answered questions in local databases, speeding up responses to future enquiries and providing information offline in case of lack of connectivity. Queried topics range from crop prices and cricket scores to exam results.

The free service brings almost limitless information to poor and rural areas, in a format that transcends literacy. As the scheme expands, it will be interesting to see whether the boxes begin to focus on specific niches: health advice or political updates, for instance, or be adopted by corporate sponsors offering a similar service in exchange for airing commercial messages. (Related: Internet-in-a-box for areas without electricity.)

Far too much of the commentary around internet for ‘third world’ as a transformative technology ignores the reality that voice is the ‘killer app’. Just the mobile phone by and large gives “access” to any other person on the planet. Adding internet to the equation is useful, sure, but assumes literacy and common reference points.

This type of Oracle service is a really way to bring the ‘lookup’ advantages the rest of us have with the web to those without the advantages of internet access and/or (generally English) literacy. Brilliant idea.

I also really like the idea of specialized “boxes” for different niche queries. This would tie beautifully into work by Reeves and Nass on how subconsciously we use all the heuristics of human relations with devices (i.e. information from specialist (devices) is considered more valuable than information from generalist (devices)) – the effect has been shown with TVs, computers, and other modern media.

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