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Google in a box? Just an out-of-the-box idea
Pranav Kulkarni Posted online: Sunday , Nov 22, 2009 at 0353 hrs
New Delhi/Loni : Pranali Kalbhor stands on her toes and peers into the little box outside her father’s kirana
store. Then, she presses the green button on the box like she has seen her father do, clears her voice and
asks in Marathi: “Bharatache pahile pradhanmantri kon (Who was the first Prime Minister of India)?” The voice
at the other end says “Jawaharlal Nehru” and Pranali preens. The nine-year-old’s teacher had asked the class
to find the answer to the question and now she knows.
In Loni village in Maharashtra, where Pranali is from, no child would have Googled the answer to that. The
village belongs to that part of the world that isn’t wired to the internet; it’s where the ‘World Wide Web’ sounds
like a boastful misnomer. It’s for places like Loni that Rose Shuman, a social entrepreneur, thought up the idea
of the Question Box—the kind that Prabali spoke into—as a way to empower people with information. The
Question Box is a project of Open Mind, a California-based non-profit venture of which Shuman is CEO. Open
Mind and its little boxes have travelled quite a bit ever since they made their debut in India in 2007. Apart from
two boxes in Pune district, Shuman has taken the service to two rural communities in Uganda.
The Question Box works much like an internet search engine. It’s a small, metallic box with a cellphone inside.
A farmer in Loni who wants to find out, say, the price of tuvar dal in the market would press the green button
on the unit and his call would be connected to an operator. The operator looks up a database or uses the
internet to find the answer to the question and relays the answer back to the farmer, who hears it over a
speaker on the box.
It’s a simple technology; rather, like Shuman says, it isn’t much of a technology. “If it were so, I wouldn’t have
thought of it. It was a simple idea that was designed for a grandma,” says 31-year-old Shuman, who was in
India in continued on November for the TED conference in Mysore, where she was named a Fellow. At the
conference, she made presentations and spoke about her little Box.
In Loni, it’s an assorted mix of people who hold little conversations with the Box everyday-farmers wanting to
know the market price of flowers, children like Pranali who need help with their homework, Class X and XIII
students who check their results, even a devotee who can now check if train tickets are available to Tirupati
without travelling all the way to Pune.
“Earlier, traders would cheat us by buying our crops at lower prices. But now before leaving, we ask the Box
for the market price. We also ask about tractors, tillers and so on. Why, just a week ago, when a storm hit our
village, we were prepared for it,” says Pranali’s father Ajay Kalbhor, outside whose kirana shop the box is
It was in 2006, while Shuman was working as head of marketing for Adlens Ltd, an Oxford-based social
enterprise start-up, that she decided to do something about her idea. It was an idea that took shape during the
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time Shuman, with her Masters in ‘international development’, spent in Nicaragua and other African countries
and also in Kaliayamkoodi, a village in Tamil Nadu, where she worked with refugees. “It was an idea that kept
tugging at my sleeves and finally in 2006, I sent out emails to professors of ICT (Information and
Communication Technologies),” she says.
Some of them didn’t reply, others shot down the idea. But one of them, Sugata Mitra of NIIT Institute, wrote
back with encouraging words. Mitra, who is now professor of educational technology in Newcastle University,
suggested that the Institute would like to publish the idea. It was a collaboration that resulted in the setting up
of two Question Boxes in Noida near Delhi as part of a pilot project in 2007.
“I had a lot of reservations about the economic viability of the idea, but it seemed like a good experiment to try.
Later, we exchanged notes about the design etc. I also suggested the name ‘Prashnottarang’ for the Box,”
After the success of the pilot project that got the Box some media attention, Shuman decided that it was time
to set up the Open Mind trust in India. That’s when she got in touch with Nikhil Agarwal, Director of the Europe
Asia Business School in Pune, and set up the trust in Pune, Maharashtra, in September 2008.
The trust’s Boxes have the potential to bridge the technological divide in far-flung places without millions of
dollars in investment or extensive computer training. And, as Shuman says, the whole operation is driven by
volunteers. “We have no established call centres to handle queries from people. Anyone who has a computer,
an Internet connection and a telephone can take calls. Sometimes our technical people in Pune take the
calls,” she says.
Over time, as the boxes caught people’s imagination, Open Mind tweaked a few designs to make it more
user-friendly. The Box now has solar panels, which keep it running during frequent power outages, and has
two buttons—green to start speaking, red to stop. “Psychologically, people used to cellphones like having two
buttons, green and red buttons,” she says.
In Uganda, Shuman is working with the Grameen Foundation. There, she replaced the Boxes with Grameen’s
40 operators who work with cellphones. So when the locals needed information, they would go to Question
Box workers who would dial the call centre and ask the question for them. And because Internet charges in
Uganda are prohibitive, people who handle the call looked up a database instead of searching on the Net.
But Shuman is in no hurry to put up these Boxes all over. “Instead of scaling up with gigantic networks, I prefer
the incubating and consultation model. I would rather that people use this idea and take it forward-schools,
hospitals etc. Imagine, if a student could press a button and report if his teacher doesn’t turn up...,” she says.
Just an idea.
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