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Need an Answer? Just Ask the Box

Question Box, a service created by a California woman, brings search results to users without Internet access in India and Uganda. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Development Report.

When you have a question about something, where do you go? For many people the answer is simple. They go online to a search engine like Google or Yahoo. But what about people in rural or underdeveloped areas who may have no way to get on the Internet?

A business and international development consultant in California, Rose Shuman, wanted to find an answer for them, too. Her solution is Question Box.

Question Box is a service that provides answers -- free of charge -- for people who cannot search the Internet directly. They might not be able to read, or they simply have no access.

Question Box began two years ago in India. People use a metal call box with a push-to-talk button to connect to a live operator, as Rose Shuman explains:

ROSE SHUMAN: "You just push a button, a big green button, and that will connect you directly to our operators who are sitting in front of computers, and speak your language. And you can ask them any sort of question you want, and they'll look it up in English or in Hindi, or whatever the main language is, and translate the answer right back for you."

The service is currently offered in two villages. The latest version of the box uses mobile phone technology, and solar panels in case the electrical power fails. Rose Shuman says the aim was to make the box as easy as possible for users.

ROSE SHUMAN: "Rather than try to bring a lot of infrastructure to them and expect them to learn how to use the Internet, the idea was to make a technology that even Grandma could use, figuring that Grandma could probably walk up to a box and push a button."

In April, Question Box expanded to Uganda. Forty community workers with mobile phones connect villagers to call center operators in Kampala. The community workers go around telling people about the service. They wear T-shirts that say "Ask Me."

But Internet service in Uganda proved slow and undependable. So Question Box teamed up with a local technology company to store information on a local server. That way, the researchers in Kampala can quickly search the database for answers.

Question Box is a project of Open Mind, a nonprofit organization founded by Rose Shuman. She says Question Box is working to expand by offering its software through partnerships.

In Uganda, Question Box formed a partnership with the Grameen Foundation. Grameen had money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to bring agricultural information to rural farmers. But users also ask about current events and many other subjects.

ROSE SHUMAN: "When was Mahatma Gandhi born, and how long is the Nile River? What's the tallest mountain? The funniest one I think we got was, 'Did the pyramids ever move to another place?' Which we found pretty funny. But we did look it up, and they haven't moved."

And that's the VOA Special English Development Report, written by June Simms. I'm Steve Ember.