Question Box (no internet required).
July 12, 2009 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Question Boxes "bring information to people who cannot or do not access the Internet directly. Question Boxes leap over illiteracy, computer illiteracy, lack of networks, and language barriers.... Question Box users can use their mobile phones to call our call centers, or they can use the physical Question Box Units to call for free." The program was started by Rose Shuman, a young American entrepreneur. You can see the questions here.
posted by languagehat (24 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If this is viral marketing for that awful KGB service that I keep seeing ads for, I'll be very disappointed. I reserve the right to be disappointed anyway, without more information this seems fairly unlikely to make a big difference.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:10 AM on July 12, 2009

Telegraph (UK) provides more details on the operator:
The operator or 'interlocutor' fielding these inquiries in the local languages, then looking them up in English, is Manju, a 'young, smart, educated 21-year-old', as Shuman describes her. Exactly the kind of person who might have ended up in a call centre, trying to help irate Brits fathom their utility bills. Manju can work at her own desk, typifying an untapped, bright, young pool of potential female workers whose parents, Shuman says, 'prefer to have them in the home, especially if they're unmarried'.
I was worried that this ferrying the random solutions that the teeming masses on the internet might provide, but it sounds like more than returning the top google results. Keen stuff!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:10 AM on July 12, 2009

The questions sound suspiciously over literate for the clientele for which it is supposed to serve.
posted by figment of my conation at 9:29 AM on July 12, 2009

Yes, as we all know, people who don't have the internet readily available surely have no literate questions on their minds.
posted by redsparkler at 9:40 AM on July 12, 2009 [4 favorites]

Huh, serendipity.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 9:47 AM on July 12, 2009

Did anyone else half-expect it to look like this?
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:49 AM on July 12, 2009 [4 favorites]

Ask God a Question: 5c
posted by anthill at 10:11 AM on July 12, 2009

This is kind of like when my mom used to call me and ask me to google something for her.

It's a neat idea, but I'm wary of the human factor: what's to keep the question results from being filtered or censored by the human operator, especially if the questions are related to cultural taboos?

Case in point (true story): once, my mom called me and asked if you could really find pictures of people having sex with animals on the internet. I told her no.
posted by zerokey at 10:27 AM on July 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

I had a friend who really wanted to build something like this. But it was envisioned as for-profit and we were in the 8th grade, so the technology may not have been there.
posted by grobstein at 10:33 AM on July 12, 2009

2 questions:

how has "get the government to pay for it" become the primary entrepreneurial model?

how do I get pron on this?
posted by fistynuts at 10:40 AM on July 12, 2009

This list of the questions asked at World Wants to Know is the type of thing that others find boring that I could sit and watch all day (if it updated that often), wondering what the story is behind going through the trouble of getting the questions asked and answered. Curiosity can explain most any Google question, but going to the Question Box place seems to suggest that you have a more interesting need -- be it a bet or debate (like #2293. when was the uganda railway line built?) or a more immediate need (like #2299. what are the causes and control of constipation?...which is also #2297, which either means its a re-asked question or a wide-spread issue)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:43 AM on July 12, 2009

Sounds like ChaCha, but ChaCha's free to anyone with a cell phone and text messaging. It's useful when you need an answer and don't have access to Google, but it's not exactly perfect.

I've never tried KGB, but it costs money and that's anathema to my lifestyle of being too cheap to get a mobile data plan.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:21 AM on July 12, 2009

The questions sound suspiciously over literate for the clientele for which it is supposed to serve.

Huh? The people asking the questions are just speaking. People tend to speak in the proper syntax of their dialect. Why is this surprising? The feed is a translation of their questions...right?
posted by whimsicalnymph at 11:22 AM on July 12, 2009

Hit post too soon. I meant to edit it after I realized that this was meant to work internationally and translate questions, which could be very useful if it remains cheap enough for developing nations to use it while still paying the translators.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:23 AM on July 12, 2009

It seems a good idea, especially if you see the operator as a teacher, or a librarian. Since the box is public and the answers can be heard by others, the possibilities for abuse are reduced.

I don't see anything wrong for a government, local or centralized, to pay a teacher or librarian to serve multiple small communities without access to fresh information.
posted by francesca too at 11:26 AM on July 12, 2009

The questions sound suspiciously over literate for the clientele for which it is supposed to serve.

Someone is translating them into English to do the search.
posted by delmoi at 12:29 PM on July 12, 2009

This reminds me of the Hole in the Wall experiment (TED Talk), in which computers were installed in a wall, in common areas. Kids taught themselves and their friends to use the computer to play games and use the internet, and also learned about 200 English words associated with computer use, with no formal instruction at all.
posted by Houstonian at 12:33 PM on July 12, 2009

Brings to mind the ASK NYPL telephone and e-mail service of the The New York Public Library.
posted by ericb at 1:32 PM on July 12, 2009

check out the debate after Google launched a premium SMS service in Uganda last week

that's a for profit service btw

Question box still has some issues though, here's last week's PC World article on Question Box's background and current thoughts (though imho the article could have done with some restructuring editorially for better flow)
posted by infini at 2:24 PM on July 12, 2009

Yeah, I actually see how this, if it works properly, is not a brilliant idea and a great public service.
posted by jokeefe at 6:29 PM on July 12, 2009

Bah-- I meant "I don't see how this is not".
posted by jokeefe at 6:30 PM on July 12, 2009

zerokey: I've definitely gotten calls from people asking me to google something for them. Usually it's my mother lost in some strange city and asking for directions, figuring that I'm likely to be at a computer. Now that she has a Blackberry she doesn't do it. I've also *been* that person. Again, it's usually directions.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:46 PM on July 12, 2009

The defunct Amazon NowNow did something similar using Mechanical Turk.
posted by amuseDetachment at 7:26 PM on July 12, 2009

I didn't mean it as a slur of any sort. I missed the part where they were all translated. I work for a large community college answering questions for people who declare themselves "not computer literate" (and some who should be, but aren't - mostly tenured profs). Anyhoo, the majority of questions I get are far below that level of fluency, which is why it sounded odd to me.
posted by figment of my conation at 10:15 PM on July 12, 2009

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