Illiterate Get Internet at Touch of a Button

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Quick access to information is crucial for development. The remarkable spread of information around the world via the internet has been one of the greatest achievements of the 21st century. The astounding take-up of mobile phones is another. For those who can afford it or get access to a computer and electricity, the new technology is a powerful tool for economic and social advancement. But what about people who are caught in the technology gap, or who are illiterate?

What about those who have a mobile phone, but are too poor to own a computer – or live in a village without electricity? Or those who can’t read or write? In India, there are 42 million Internet users, 3.7 per cent of the population. But the country is also home to the largest number of illiterate people in the world: 304.11 million (Human Development Report).

A unique solution in rural India is developing a way to connect the illiterate to the internet. The Open Mind Programme’s Question Box Project, opened its first Box in the village of Phoolpur in September 2007.

The idea is brilliantly simple. An intercom-like white tin box with a phone inside is placed in a village’s public areas. Using the existing phone networks, the user just has to hit a simple button to get an operator at the other end. The operator sits in front of an internet-enabled computer. The user just asks their question, and the operator turns these questions into search queries. When the computer’s search engine gives back answers, the operator selects the best one and then replies in the user’s native language and in layman’s terms.

The operator’s role goes beyond simply typing questions into Google – the operators use intelligent software that aggregates frequently asked questions (FAQs) to speed up time. FAQs include: school scores, job opportunities, football/cricket scores, and definitions and terms. Operators will also send emails for the users.

The service also has a role to play for the literate who lack Internet access. Students once had to travel to get their exam results, but now they can just ask the Question Box.

The Question Box operates in normal business hours for now. A second Question Box was put into operation at the beginning of 2008 in the village of Ethida, several hours’ drive from New Delhi, and there are plans to expand the Question Box to 30 units connected to 20 operators.

At present, organizers are looking into raising revenue for the service by advertising and sponsorship. Operators are typically homeworkers and well-educated. Mostly female, their parents are happy to have them work from home.

During this first phase, the project team analyzed the results and refined the structure of the service. They are also exploring viable business models to be able to take the service across India and keep it sustainable.

Professor of Psychology Ritu Dangwal from the NIIT Institute, is in charge of working with the villagers to monitor the project. She is also involved in a start-up called Hole in the Wall, which provides internet kiosks to rural villagers. Dangwal’s research has starkly correlated the relationship between distance from a big city and decreasing quality of education, a graphic example of the damage done by being cut off from good information resources.

The Question Box is based on an idea from Rose Shuman, a business and international development consultant. Shuman had become frustrated that with all the clever people and vast sums of money going into information technology, few were developing low-cost ways to take the power of computers to the people.

“The best thing about this project is that it’s very tangible,” she told the Daily Telegraph newspaper. “It’s not a big infrastructure. You have a box you can see and touch, and a call log of every question.”


  • Photographs of the project launch and the Question Box: