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Illiterate Get Internet at Touch of a Button

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

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.”

Resources

  • Photographs of the project launch and the Question Box: www.flickr.com

Published: April 2008

Question Box in Southern Innovator Magazine.
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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022

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Press Release 1 | Southern Innovator

Press Release for General Distribution

New Magazine Targets Innovators in Global South

United Nations, New York, 20 September 2011

  • Global magazine Southern Innovator profiles innovation culture ending poverty
  • 60-page color magazine gives snapshot of fast-changing world

Southern Innovator (SI) is a new magazine for a fast-changing world. It profiles and celebrates the innovators across the global South finding new ways to tackle poverty, create wealth and improve human development and achieve the millennium development goals (MDGs). In its first issue, Southern Innovator features the people who are re-shaping new technologies – from mobile phone ‘apps’ to Internet technologies – to overcome poverty and to improve the quality of life in some of the poorest places on earth.

SI is based on intensive research and is produced by UNDP’s Special Unit for South-South Cooperation (www.southerninnovator.org). The Unit is the leading organisation in the world tasked with the goal of sharing knowledge across the global South. It organises events including the yearly South-South Expo (www.southsouthexpo.org), a roaming celebration and gathering of Southern innovators previously held in New York and Geneva, Switzerland. This year’s Expo will be held in Rome, Italy (5 to 9 December 2011).

SI is being distributed around the world through the United Nations network and partners and reaches some of the poorest and remotest places as well as the vibrant but stressed growing global megacities. It is hoped the magazine will inspire budding innovators with its mix of stories, essential information, facts and figures, images and graphics. The magazine will evolve based on reader responses and this first issue is very much the beginning of a journey. As became clear while researching this first issue, many things can change in a short space of time. Few could have imagined the rapid take-up of mobile phones in Africa and how these phones have become integral to development goals across the continent.

SI magazine is a quarterly publication and the next issues will launch in September and December of this year.

A summary for publication is here:

“Southern Innovator (ISSN 2222-9280) is a quarterly magazine published by the United Nations Development Programme’s Special Unit for South-South Cooperation. Launched in May 2011, SI is a new magazine celebrating creativity and innovation emerging from the global South. It explores entrepreneurial solutions to development challenges and uncovers the trends and events shaping the rise of the South in order to spur action on ending extreme poverty and toward reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).”

We hope you enjoy the magazine and find its content interesting and illuminating: a snapshot of a fast-changing world awash, as we found out, with innovators, creators and do-ers making their world a better place.

For more information on Southern Innovator contact Cosmas Gitta at cosmas.gitta@undp.org or editor David South at southerninnovator@yahoo.co.uk.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2022

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10 Years Ago

It was 10 years ago this month that Southern Innovator‘s first issue launched in New York during the UN’s General Assembly week (UNGA). It focused on mobile phones and information technology for a reason: these connectivity transformations were re-shaping how people lived their lives, even in the poorest and remotest places on earth.

The content was based on global research, beginning in 2007, funded by the United Nations.

Southern Innovator Editor and Writer David South.

Press Release 1

“What a tremendous magazine your team has produced! It’s a terrific tour de force of what is interesting, cutting edge and relevant in the global mobile/ICT space… This is great, engaging, relevant and topical stuff.” Rose Shuman, Founder & CEO, Open Mind and Question Box, Santa Monica, CA, U.S.A.

While Southern Innovator’s digital presence has been key to its success and global reach, the hard copy of the magazine was designed with special features. The magazine needed to be robust and able to stand a fair bit of abuse and hard wear. It needed to be easy to read in low light conditions. And it needed to look sharp and eye-catching to reach as wide an audience as possible.

“Beautiful, inspiring magazine from UNDP on South-South innovation. Heart is pumping adrenaline and admiration just reading it.”

New Branding and Website

In 2010, as we prepared to launch Southern Innovator, the branding and website for David South Consulting was re-visioned by Icelandic graphic designer and illustrator Sólveig Rolfsdóttir. David South Consulting has been working with clients around the world since 1991.

Graphic Designer and Illustrator: Sólveig Rolfsdóttir.

20 Years Ago

Over 20 Years Ago

Mongolia’s first web magazine, Ger, launched in September 1998. It was also the first web magazine for the United Nations.

“The transformation of Mongolia from a largely rural nomadic society of herdsmen to a community dominated by the increasingly ultra-globalized city of Ulan Bator, where almost a third of the population lives, is nothing short of astounding. The New Mongolia: From Gold Rush to Climate Change, Association for Asian Studies, Volume 18:3 (Winter 2013): Central Asia

Logo and graphic design: P. Davaa-Ochir.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Back Issues

Southern Innovator Issue 1

Southern Innovator Issue 2

Southern Innovator Issue 3

Southern Innovator Issue 4

Southern Innovator Issue 5

Southern Innovator Issue 6

Team | Southern Innovator Phase 1 Development (2010 – 2015)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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