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Searching Google, Where Internet Access is Scarce

timothy posted more than 4 years ago | from the guessing-isn't-quite-a-substitute dept.

The Internet 130

Internet searching means that finding information mundane, obscure, or fantastically useful is just a few keystrokes away — but not if you're without a connection to the Internet (or can't read), both the norm for many of the world's poor. itwbennett writes "Rose Shuman developed a contraption for this under-served population called Question Box that is essentially a one-step-removed Internet search: 'A villager presses a call button on a physical intercom device, located in their village, which connects them to a trained operator in a nearby town who's sitting in front of a computer attached to the Internet. A question is asked. While the questioner holds, the operator looks up the answer on the Internet and reads it back. All questions and answers are logged. For the villager there is no keyboard to deal with. No complex technology. No literacy issues.' This week, Jon Gosier, of Appfrica, launched a web site called World Wants to Know that displays the QuestionBox questions being asked in real time. As Jon put it, it's allowing 'searching where Google can't.' And providing remarkable insight into the real information needs of off-the-grid populations."

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FP (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28662921)

FP

Re:FP (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28662983)

FP

If only I was somewhere without internet access, I wouldn't have to read inane comments like "FP". (or maybe I could call the operator and have the comments read to me)

Re:FP (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663049)

"Hello, operator? Yes, can you please read me all of Anonymous Coward's Slashdot posts from today? Yes, thank you, I can hold....."

*hours later*
"Oh my, can you really say that on the internet? Such a wag!"

A subtle point (1, Flamebait)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663389)

Not to put too fine a point on it,...

but why would anyone in the distant backward village want to go on the internet?

And a more important question.

Why do the technically advanced people in the overdeveloped parts of the world feel this overwhelming compulsion to force all this inappropriate and culturally disruptive technology onto the tribal people of the world?

Listen, we are not all the same. If someone is living in more or less the same way that their people have lived for the past two thousand years, then their way of life is sustainable and suitable for them.

So you (you being the technological elite, and that's you if you're a Slashdaughter) should just leave them the fuck alone.

You aren't helping them in any way. You aren't making their lives any better.

Yes, they're 'primitive'. Yes, they're technologically backward. Yes, they could probably live ten years longer if only had the advantage of the technology that you feel so compelled to bring to them.

But, so what!?! What's it to you? What difference does it make to you how they live?

You need to lose your missionary complex. This obsession of bringing technology to the distant regions of the earth regardless of any real need for it is only the latest manifestation of the same obsession that drove your great-grandparents to go to the distant corners of the earth in order to save the souls of the heathen.

    This obsession is your real problem. Their lack of technology (or having an unsaved soul) is not a problem for them. Actually, YOU are a problem for them.

    So do yourself a favor, and do them a favor,...Stay home. Leave people alone. Deal with your own mental diseases. Not everyone wants and needs your techno toys as much as you do.

Re:A subtle point (5, Insightful)

julian67 (1022593) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663517)

Access to information is a valuable commodity in itself, one which existing structures often withhold from the poorest, who typically are farmers or labourers. Imagine being a subsistence farmer who relies on a small surplus from each harvest in order to be able to afford access to medicines or schooling for his children. Now imagine a cooperative or community of such people having access to accurate information about crop prices (this is probably the single most important financial value to farmers everywhere) and being able to negotiate with local middle men instead of being dictated to by them. There's nothing 'primitive' about this need, it's universal and it empowers communities and individuals. In fact it's essential to anythign which pretends to be a free market. Just because someone toils in the fields doesn't mean they are unintelligent or any less astute than someone who works in an office in a developed nation, and the benefit they can obtain from affordable access to information from disinterested parties is likely to be as great or greater and certainly more vital than the benefit obtained by those of us who already have easy access to information, medicines, education etc.

Re:A subtle point (3, Insightful)

shutdown -p now (807394) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665131)

If someone is living in more or less the same way that their people have lived for the past two thousand years, then their way of life is sustainable ...

Any way of life that doesn't lead to extinction is "sustainable". When our ancestors were hunter-gatherer cavesmen tribes, their life was sustainable. It doesn't mean shit.

... and suitable for them.

And who are you to decide what's suitable for whom? They cannot truly decide themselves because they don't know any other options to their way of life. Let them find out, and then let them decide.

As for you, Mr 21st Century Caveman - what are you even doing on Slashdot in the first place? In the words of Robert A. Heinlein:

"... the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better.... Most of these long-haired belittlers can't drive a nail or use a slide rule, I'd like to... ship them back to the twelfth century -- then let them enjoy it."

Re:A subtle point (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665663)

Just because someone toils in the fields doesn't mean they are unintelligent or any less astute than someone who works in an office in a developed nation

*ahem* Sarah Palin.

Re:A subtle point (4, Insightful)

Phat_Tony (661117) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663701)

Do you not care at all what the people living there want?

You accuse other slashdotters of having a "missionary complex" and say "you should just leave them the fuck alone."

So, it doesn't matter to you at all what the people living in these places think? If they ask for our help, we should refuse? They might want our help, and we might want to help them, but no, Simonetta knows what's best for all the undeveloped areas of the world, and he says we should "leave them the fuck alone." In addition to technology, I suppose that includes other aid, like trying to dig wells to provide them with clean water? Their ancestor's children have been dying of dysentery for millennia, so we should stop trying to inflict our western anti-dysentery views upon them?

You say "why would anyone in the distant backward village want to go on the internet?" I don't know. Why don't you try using the link to go look at all the questions they're asking.

Unlike missionaries, no one is going into their villages and telling them they are going to burn in hell forever if they don't do such-and-such. They aren't trying to re-arrange their society and seize control and displace their traditions. They're just putting the phone there for them to use. If the locals don't want to use it, they don't have to. But they are using it. I suppose, though, that you know what's better for them, and it's good for your country to move ahead technologically, and learn new information, but that people in other countries are wrong to want to learn new information and use new technologies, and we should take them away from them and not let them use them? Because it's our responsibility to leave other people alone, and not offer to help other people if they're from different cultures?

Our ancestors got my just fine for thousands of years without smartphones too. Do you wish Apple and RIM would just "leave us the fuck alone" and stop pushing their newfangled technology on us?

Re:A subtle point (4, Insightful)

quanticle (843097) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664649)

Your point would be valid if the very technology you condemn did not provide material and financial advantages to those who have it, allowing them to unfairly take advantage of those who don't. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The vast amount of information on the Internet today allows people with Internet access to anticipate changing conditions and adapt to them much more quickly than those without. This "question box" is an effort to level the playing field, allowing the least advantaged to access some of the networks and power structures that we in the developed world take for granted.

Indeed, it is you who is displaying the condescension and paternalism. You are so wedded to your "noble savage" idea of the Global South that you're presuming for them that they'd be better off without this technology. After all, no one is forcing these villagers to use the question box. What's the harm in offering it to them and letting them decide whether its worth the effort or not?

Put a computer where the intercom is! (2, Interesting)

lee1026 (876806) | more than 4 years ago | (#28662989)

If the connection between the intercom and the operator is good enough for voice, that is good enough of a bit rate for googling things. Then just putting a computer there will make things much more efficient. (you won't have to hire a operator, for one thing)

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663011)

I guess you missed the part about these people being illiterate.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (2, Insightful)

rm999 (775449) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663281)

I can search google using just voice detection on my iPhone (and it works remarkably well). Then, the iPhone can read everything back to me. If a blind person can use an iPhone to search Google, an illiterate person can too. If an illiterate person can use an iPhone, they should be able to use a desktop computer.

I'm not sure how good Google's Hindi voice detection is, but I'm just saying it is theoretically possible.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

siloko (1133863) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663407)

but I'm just saying it is theoretically possible.

The whole point of the exercise is that it is not just theoretically possible it is actually being done on the ground. Handing out iPhones to folk in the bush isn't gonna happen soon whereas this experiment is up and running and not only providing a useful resource to those outside the technical revolution but also providing an insight into their concerns and interests . . .

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

rm999 (775449) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664359)

It's not just theoretically possible, voice recognition/speech synthesizing technology is very mature, and has been for years. It can run on cheap hardware with decent accuracy.

Anyway, this exercise appears highly impractical to me - remember that it is not actually being done on a wide scale yet, so it is still somewhat theoretical.

Voice-tech Googling minus the Google-fu? No, txs. (1)

zooblethorpe (686757) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664873)

Um, I thought part of the point here was that the Question Box is servicing areas otherwise totally off-grid ... which would kinda make having an iPhone an expensive exercise in futility (hint -- the back of the bush tends not to have much cell phone service, even here in North America [I have choppy reception at best]).

iPhones aside, and answering your specific point about voice recognition, any VR-based Googling system would still require the users to be literate in how best to phrase their Google queries. Remember, the target audience for this service has zero Google-fu. Never mind all the time wasted by any voice system reading the results of Google searches. Having a trained Google master one dedicated button-click away, someone who knows how best to search and who can ask follow-up questions as needed to refine the query, and then reply with *just* the relevant information, provides a lot more value, IMHO.

Cheers,

Re:Voice-tech Googling minus the Google-fu? No, tx (1)

rm999 (775449) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665285)

Please go through the thread you are replying to. The original poster pointed out that the phone/radio service being used for communication could be used to transmit data. I pointed out that the iPhone can do something well, so a cheap computer should also be able to do it. This has nothing to do with sending iPhones to remote villages in India and hoping they somehow find a cell signal.

And Google is pretty decent at parsing real world questions. For specialized common queries, bookmarks could be set up (for example, push this button with a cricket player on it if you want to know the results of today's cricket matches).

Re:Voice-tech Googling minus the Google-fu? No, tx (1)

zooblethorpe (686757) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665519)

I pointed out that the iPhone can do something well, so a cheap computer should also be able to do it. This has nothing to do with sending iPhones to remote villages in India and hoping they somehow find a cell signal.

Fair enough, and my comment was out of turn, really.

And Google is pretty decent at parsing real world questions. For specialized common queries, bookmarks could be set up (for example, push this button with a cricket player on it if you want to know the results of today's cricket matches).

This speaks more to the meat of my response. While theoretically possible, such a system would require much more work to set up, and much more training of the targeted user population, before it could be of much use, especially given the nature of many of the queries.

No Google-fu + Voice recognition + Voice-based reading of the results = Not yet implemented + Unfortunate waste of time.

Meanwhile, Trained operator + Simple intercom call box = Implemented already + More useful output.

I'm not say that VR *couldn't* be used, simply that it's not the appropriate solution for this particular problem. Having a trained human in the mix is vital -- either the users themselves, who would be trained how to enter useful queries and how to interpret the results, or an operator, trained similarly. Much less work to go with Option #2. :)

Cheers,

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

woodchip (611770) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664077)

You really think a blind person can use an iphone? the iphone has to be the least blind-friendly phone in the existence of the human race. I guess your voice-search might be useful for the blind if it was the only app on the iphone and the iphone was set to boot straight into that app.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

davester666 (731373) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664175)

And they are also poor, so how will they pay for the phone call?

And the first question they ask the operator: "Is there food and/or water and/or shelter available where you are?"

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

tsa (15680) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665845)

Not everyone in Africa is starving and homeless. In fact, most people there do have a roof above their heads, and food.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1, Interesting)

Swizec (978239) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663021)

If the connection between the intercom and the operator is good enough for voice, that is good enough of a bit rate for googling things. Then just putting a computer there will make things much more efficient. (you won't have to hire a operator, for one thing)

And it still won't solve the other requirement, which is making it useful to people who can't read, let alone use a computer.

Just how DO you teach a (practically) stone-age tribesman to use a computer?

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (2, Interesting)

siloko (1133863) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663099)

And it still won't solve the other requirement, which is making it useful to people who can't read

or the electricity or the cooling or the reliability or the wtf is this or the pr0n over narrowband frustrations which inevitably will follow. I see this innovation as a good idea and the final sentence is the clincher for me - it is interesting to see what they search for - how our species has diverged through the random inequalities of resource provision . . .

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

rohan972 (880586) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664655)

it is interesting to see what they search for - how our species has diverged through the random inequalities of resource provision

or if the inequalities of resource provision are partially caused by the things people search for. Come to think of it, if it were possible it would be interesting to get an search pattern in relation to income within western countries. I would presume search terms similar to "course enrolment" would represent a higher income bracket than search terms like "Paris Hilton", but it would be interesting to see a comprehensive study.

Possibly, if someone was to adopt the search patterns of the wealthier, and follow up on the information with appropriate action, they could give themselves an advantage in that resource allocation.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (2, Insightful)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663283)

Just how DO you teach a (practically) stone-age tribesman to use a computer?

You teach his kids (or better yet, let them teach themselves [youtube.com] ), and let them help him out. Hell, that's the way it happened in North America for the most part. My parents are relatively computer-savvy, but not nearly as much as their children. And my grandparents can't even program an answering machine. When they need something technical, they seek help from the younger generations.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (4, Informative)

intx13 (808988) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663363)

Just how DO you teach a (practically) stone-age tribesman to use a computer?

Stone age tribesman? Take a look at the questions they're asking: who is on top on football, popular NBA players, info on the Obamas, quality of life in different regions of Uganda, the causes of sexual health problems, transmission of diseases, etc. They live in an underdeveloped country, but that doesn't mean they're underdeveloped people.

If a service like this could be sustained long-term and made accessible to more people, I think this could be a great tool. In particular, the questions about conflicting religions and sexual health are striking - there's a lot of ignorance about health, religion, and science in Africa... but that ignorance is a reflection of the state of region, not the willfull behavior of the people. Access to the Internet can provide an "out" for those that want to learn but have limited options in their village.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

Tubal-Cain (1289912) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663383)

Stone age tribesman? Take a look at the questions they're asking...

I am. I'm seeing the same thing AC [slashdot.org] is seeing.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (0, Troll)

Swizec (978239) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663477)

They live in tribes and use stone-age technology. That makes them stoneage tribesmen, no matter the cause. It doesn't matter why they live in such conditions, but if nobody would recognise them as such, nobody would help them improve their technological savvy.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (3, Insightful)

jgrahn (181062) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663627)

They live in tribes and use stone-age technology. That makes them stoneage tribesmen, no matter the cause. It doesn't matter why they live in such conditions, but if nobody would recognise them as such, nobody would help them improve their technological savvy.

Stone-age? I'm guessing they have at least the same stuff my grandfather had before he bought the Massey-Ferguson and got rid of the horse in 1956. That's approximately 3,000 years after the stone age ended around here ...

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

Swizec (978239) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664577)

That's an interesting question actually. When does a culture stop being stone-age? When colonizers share some of their technology, or when they can actually get to it on their own or through international trade agreements?

Far as I know, a lot of africa still uses spears and houses made out of excrement ... and there's an odd beat-up car here and there that looks like it's been forgotten by a rich plantation owner in the 1950's.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (2, Informative)

quanticle (843097) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664665)

The question is made more difficult by the fact that Stone-Age is not being used in the strict archaeological sense, but as a shorthand to describe any civilization where the level of technology available to the average person is more than a certain number of years behind ours. I would be willing to be that these "stone-age tribesmen" have access to smithing knowledge, which would instantly disqualify them from the strict definition of "stone-age".

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

Mr. Slippery (47854) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664387)

They live in tribes and use stone-age technology.

Stone-age technology such as intercoms?

And everybody lives in tribes, some people's tribes are just hundreds of millions strong. We are pack animals.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

Hurricane78 (562437) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664909)

I agree. I bet most people down there are, even if not as much educated, still more intelligent, as many people here.

Because they have to. While we can just whine that life is to hard, and that we demand that someone wipes our ass. ^^

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (3, Informative)

ZackSchil (560462) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663041)

Not everyone can read. Not everyone can work a computer. A simple voice connection has a much lower barrier to entry. Plus, hiring one operator for several villages is a lot cheaper than sending out and maintaining several computers in areas where there might not even be power. A voice connection can run on a crank.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663717)

A voice connection can run on a crank.

whereas it takes thousands of cranks to run slashdot.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

crazyvas (853396) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665193)

Tried to mod parent funny, mis-clicked on "overrated." Replying to undo my modding.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (4, Insightful)

MWoody (222806) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663079)

1) The box requires less overall and less constant power.
2) An analog communications channel is much less difficult to implement over possibly unreliable wires. Let the human brain handle the error correction (static).
3) Much cheaper than installing and servicing a computer.
4) Employs local people.
5) Doesn't require the user to be literate.
6) Doesn't require the user to know how to use a computer, what the Internet is, what google is, etc. Just ask your question and get an answer.

  etc etc etc

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663995)

1) Very true and good.
2) Let another human handle the error correction and believe in anything you hear.
3) Especially useful for people that are partially introduced to the western technology yet have problems with it.
4) Makes even more class differences by having some people work in IT
5) Useful for encouraging people to learn how to read
6) Encourages people to learn how to use a computer and the internet.

The problem is African IQ. (0, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663217)

These efforts to bring civilization to Africa will, mostly, fail. The reason is that African IQ is lower than European (and Japanese) IQ by about 20 points.

At this point, some African and African-American supremacists object by saying that IQ tests are racially biased in favor of "White" people. That objection is simply false. The Japanese, who are not "White", achieve the same score that "White" people achieve on the IQ tests devised by "White" people.

Returning to the issue, we should note that Africa has contributed almost nothing to science or technology. Most of it was invented by Europeans, European-Americans, and (to a lesser extent) Japanese. This skill in science and technology brought tremendous wealth to the West (which includes Japan).

The only people who are responsible for African and African-American failure is Africans and African-Americans. They wrecked their own societies due to low IQ.

Look at the utter ignorance and stupidity of Africans.

Now, look at the achievements of, say, Germans. They co-invented calculus (with an Englishman), invented the jet aircraft, and built part of the foundation of quantum physics. Quantum physics gave us nuclear power plants, the cleanest source of energy in the world.

Re:The problem is African IQ. (1)

arun84h (1454607) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663315)

Maybe they have lower IQs because they don't have the education or quality of life like most Europeans and Americans do?

Think before you sound like a douchebag.

I know, I know, /trolled.

Re:The problem is African IQ. (0, Offtopic)

Arimus (198136) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663327)

What are you smoking?

...Quantum physics gave us nuclear power plants, the cleanest source of energy in the world.

WTF? Care to explain that to people affected by Three mile Island, Selafield/Windscale, Chernoybl?

Nuclear fission will never be a clean source of engery are there is always going to be radioactive waste produced.

Re:The problem is African IQ. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663587)

Nobody has ever demonstrated conclusively that three mile island had any effects on anybody. The radiation by those living close to the plant suffered no more than about a chest x-ray.

Re:The problem is African IQ. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663343)

true but the question is whether an overall 20 IQ points makes much difference to civilization. i'd argue that it does not.
The average IQ may be lower, but educated africans have still managed to pull themselves out of africa and succeed elsewhere
in the world. This indicates that once africa is civilized, chances are the educated africans can pull the countries up and keep
them there irrespective of the depressed IQ. one can also argue that the extra muscle mass will help africans build structures faster
with less effort than western countries.

The problem is statistical illiteracy (0)

Simonetta (207550) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663573)

Even if the difference in IQ were true and scientifically verifiable, there is still a bell curve for intelligence distribution. Which means that there are still millions of Africans (and African Americans) who are higher IQs than millions of European-Americans.

    Perhaps the endless, permanent 2000-year-old European civil war (currently in remission for the past 60 years, but not over by any definition) has had the effect of killing off all the tranparently stupid white people in young adulthood.

    There has been only one instance in history where the European people have put aside their inflated differences and have been able to live together in relative peace with each other for a long period of time. That instance is the United States. And the USA is populated by people who were more or less thrown out of their origin countries by their social superiors. It was always the stupid, ugly, backward, and embarrassing people who were 'encouraged' to emigrate to America by the better class of Europeans. The useless dregs with the low IQs.

    As for the accomplishments of the Germans, I have several Jewish friends who would disagree with the notion of German cultural, moral, and social superiority.

    See if you can guess why?

Re:The problem is statistical illiteracy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28665933)

Even so. What matters is that Africa was a mess, is a mess, and will remain a mess for the foreseeable future. Where White settlers have tried (and succeeded!) in developing the countries further, building industries, and ensuring the rule of law, as soon as they were kicked out, it all went back to corruption everywhere, crime rates through the roof, AIDS spreading like wildfire, and so on - to wit, South Africa and Rodesia/Zimbabwe both exhibit those same exact symptoms.

And before you cry "apartheid!", consider that an average Black guy in SAR these days has a lower standard of living (defined in terms of income, access to education, etc) than he did in aparheid times; and Black-on-Black violent crime is an order of magnitude more than it was back then. So White rule - even as ugly as its apartheid incarnation - still achieved much better results for Blacks then when they're ruling themselves. So we have at least two countries now in which Black majority took the power over from White minority, and then consistently messed things up in the same, predictable, patterns.

See if you can guess why?

Re:The problem is African IQ. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663595)

The only people who are responsible for African and African-American failure is Africans and African-Americans. They wrecked their own societies due to low IQ.

Sure, imperialism and colonialism are not really accountable influences. It is not like Africa is in the state it is, because Europe pushed them that way.

Two side notes:
1. The only thing an IQ test measures reliably is how good you are at solving IQ tests.
2. Indians and Arabs created the base of our math. Just take a look at Fibonaccis biography

Re:The problem is African IQ. (4, Insightful)

quanticle (843097) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664689)

The problem with your assertion is that, if IQ were some genetically defined constant, the population-wide IQ average would change very slowly over time. This is not the case. IQ scores everywhere have been going up pretty constantly over the past few decades as more and more people get access to proper education and nutrition.

Also, the failure of Africans to invent anything "significant" probably doesn't have anything to do with their racial heritage, and probably has more to do with their environment, as Guns, Germs, and Steel rightly points out.

Re:Put a computer where the intercom is! (1)

tsj5j (1159013) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663403)

Things may be different where you are, but there ARE places with people who are poor in rural areas. There ARE also people who are illiterate (can speak, can't read, fyi). Whilst (nearly) everyone who needs to search will have access to a telephone or at least a payphone, the same cannot be said of computers. And telephone companies aren't willing to configure an internet connection (even dialup, maybe?) for such low demand. This is a decent idea, but there must be sufficient publicity first. For those who can't access computers probably would find it challenging to chance upon this service.

Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663055)

... but I'd be willing to wager the 'poor people' referred to by the OP have far more pressing questions that a device such as this one is basically useless for, like "What the hell am I going to eat today?".

In fairness, I'd say that this device is more of a novelty. From their website:

"The users ask a wide range of questions, including cricket scores, paddy farming advice, codes to download songs on their mobiles, homework questions, University exam results, train schedules, commodity prices, and where to get a personal loan."

How about using the resources spent developing and deploying this device in more tangible efforts, such as providing better agricultural tools, seed, proper training, etc?
Honestly, while I think these 'feel-good' devices are a fantastic way for their creators and their well-heeled supporters to feel like 'they're making a difference', ultimately they're pretty much worthless in general practice.

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (2, Interesting)

maxume (22995) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663133)

Oddly, the people using the service may not think it is useless.

Now, if you think the well-heeled feel gooders made up those questions, that's a different thing.

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663139)

Current posts on World Wants to Know:

2301. What is the use of melanine in humans?
2300. what proceedures must a person go through to hold patent rights when he wants to produce a book?
2299. what are the causes and control of constipation?
2298. are telephone masts hazardous to human health
2297. What is the cause and control of constipation?
2296. what is the least sparse district in uganda
2295. what are the best varieties of beans to plant
2294. what are the signs and syptoms of swine flu in human beings
2293. when was the uganda railway line built?
2292. what food values are got from eating jackfruits?

Sounds like they're getting useful information to me.

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663263)

1. What the hell is goatse ?

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (3, Insightful)

nethenson (1093205) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663841)

And this list of questions is, by itself, a very valuable thing.
It is a great tool for detecting the areas where more education is needed and the trends of what is happening, and is also a good starting point for the NGOs to make their plans
Maybe it is time to include a lawyer in the NGO team to help the book writers, or to start promoting education about constipation prevention... :)

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (3, Insightful)

tsalmark (1265778) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663171)

A number of those questions are pressing to these people. Paddy farming seems obvious to me. Train schedules, well, it is probably best to arrive at the train station on the right day, so as not to waste a week waiting for the train. knowing Commodity prices would also be fairly important for making farm decisions. I am generally suspicious of high tech going in places where it would be over kill, but I don;t think this is one of those times. This does seem like it is a good match of effort spent /value provided

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (1)

dmartine40 (1571035) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664659)

And just as pressing are answers to questions like who killed who in Way of the Dragon! :-D Oh wait, that's a different service? Oops!

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663257)

I can't see any practical use the a farmer would have for "paddy farming advice... train schedules, commodity prices, or personal loans"!

If we've learned one thing in Africa, it's that dropping a bunch of 'better agricultural tools' into a remote village works for about a year until they break. The people need access to information so they can learn about the tools and develop their own. Imagine dropping a computer off at Grandma's house and saying "this should make your life MUCH easier" and then leaving... She needs information in an accessible medium more than the tool itself.

As for proper training, Voice-Googling advice on "paddy farming techniques" is going to reach a lot of people for less money than sending teachers. Culturally, ownership of the information-to-practice process will probably mean more effective application than someone showing up and saying "You're doing it wrong!"

And lastly, I can't imagine what use those dirty savages would have for homework help and exam results!

/Posted AC for fear of sarcasm-deaf mods

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (3, Informative)

JaredOfEuropa (526365) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664473)

Honestly, while I think these 'feel-good' devices are a fantastic way for their creators and their well-heeled supporters to feel like 'they're making a difference', ultimately they're pretty much worthless in general practice.

I used to feel the same way when reading about the proliferation of cell phones in rural areas in African countries. The last thing they need is those bloody expensive luxury items, right? But, as it turns out, cell phones provide a similar and highly useful type of service, and allows people in out of the way areas to get information on farming and diseases, food and crop prices at various markets. Already this is changing the way food is grown and sold.

And what is so bad about finding out about train schedules? Who wants to waste 3 days waiting after missing a train? People moving crops or who are otherwise working hard to feed a family can't afford to waste those three days, probably less so than you or me. Personal loans? Unlike loans in the West, these will probably not go towards a down payment on an SUV or a swimming pool, but more likely will be spent on essential farming tools, or perhaps as seed capital for a small business. That's what this microcredit stuff is all about... I think it's great if a tool like this makes such efforts available to a wider audience.

Providing tools and seeds rarely helps and often destroys local markets. That is the real "feel good" stuff. There are many of such fancy and widely applauded aid programmes... please go see what became of similar programmes that were implemented 10 years ago. Broken pumps, broken tractors that cannot be repaired locally, once immaculate white school buildings, still waiting for those first teachers and those first books, pencils and blackboards to arrive. That's what you will find.

Real aid is helping people to help themselves. Access to information might seem unimportant to developing nations but it has already been proven to be a game changer right down to local villagers. Don't expect them to ask only earth-shatteringly insightful questions through this thing either, and certainly do not berate them for using it for entertainment purposes as well. These are people like you and me, not some hunger-crazed wretches scratching in the dirt for food with no time for anything else. Moyo said it best when she said: "If you see an African on TV, it's either a fly-ridden victim of famine or war, or.... it's Nelson Mandela". That is the image that we need to lose... sadly it is precisely that image which fuels the industry called "aid"

Re:Maybe I'm just being too cynical... (1)

rohan972 (880586) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664803)

.. but I'd be willing to wager the 'poor people' referred to by the OP have far more pressing questions that a device such as this one is basically useless for, like "What the hell am I going to eat today?".

How about, how am I going to eat in 3 months, next year. Some of the poorest people are subsistence farmers, they "budget" by the year, not the day, planting crops in the growing season, harvesting in season, allocating a portion of the harvest for personal consumption, a portion for re-planting, what's left is available for sale. Such people would tend to be considerably more forward thinking than many western wage earners who only think as far as next weeks paycheque.

"The users ask a wide range of questions, including cricket scores, paddy farming advice, codes to download songs on their mobiles, homework questions, University exam results, train schedules, commodity prices, and where to get a personal loan."

Can you spot any searches there that would help them provide food for themselves or produce saleable product, increase their education to be more productive, find transport to higher priced markets to sell their goods, find where higher priced markets are for their commodity produce or obtain finance to fund their productive endeavours?

What if I asked (0, Offtopic)

American Terrorist (1494195) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663145)

How much wood would a wood-chuck chuck if a wood-chuck could chuck wood?

Re:What if I asked (1)

TimSSG (1068536) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665505)

How much wood would a wood-chuck chuck if a wood-chuck could chuck wood?

Traditional Answer is
"As much wood as a wood-chuck chuck if a wood-chuck could chuck wood."

How many cans could a canner can if a canner could can cans?
In my opinion, "canner can" another form of the wood-chuck question.

Tim S.

Where is the new Development (2, Insightful)

tonyr60 (32153) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663253)

My parents and partner use this sort of service all the time, I am the one at the end of the voice communication network. Kids also use it when lazy.

Re:Where is the new Development (1)

Missing_dc (1074809) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664397)

My parents and partner use this sort of service all the time, I am the one at the end of the voice communication network. Kids also use it when lazy.

So you are saying they use the intercom to the basement?

useful everywhere (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663355)

back when i spent some time living in Lawrence, KS the local Uni (KU) had a 24/7 help desk line. it was entirely useful if not entirely necessary, and much appreciated when other avenues of information gathering failed or were not available.

And what does the local wise elder say to this? (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663359)

Villagers used to come to him, give a small offering, ask a question, and get some advice.

Now the villagers go to the box that the government provided. This is a direct attack on his power.

Want to bet that these boxes will be blamed for next year's poor harvest?

No matter how primitive, people fight like hell to have a monopoly on information and power. More developed nations play the same game at a different level.

Re:And what does the local wise elder say to this? (5, Insightful)

belmolis (702863) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663479)

Maybe, but the village elder doesn't have any better access to the train schedule than the other villagers, or to information about which nearby market town is currently offering a higher price for millet. This service clearly outclasses him for questions of this type. If he is at all smart, he won't try to compete on this basis. He'll restrict himself to the topics on which he is better than google, say advice about how to approach your girlfriend's parents or what you should plant in which field.

Re:And what does the local wise elder say to this? (1)

lokedhs (672255) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665005)

What if you gave the box to the elder? That way he'd still be relaying the information?

Goatse (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28663387)

Person: "Operator, what is Goatse?"
Operator: "Please hold"

*4 seconds later*

Operator: "AAAAAHHHHHHHHHH"

Just Call ChaCha (1)

nurb432 (527695) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663569)

I believe they also take phone requests.

Re:Just Call ChaCha (1)

cathector (972646) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664357)

indeed. just 1-800-2-cha-cha from a cell phone and leave a voice message with your question. any question. you usually get an answer in like two minutes or so. i believe it's powered by farming the voice-to-text-converted Qs out to extremely bored folks who then search google. i think you eventually can earn a bit of money if your answers are consistently 'good'. i like to ask things like "how do i weigh my own boob" or "who's the fairest of them all" or "who's cooler, cathector or cmdr taco" or "how do i drive safely in sleet".

Where I come from we call that a "Librarian" (4, Insightful)

rueger (210566) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663593)

In most Canadian cities you can just call your local public library [www.vpl.ca] with a simple question and they'll look it up for you.

Yeah, libraries are so pre-digital.

Re:Where I come from we call that a "Librarian" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28664495)

Where i come from it's called 118 118 (or 118 246).

This answer is sponsored by Coca-Cola... (2, Funny)

olsmeister (1488789) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663757)

Your answer will be read after you listen to this short advertisement. You know it's just a matter of time.

I will personally ensure this conversation happens (1)

tbi (1519213) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663761)

"OK then operator, my friend was telling me about this electronic goats thingy-mah-whatsit, I believe he called them EGoats.. or.. Goats-E. Yeah that's it, could you describe to me what one of these Goats-e's look like please?"

Philosophic questions... (1)

cwike (1481913) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663903)

This could be fun, imagine for a moment:
person: what is the meaning of life?
operator: 42
person Takes the word of operator as gospal, due to the lack of a certain book, concequently spewing false beliefs around a village. Who is going to stop the information from being read out of context?

Re:Philosophic questions... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28664521)

Like Wikipedia for the illiterate.

Re:Philosophic questions... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28665517)

They're illiterate, they're not retarded.

I wonder how these operators are trained (4, Interesting)

Phat_Tony (661117) | more than 4 years ago | (#28663975)

Looking at the questions they're asking, there's obviously a problem here the people asking the questions have no idea what the internet is like, so they don't know what to ask or how to ask it. They don't have the concept of what kind of information you can get off the internet or how you go about finding and vetting it.

For example,

2295. what are the best varieties of beans to plant

This is the sort of thing that, traditionally, first-world countries have bureaus of agriculture, county extension services, and agriculture departments at local learning institutions that help farmers with this tricky question. You need information on varieties suited to specific soil, climate and resistant to local pests and diseases and drought, and the question isn't going to gain useful results without more specificity- ie, "best" for what. The advice that comes up in Google offers information primarily aimed at amateur summer gardeners in northern climates trying to grow tasty summer vegetables, rather than equatorial hardy macro-nutrient providing staples. It takes some serious google-fu to arrive at results that are probably useful to this questioner, and you don't get them by entering his question verbatim. When I started Googling things like "bean equatorial resistant hybrid -cocoa -coffee" I started getting some interesting results, but it would still take a while to sort through that stuff and come up with real information on what beans are best-bets wherever he lives. I can't imagine him ending up with useful information off of this Google phone line though. It takes an experienced researcher to find this stuff on Google.

For this sort of thing, the best thing you could probably do with Google is figure out who he should actually be talking to. That is, I Googled "helping african farmers," which led me to Farm Africa. [farmafrica.org.uk] There's probably someone working for them who he could talk to who could really help him out.

This is just one example I went in depth on, but most of the questions are of this nature. For the questions that can be answered easily online, it seems like nine out of ten, the answer is on Wikipedia. I think these people are envisioning the internet as being much more organized, authoritative, and encyclopedic than it is. They have very practical questions, as might be expected from rural, undeveloped areas, and Google is not well designed to provide them with answers to many of them. I wonder to what extent these operators might have already been trained, or might be additionally trained, to hook these people up with non-Google provided information. From what I'm seeing, a huge number of questions could be answered much more effectively if there were any way to provide these people with access to briefly speak to a doctor (or at least a nurse or someone who can answer basic health questions) or an agricultural specialist.

Re:I wonder how these operators are trained (2, Informative)

WAG24601G (719991) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664477)

I began wondering about this same problem as several questions were distinctly medical (and sounded pretty urgent!). The good news is that QuestionBox is trying to recruit medical professionals to assist with these calls (can't find the link now, but it was on the QuestionBox website).

I'm sure there are plenty of $topic_of_interest geeks out there who would love to volunteer a bit of their time in this sort of capacity, and being telephone-based it's a highly distributable service. Of course, nothing beats a good research librarian in general background knowledge and ability to sift out the garbage.

FWIW, QuestionBox appears to have internships, of what nature I don't know:
http://www.questionbox.org/you.html [questionbox.org]

Re:I wonder how these operators are trained (1)

watergeus (877271) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665105)

I think the idea is wonderful.
And you could be an excellent consultant.

Re:I wonder how these operators are trained (1)

Phroggy (441) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665337)

Google isn't designed to answer questions, it's designed to find web sites. People get this confused, because quite often when you search for a question, Google will find a page that contains the answer, but as you've demonstrated, for a lot of question types that's not going to be the case.

But of course, that's why this sort of experiment is good: by logging all the questions, we can see how people want to use a service like this, and can see that providing access to people who are knowledgeable about agriculture and health care will be much more useful than providing access to Google. That's good to know. Next step: do that.

Portable Wikipedia? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28664081)

Does Portable Wikipedia help?

China and Uganda? (1)

beckett (27524) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664095)

I know this is just a project in its infancy, and given [allafrica.com] the recent intimacy [globalization-africa.org] of Uganda-Chinese relations [china.org.cn] , would a Googlebox built in by Chinese contractor be able to look up topics like Democracy or demonstration? Question Box has powerful potential; i wonder how vulnerable the box answers are to coercion, and whether deployment will be hindered by increasing foreign influence.

Internet scarce at Google? (1)

Tubal-Cain (1289912) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664417)

Searching Google, Where Internet Access is Scarce

If Google's having trouble getting internet access, I wonder how Yahoo's holding up...

Internet access is scarce at Google? (1)

drcagn (715012) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664503)

That's weird, considering they're an internet services company...

Don't freaking underestimate people! (2, Insightful)

Hurricane78 (562437) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664895)

People are not even remotely as dumb as this paints them!

One experiment shows that nicely: Someone set up a tablet PC with an Internet connection on a wall of an Indian slum, some years ago.
After some weeks, they were browsing the web, watching videos on Youtube, etc.

Interestingly, being that supportive of stupidity is more a "civilized world" thing.
If you're stupid in some hard place like a slum, in the middle of Africa, or on the mountains of South America, you won't get far. But this does not mean that people will not get far. It means that they expect themselves to come up with a solution, because they have to.

While here when we fail, we get a support here, a help there, and an assistance to wipe our asses. And naturally we begin to also expect it. I know so many people who just state that they are dumb. Because then someone else helps them, and life is easy. This is efficient *for them*, so why not?

But in these remote areas, I recommend just putting a very sturdy computer with Internet access in a room, so that it can not break or get dirty that quick, and then let people play with it. Let them try it out.
I'd bet money that before your know it, they will know how to use that thing, and get out of it what they want.
You will watch things, like a kid playing with it all day long, and the parents and friends then asking if the kid could find something for them. Etc.

I have trust in humanity, because of one simple fact: When life is hard, we excel in coming up with solutions that help us survive. And we hold that skill up very high, in so many movies, games, stories, etc, etc, etc.

Reminds Me of a Terrific Movie (1)

BBCWatcher (900486) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664979)

"Desk Set [wikipedia.org] ," with Hepburn and Tracy. I suspect it's no different in 2009: trained reference experts answer the questions, and Google is just their new stack of reference books. Somewhere Hepburn and Tracy are smiling.

This won't work. (2, Interesting)

w0mprat (1317953) | more than 4 years ago | (#28664981)

Seriously though, if some villager wanted the latest tweet from Stephen Fry read to them verbatim, then this would be great.

In the real world, a villager with no first hand knowledge of what the internet is and what it can do, will ask a question assuming it's going to be like some kind of oracle...
Villager: "So, how do I fix blight on my crops, and my cattle are sick too, what's wrong with them?"
[operator puts this into google now]
Operator: erm ... google has news articel blight is threatening tomato crops in rhode island .. i found a list of five top crops for a pacific northwest vegetable garden ... oh here we go: high-grain fee may produce illness prone cattle... yeah... um... you want me to read the abstract to you?"
Villager: *confused* "Um i'll just ask the witchdocter instead then..."
Operator: "yeah ... sorry"

Do you remember... (1)

oljanx (1318801) | more than 4 years ago | (#28665099)

Do you remember a decade and a half past, when you had to unfold a map for directions, tune in at 9 o'clock for the news and open the Yellow Pages for a phone number? Do you remember when you had to travel to the library and read a book to settle a debate about whether Genghis Khan reigned in the 12th or 13th century? The tools we have at our disposal today are incredibly powerful. We take them for granted. Imagine living in a place where, forget the internet, there is no 9 o'clock news. And the library, if you can read, is distant and lacking. Access to the internet, even indirectly, must seem like a damned miracle. I just hope they don't ask the question box for the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

What's a goatse? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 4 years ago | (#28665183)

This is just ripe for abuse. "What's a goatse?" followed by long silence.
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