Google in a box? Just an out-of-the-box idea
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Pranali Kalbhor stands on her toes and peers into the little box outside her father's kirana store. Then, she presses the green button on the box like she has seen her father do, clears her voice and asks in Marathi: "Bharatache pahile pradhanmantri kon (Who was the first Prime Minister of India)?" The voice at the other end says "Jawaharlal Nehru" and Pranali preens. The nine-year-old's teacher had asked the class to find the answer to the question and now she knows.
In Loni village in Maharashtra, where Pranali is from, no child would have Googled the answer to that. The village belongs to that part of the world that isn't wired to the internet; it's where the 'World Wide Web' sounds like a boastful misnomer. It's for places like Loni that Rose Shuman, a social entrepreneur, thought up the idea of the Question Box—the kind that Prabali spoke into—as a way to empower people with information. The Question Box is a project of Open Mind, a California-based non-profit venture of which Shuman is CEO. Open Mind and its little boxes have travelled quite a bit ever since they made their debut in India in 2007. Apart from two boxes in Pune district, Shuman has taken the service to two rural communities in Uganda.
The Question Box works much like an internet search engine. It's a small, metallic box with a cellphone inside. A farmer in Loni who wants to find out, say, the price of tuvar dal in the market would press the green button on the unit and his call would be connected to an operator. The operator looks up a database or uses the internet to find the answer to the question and relays the answer back to the farmer, who hears it over a speaker on the box.
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