A Mini-Interview with Rose Shuman, Founder of Question Box

by Latoya Peterson

While at SXSW, I made sure to attend quite a few panels.

One of the more intriguing panels was titled Appfrica: How Web Applications Are Helping Emerging Markets Grow. (That link also leads to the podcast.) While all the panelists were engaging and informative, one of the speakers stood out – Rose Shuman. After explaining that she was not a web developer, she related tales of working in various areas around the globe and realizing that the ideas formulated in think tanks do not necessarily translate into solutions that every day people can handle. Her latest project, Question Box, seeks to bridge the communications barriers that prevent people from harassing the power of the internet.

As explained on the website:

Question Boxes leap over illiteracy, computer illiteracy, lack of networks, and language barriers.

They provide immediate, relevant information to people using their preferred mode of communication: speaking and listening.

As such, Question Boxes combine the ease of using mobile phones with the enormous information and communication power of the Internet.

Below is a quick interview with Rose Shuman, the Founder of Open Mind and the idea behind Question Box on technology, developing communities, and information.

Why did you start Question Box?

I had worked with various development agencies for 12 years. I’ve always been interested in tools, providing ways for people to use your tools in ways you never imagined because you aren’t those people. At the same time, I became interested in mobile phones and how they exploded in different parts of the world. The internet is not popping in the developed world for various reasons – the low literacy rates in adults and beyond that, language barriers. Question Box was designed for people who are used to phones, placing a heavy emphasis on comfort of users.

How do people use Question Box?

In India [the location of the pilot program], it looks like free standing metal box with push buttons. [If you press the button,] it speed dials to an operator who speaks in your local language – [in the area of the pilot] Marathi – and talk to someone who speaks your language. You tell them what you need, they look it up, translate it and convey it back.

Each box has a core user group of several hundred people. It will expand to more when we start to market the service. We are also designing pictographics to go with the box to help assist with the reading barriers – as well as other service graphics like the weather, or frequently asked questions.

In all of your work, what has been your largest takeaway in terms of the challenges with developing technology like this?

If you’re designing a technology for people to use, you have to know who those people are and how they behave. It’s really easy to get infatuated with a tech solution without understanding how people will actually use it. It may be cool, but will it be useful?

What do you hope to accomplish?

The huge scale mission is to make information available for everyone in the way we want to get it. To take the pilot running in India and expand it out to the whole country. [And Question Box] is a way for organizations to reach out and communicate with our user base, who are hard to reach populations.

You [also] have these enclave of populations that are being left behind in American society. There may be a place for Question Box in community centers and immigration centers. The basic question still remains: How do you get information to people you are trying to reach?