QuestionBox logo

QuestionBox is a project that allows offline people in emerging markets to ask questions and get answers. It’s an analog solution for those who don’t have their own digitally connected data devices. Open Question is a free and open source software application used for the purposes of collecting and disseminating information via phone in extreme environments. It’s being launched today, in conjunction with TEDIndia, where founder Rose Shuman is presenting.

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“The longterm vision is to have it integrate with other open source software and data collection platforms like RapidSMS, FrontlineSMS, Open Data Kit (ODK), OpenRosa, JavaRosa, Kannel, Asterisk, Ushahidi, Sahana and others, to make them work quickly and efficiently in a call center environment… The product is designed specifically for the purpose of collecting and disseminating information from humans that is often difficult to automate (ex. the use of IVRs in emergency situations may not be effective). This includes people who may call to answer complex questions, situations where each caller speaks a different language, for reaching the illiterate, the visually impaired or in situations where privacy must be protected. In addition, the system works on or offline, on one non-networked computer, a closed LAN or across a distributed network. “

This is a big deal. If integrated in the right way it can make up for the shortcomings that a purely digital solution has in places where illiteracy, language or lack of phones makes tools like Ushahidi less useful.

Methods for Deployment

1. Call Boxes
Open Question can be configured to work with remote phones. In this scenario a call center acts as the central location to receive, while users visit designated location points to call in. The operator proceeds to collect demographic info, but doesn’t need to collect location info (the location of the caller can be determined by the phone number and foreknowledge of where that unit is located).
The benefit to using these phones (we call them Question Boxes) is that all calls are free as the deploying organization pays for them in advance. Open Mind offers an optional hardware product that can be pre-wired to dial specific numbers, to prevent users from using the phones for any other purpose but calling for emergencies or calling operators for information.

2. Caller Hotline
A number is publicized and anyone with a phone can call it. In theory, using a software PBX system like Asterisk, would allow for call routing or ‘hunting’ at the call center. The disadvantage to this method of deployment is there is no control for scale, if the number ‘is simply out there’ or publicized too heavily, the call center may be overwhelmed by anyone who decides to call preventing the assistance of people who actually need help.

3. Short Message Services
SMS collection of information and distribution of information is the easiest method of deployment is highly scalable and easy to implement. Unfortunately, it also has the highest barrier to entry for the rural poor, who may not be able to read English.

Methods for Answers

Question Box Operators

1. Local Database and Relevancy Engine
Open Question was designed by Ugandan software developers who had bandwidth constraints in mind. As such, it shines in environments where there are few alternatives for quick access to information. A localized database of documents is installed on the client machine or network, indexed, and allows the operator or user to search for information in real time….something that would not be possible if the service relied only upon searching the internet. As new documents are added to the database, the software’s relevancy algorithms determine which information is most relevant through extended use. (ex. if the same question is asked multiple times, the answer most associated with those keywords is ranked higher).

2. Escalation and Distributed Network of Experts
If the user or operator cannot find the answer in the Open Question database, the query is ‘escalated’ to a human expert who can then address the concern. In an Open Question implementation, the deploying organization should have at least one (but we recommend several) ‘experts’ who are ready to address such emergencies within 48 hours. At deployment these experts designate how they would like to be contacted (Instant Message, Email or Phone), then later when the service is in use, messages that are escalated are put into a queue and the system attempts to reach the experts using the methods they prefer.

3. Web Search and The Cloud
In the event that internet access is available, Open Question operators do have the option of searching the web. To improve the relevancy of the search results, administrators can use filters to define the web search to specific urls like http://wikipedia.com or company intranet sites. This is far more efficient than searching the entire web. Because Open Question is designed with the absence of internet as at the forefront, all relevant content that is found on the web can be archived and indexed. Once added to the database they then become ‘documents’ and can then be ranked and searched quickly as mentioned in above.

How to get Involved

Interested parties can find Open Question 0.2.0 and the developer’s roadmap at http://github.com/openquestion/