Fellows Friday with Rose Shuman

Rose Shuman designed Question Box to spread the benefits of the Internet in the developing world. At the push of a button, villagers could get answers to any query — from banana plant viruses to HIV/AIDS — in their local language. Now Rose is building software to scale the model and track callers’ question trends in real time.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Rose asks:

We’re developing software to help community organizations in the developing world better reach their local population. How can we find these organizations and explain the tool to them?

Click here to respond!

You’ve dedicated much of your life to development issues. What got you started on this track?

My stepmother is Nicaraguan, and when I was 18, we all went to Nicaragua for Christmas. We took a side trip to the garbage dump of Managua and arrived at a giant mesa of garbage — the size of a multi-story apartment building. The garbage trucks there were like tanks with little claws on the wheels to claw themselves up the garbage. They would climb to the top, and then spill out a waterfall of garbage. Boys and men immediately began scrambling all over it, clawing through it. There was a community of about 1,000 people who literally lived in the trash dump.

I jumped out of the truck and sank into the garbage — I was wearing boots – and I saw a naked syringe by my feet. Then I noticed that all those boys only had cheap plastic flip-flops on their feet.

I think that people tend to have formative experiences between the ages of 17 and 21 — that trip was mine. I couldn’t really reconcile what I had seen in Nicaragua with my life in suburban Washington, D.C. So I spent the next six or seven years actively trying to understand why that world existed, and why my world existed. That involved me spending a lot of time living in places like Tamil Nadu, India, in an orphanage, and running a school in Honduras in a fishing village for half a year. I also spent time with the UN in refugee camps in Northern Uganda.

How did these experiences influence the creation of Question Box?

About five years ago I was thinking about how much the Internet has changed the way we live our lives in the developed world, and how mobile phones were really starting to revolutionize the developing world. I thought, “In a world where a billion people can’t read, how can you start to bring some of the benefits of the Internet to them?”

Question Box came out of an instinctive sense of how people interact with technology, what kind of information they need, what people would respond positively to, and what technologies would not make people feel dumb. Sometimes people who design technologies assume that end-users want to deeply explore new gadgets and systems. But in reality, for a successful adoption — in both the developing and developed world — people need to have good experiences with the new technology quickly. A good experience means the technology works in an easy, intuitive manner.

A woman calling in a question through Question Box.

When it came to Question Box, I was thinking from a human-centered perspective. I thought of the people I knew, worked with, lived with, and washed clothes alongside. What would be something that they would find empowering, fun and helpful? What would help them understand their world better? They had helped answer my questions and I thought I should be able to help them answer their own.

I remembered how when I was in college, whenever you had to enter a dormitory, you’d have to go up to a metal box and punch in a number or intercom button. I thought, “Those are pretty sturdy. What if you just put a box on a wall in a village and hacked a phone and stuck it in there? It could be connected by a phone call to somebody who spoke the local language, and was in front of a computer. They could look things up online in English or another mainstream language. Why couldn’t you just hack the Internet that way, using the phone?” It was basically using the technology that people were now getting familiar with – mobile phones – but changing it in a way that enables them to experience the Internet.

How is your TED Fellowship tied to Question Box’s beginnings?

I already had good collaborators in India to begin Question Box, but as we were planning to move into Uganda, I had just gotten to know Jon Gosier, now a TED Senior Fellow. He was about to move to Uganda when we started talking. Later, I brought him on as our Chief Technology Officer for Question Box. Jon and his Appfrica group really were the stars of the show. We collaborated really intensively to get Question Box going in Uganda.

Two “Ask Me” men in Uganda.

Personally, the TED Fellowship has meant being part of a community of maverick doers, people who are really smart and thinking outside the box. Being with people who can see problems of the world from a multitude of perspectives, and working on it from so many different disciplines, is hugely invigorating. It’s an honor to be in the company of the other Fellows.

What’s a way Question Box has benefited communities?

Sometimes you only have a really short window of opportunity to change the course of a crisis. Question Box was able to avert crises.

In Uganda in 2009 there was a rampant virus that was destroying entire banana plantations. The banana is the staple starch in Uganda, so if all your banana plants die, you’re at risk for pretty terrible outcomes.

If the plants get infected, it usually starts in one plant and starts moving to the others, but you can stop it if you know what to do. But most people didn’t know what to do.

What you needed to do was dig up that infected plant, take it away from the rest of your plants, burn it, and then disinfect all your tools with bleach. If you didn’t disinfect it with bleach, you’d actually dig that virus right back in to the soil.

Farmers were able to use our hotline and get information immediately on how they could stop that virus from advancing through all of their plantation.

What’s next for Question Box?

These past years have taught me a lot about connecting with local communities. And I’ve realized that organizations all over the world have information that they’re trying to get to their local communities. Why not teach organizations the things I’ve learned? If you’re a health organization or an education group or an agriculture group based in an urban area, why can’t you set up your own local hotline and invite people to participate and engage with you?

So Open Mind, the organization I founded to house Question Box, is evolving from running Internet hotlines to developing software. We’re working to teach organizations around the world how they, too, can set up and run their own hotlines easily and quickly from their own offices, with the tools that are already on the ground.

How will the hotlines and software benefit the organizations?

The software program we’re building, Open Question, helps any organization organize and collect all of the information that they have on hand –- about whatever topics are important to them. It then tracks all of the calls that are coming in to them from the field, so they can understand what’s being asked, and who’s responded to it, allowing them to track trends as they’re happening in the field. For example, you could see a spike in questions about infant mortality, and then know to investigate if something is happening in that space. It’s kind of like building an early-warning system. And it’s a way to change the way communication traditionally flows.

It’s definitely a shift in perspective for us. Question Box started as a service where people could ask anything about anything. Now we’re trying to make it a sustainable tool. We realized that for something to be sustainable and scalable we need it to be locally owned by decentralized organizations. In the backyards of the people we’ve been serving, there are tons of locally-engaged community organizations that are trying to communicate with them, but right now the methods of communication are often ad hoc. They may send a field officer around to communicate, or they may hold a workshop, but there isn’t a lot of flow or dialogue.

A lot of information held by these organizations is quasi-local and needs to be unlocked. The information is already in the local languages, it’s already being held by people of the same culture. How do you take the control away from the owner of that information, who decides how and when they want to share it, and make it more so that they’re a library resource? So that it can be accessed at will by the people who need that information? We think Open Question can help groups do that.

We’re beta testing the software in the next couple of months. A big challenge will be trying to figure out how to connect with these local community groups, particularly the ones that aren’t as well connected to the Internet.

Question Boxes are usually placed in very accessible, very public, places. What if a person has a very private question to ask?

Well, right now in these areas, if you have a question about, say, HIV/AIDS, normally the only way for you to get that answer is to go in person to somebody, like your local community health worker or local clinic. By being in person, you lose anonymity.

It will be interesting to watch how these community groups use their hotlines. Perhaps people will use the phones of local community health workers, or the health workers themselves may use them when they’re stumped. It will be interesting to see if the organizations will start giving out our number directly to villagers. Then they could use the privacy of their own home or a phone booth to make calls.

In addition to Open Mind, you co-founded Brightfront, a global management consulting firm. What makes Brightfront unique?

We help organizations take blue sky ideas – particularly if that blue sky idea involves a population they don’t understand very well, say, because it’s in the developing world, or even a new population in the US – and we help them understand if their blue sky idea is feasible. Presuming it is, we help them break it down into a strategy that can be implemented. We help them create an implementation plan for something that’s never been done before, in a place where possibly they’ve never done anything.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

I think that a lot of social enterprise actually mirrors the ethos and lifecycle of a tech start-up: you have a small group of extremely passionate people dedicated to a compelling proposition. Social enterprises and tech start-ups have commensurate fail rates, as well. But the ones that work have a lot of potential.

The difference is, in tech, you’ve got established roads to exit and scale. In social enterprise, that ecosystem is still developing. One of the main issues is that investors often want to get decent returns on their investment. But social enterprises are also trying to give back to the world. That’s a harder operating environment than most any other business.

Given that environment, my advice is that whatever social enterprise you’re founding, consider yourself a traditional small business. To be a small business, you need revenue. Make sure whatever business you’re doing makes sense as a business.