Google cuts out the computer to bring information to Uganda

Google is using cellphone text messaging as a way of bringing information to people in Uganda who don’t have internet access.

While internet access is still rare in many parts of Africa, basic cellphones are becoming increasingly common. Across the continent, people are six times more likely to have a mobile phone than an internet-enabled computer. Almost a third of people in Uganda have a mobile phone.

Google’s project is carried out with phone network MTN and the Grameen Foundation, a group which aims to develop technological solutions to tackling poverty. The scheme involves slimming down information services so they can be delivered through Short Message Services (text messages).

Because of the expense of using mobile phones in Africa, and to avoid the need for complicated menu screens, the system works by users sending direct requests and receiving the information in reply. The need to use concise language in the short messages may also make the information easier to understand and use for people with low literacy skills.

The services include:

  • help for farmers, with both general tips and specific local weather forecasts;
  • health advice including a service for finding local clinics;
  • general information services such as news, sport and stock prices; and
  • a service allowing traders to find sellers and buyers and set up deals.

The BBC reports on one mother who took part in a pilot of the scheme and says she finds it useful for answering her daughters’ questions about sex and pregnancy. Meanwhile BusinessWeek notes that farmers can now research both the potential sale price of a particular deal and the transport costs of delivering goods to another city.

At first the service will be free of charge. Eventually Google plans to charge 110 Ugandan shillings (five US cents) per query, half of the standard rate for such texts in the country.

The project follows extensive research into the types of information people in the country needed to get hold of. Eventually the scheme may be extended to other African countries.

[Picture source: Flickr (CC)]

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