Google’s SMS internet for Uganda

The Google SMS Health Tips response to
the words “pregnant HIV”.

The Google SMS Search response to the
words “NEWS Michael Jackson funeral”.

Mary Alexander

Internet giant Google has launched yet another innovative new product, this time using a fairly old technology: an SMS-based information service for people without access to computers or high-end phones in the more remote parts of Africa.

Set up in collaboration with MTN Uganda, the local subsidiary of South African’s multinational cellular service provider MTN, is a suite of mobile-phone applications which will allow people to access information, via SMS, on a number of topics. These include health and agriculture, news, local weather, sport and more, as well as Google Trader, a SMS-based marketplace application.

“At Google we seek to serve a broad base of people — not only those who can afford to access the internet from the convenience of their workplace or with a computer at home,” Joe Mucheru, head of Google sub-Saharan Africa, and Fiona Lee, Africa project manager, said in a blog announcing the service on Monday.

With Africa having the lowest internet penetration coupled with the highest mobile growth rate – and with most of those phones having only voice and texting capabilities – the most efficient way to give people access to information is via SMS.

“It’s important to reach users wherever they are, with the information they need, in areas with the greatest information poverty,” Mucheru and Lee said. “In many places around the world, people look to their phones, rather than their computers, to find information they need in their daily lives. This is especially true in Africa.”

Initially launched only in Uganda, the service is effectively a limited, SMS-based form of the internet, with Google SMS Tips providing a simplified search function. Here users enter a free-form text query, which Google’s algorithms restructure to identify keywords, search a database of answers, and return the most relevant answer.

Google SMS Tips includes Health Tips, which provides information on sexual and reproductive health; ClinicFinder, which helps users find a clinic near them, as well as the clinic’s telephone number and the services it offers; and Farmer’s Friend, which provides weather forecasts and information on planting, pest management and disease control.

“If a pregnant woman has a question about prenatal services, she can text her question to 6001 and get a response right away,” said Rachel Payne, Google’s Uganda country manager. “Now people in any part of Uganda can easily find the information that is most critical to them.”

Texting the words “pregnant HIV”, for example, produces the following SMS response: “If a pregnant woman has not got HIV/AIDS then her baby will not have HIV/AIDS. If the mother gets HIV during pregnancy her baby is at risk of getting  infected. If your partner has HIV/AIDS you could catch it from them. To prevent this ALWAYS use a condom when you have sex. If you think you might have HIV/AIDS GET TESTED.” The user may then receive additional information by selecting a number of options.

Google SMS Search, which in Uganda uses the number 6006, provides information on news, sports scores, definitions, translations, currency conversions, bible texts and a lot more. Texting “Michael Jackson funeral” produces an AFP report under the headline “Jackson funeral takes shape as drug probe widens”.

The third service, Google Trader, uses the number 6007 to connect buyers and sellers.

“We hope to help alleviate some of the information and access to markets barriers for the poor, especially those in rural areas,” said Payne. “So, when farmers in Iganga want to sell their maize, they can list their crop on Google Trader and a miller in another trading center can find and contact them to buy their goods.”

Google SMS comes out of a partnership between Google, the Grameen Foundation, the Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiative, the Straight Talk Foundation and Marie Stopes Uganda.

It’s the result of the Grameen Foundation’s AppLab, or Application Laboratory, which has been working for more than a year to develop mobile applications for those who have limited access to information and communications technology.

“This launch also represents an important milestone, as our first major initiative in Uganda, one of the newest locations where Google is setting up operations,” Payne said.

“As the East African fibre optic cables begin to connect Uganda to the global internet community, it is vital that the foundation for a thriving internet economy also be established.”

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