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. It's important to reach users wherever they are, with the information they need, in areas with the greatest information poverty. 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, which has the world’s highest mobile growth rate and where mobile phone penetration is six times Internet penetration. One-third of the population owns a mobile phone and many more have access to one.
Most mobile devices in Africa only have voice and SMS capabilities, and so we are focusing our technological efforts in that continent on SMS. Today, we are announcing Google SMS, a suite of mobile applications which will allow people to access information, via SMS, on a diverse number of topics including health and agriculture tips, news, local weather, sports, and more. The suite also includes Google Trader, a SMS-based “marketplace” application that helps buyers and sellers find each other. People can find, "sell" or "buy" any type of product or service, from used cars and mobile phones to crops, livestock and jobs.
We are particularly excited about Google SMS Tips, an SMS-based query-and-answer service that enables a mobile phone user to have a web search-like experience. You enter a free form text query, and Google's algorithms restructure the query to identify keywords, search a database to identify relevant answers, and return the most relevant answer.
Both Google SMS Tips and Google Trader represent the fruits of unique partnerships among Google, the Grameen Foundation, MTN Uganda and local organizations*. We worked closely together as part of Grameen Foundation's Application Laboratory to understand information needs and gaps, develop locally relevant and actionable content, rapidly test prototypes, and conduct multi-month pilots with the people who will eventually use the applications have truly been a global effort, and created with Ugandans, for Ugandans.
We're just beginning. We can do a lot more to improve search quality and the breadth — and depth — of content on Google SMS, especially on Tips and Trader. Google SMS is by no means a finished product, but that's what's both exciting and challenging about this endeavor.
Meanwhile, if you're curious about what Google is doing in Africa, learn more at the Google Africa Blog.
Update: Corrected link to YouTube video for "rapidly test prototypes".
*BROSDI, (Busoga Rural Open Source and Development Initiative), Straight Talk Foundation, Marie Stopes Uganda.
Posted by Joe Mucheru, Head of Google Sub-Saharan Africa, & Fiona Lee, Africa Project Manager