TED Fellows Friday Interview 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.

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. Read full article