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Sara: A Canadian app that brings search power to the offline world

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Right after speaking at RGD’s recent Toronto conference on Web accessibility, I was exposed to a very exciting made-in-Ontario innovation that I want to tell you about.

In my talk, I was dwelling on the reality that while in the developed world we tend to think of Web accessibility as “accessibility for people living with disabilities,” in many parts of the world accessibility can simply be about getting online in the first place. As Nicholas Negroponte reminds us, for close to 70% of the world’s population the Internet still remains a rumour.

And yet that will change. By the end of this decade, the majority of humanity will be online. So when Jessie Richards came up after my Q&A and told me about her involvement with a Toronto team and how they are tackling Internet and mobile answer accessibility problems, I got really excited about the award-winning innovation.

A do-good hackathon

In September 2014, Pakathon, a social good hackathon held in 16 cities from around the globe, hosted its first annual event in Toronto. The goal was to bring tech-savvy young professionals together for a weekend to hack on tools that could solve everyday problems in Pakistan, big or small, and could be adopted in other developing areas as well.

Out of this hackathon was born Sara, an SMS-based instant-answer platform that was named the winning Toronto team project (later taking third place in the final round at MIT in Boston). Sara is a chat-bot that queries several directories, databases and search engines to find the best possible answer to a user’s question. For example, you can ask Sara for the weather, restaurant reviews, nutritional information, and even answers to your algebra homework. But, more importantly, Sara can answer high-impact hyper-relevant questions for those who need answers but don’t have Internet access.

The Sara app could help bring the power of Web search to those with limited or no Internet access

Sara’s start

The need for Sara arose from trying to solve one major accessibility problem. “When our team got together to brainstorm what kind of application we could build we kept running into the problem of mobile data connections in the developing world,” said Ahmad Iqbal, team leader. “We had tons of great ideas but at the end of the day they wouldn’t be useful for the masses that don’t have smartphones or access to data networks. That’s when we realized the solution lay in an SMS-based platform.”

For a farmer in rural Pakistan who sells his seasonal produce in bulk to a broker, his limited access to information prevents him from getting a fair price for his goods. In another example, a mother in the middle of a West African village may not be up on the warning signs and symptoms of Ebola, and may end up spending her week’s or month’s salary trying to get to the closest doctor over a false alarm. These major problems have very simple solutions; access to the right information, however small, can mean a world of a difference to many millions of people every day. Although Sara is still in a prototype stage, a crude integration with commodity prices and WebMD has already been developed.

When asked what the next steps for Sara were, Iqbal said, “Currently we’re integrated with Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha, Google, Yelp, and WebMD. We’re currently focused on giving Sara the ability to learn, so that as she gets smarter her answers get more and more relevant and succinct.”

Meanwhile, design thinkers from across our land continue to punch above their weight class in helping spread the power of the Internet to all of humanity. I’ll have more stories on design doing good in the coming year. It’s been a great year for Do Good Design, and I look forward to doing even more in 2015!

[Image via Sarahtells.info]

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Reviewed January 13, 2015

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