Search giant Google on Wednesday began rolling out its hyperlocal question-and-answer service app Neighbourly across India. The service, which was launched in May this year in Mumbai, had been expanded to five more cities, including Coimbatore and Ahmedabad, by September.
Now, Neighbourly is now being introduced throughout the country, starting with Delhi and Bengaluru on Wednesday, and across 47 districts over the next two weeks. The app allows people to ask others near them about things like shops in the area, or where to go for walks, and other local information.
Google said that this is not the final version of the app, which will remain a beta product that keeps changing over time.
"Google's mission is the organising of information," explained Ben Fohner, product manager at Google's Next Billion Users unit. "And the majority of the information that people really need is usually less than one kilometre from their homes and offices."
The Internet now occupies not just the virtual world but also the real world around us, and while Google has been able to do a great job of indexing the virtual, getting real-world information is a lot harder. Neighbourly, with its hyperlocal focus on insider knowledge, could finally help it solve this question.
"Your neighbours and colleagues know what's around you the best," said Fohner. "Like, for example, where will you find the best vada pav, which came up pretty frequently in Mumbai. Earlier you could knock on your neighbour's door, or now you could send the question to the local WhatsApp group, but then you also get a lot of other communication which you might not want, like good morning messages."
With Neighbourly, the idea is to connect to your neighbourhood (which is around a kilometre in size), and answer questions like "where is the dahi handi", or "what are the good schools here?", or even (from the beta tests in Kota) "does the Xerox shop have last year's notes yet?". It fills a gap that Google doesn't cover yet, between Google search, Google Maps, and so on.
A standalone focus
That doesn't mean that Google is planning to plug the data that it gathers from Neighbourly into its knowledge base. At least, not yet. The only way you can access the answers is through the Neighbourly app, said Fohner. The answers aren't available as results on Google Search, nor are they being used to populate Google Maps, or accessible through Google's smart speaker, Google Home.
"We only show people questions that are relevant to them, and we're not trying to get you instant answers, although we've gotten to a point where you can ask a question and less than an hour later, another human being would have given an answer," Fohner said. "The app is less than 5MB in size, and it's the only way to access this information."
The idea, he said, is to build up the app as a platform in and of itself, and until Google has a community in place, it's not looking at the next step. However, Google does include settings to allow it to contact users with marketing information (on by default) and feature questions across Google Services. These are for future-proofing, because Fohner said that at present Google does not have any monetisation plans either. In fact, apart from not having ads, it also doesn't allow people to make ad posts.
"We don't allow commercial content to be posted without a direct question about that subject," he said.
In your local language
To get more people to use the app, it has been launched with support for eight Indian languages—this means not just questions and answers in Indian languages (Fohner and his team demonstrated the app being used in English, Hindi, Kannada and a mix of the languages) but also the app's interface. To support this, the app allows you to enter your questions and answers by voice.
"There are no audio snippets being shared, everything is being transliterated as you speak," Fohner said. "So you can ask a question in your language, and it will be written down in that language for others to read, and they can reply in the same way."
So far, the app has been downloaded 1.5 million times, with 500,000 people still on the waitlist as it rolls out. Out of this, 20% of the users use of the app through voice, and Fohner added that there is "strong" local language usage, although this varies from region to region, with Jaipur being the highest among the six test cities.
Content moderation is also being done in all the local languages. Although Fohner did not tell HuffPost India how many people are involved, he made it clear that AI is only the first step to identify potentially problematic content, and that all decisions were being taken by humans. At the same time, he argued that the potential for misuse through misinformation would be low—the questions are only shown to a specific neighbourhood and not broadcast to all users at once, so there was no chance of a message going viral.