Neighbourly, which is the latest product from Google’s Next Billion Users (NBU) team, is looking to unlock the combined knowledge of locals in an area to help people. The app, which has been in testing for the users of Mumbai for the past few months, is finally ready to be taken out of the city and across India.
Starting with Bengaluru and New Delhi on Wednesday, Google says the app will be launched across India over the next two weeks. Over 1.5 million people already use it and another 1.5 million have been waitlisted by the US technology giant to get access to it. It’s a combination of social networking and public information that makes Neighbourly so powerful, says Google.
“Right now when you need some information, you knock on your neighbour’s door or send a text message to your colleague. What we want to do is to make it easier for people to share information they have and get the information they need about their neighbourhood in a way that’s easy,” said Ben Fohner, senior product manager in Google’s NBU team.
Built for India, Google said it arrived at the concept of a simple question-and-answer app after talking to hundreds and thousands of people. Especially in cities with large migrant populations, it found people always struggled to get the right information at the right time. With Neighbourly, they can simply ask a question and users around them can supply the answers.
While the app may appear simple on the outside, Google says a lot of thought has gone into ensuring the privacy of users, especially since it works in areas confined to just a 1-2 km radius. Unlike traditional social networking apps, users don’t really create a profile for themselves. There’s no personal information, no contact details, not even a profile picture for other users to enlarge and get a better look at.
“We’ve been quite guarded about your personal information and what you share with your neighbours,” said Fohner, adding, “Even our content policy is more stringent and is guided by what is appropriate to being asked in a neighbourhood.”
Google will still rely on users to flag inappropriate content along with its usual artificial intelligence-driven filters, but it has also put in place humans to review the content that does get flagged. These teams have been trained to review content not just in English, but also the eight regional languages in which users can ask queries and answer other questions.
Fohner says that while the design of Neighbourly makes it less prone to be used as a tool to spread fake news, something which rival Facebook and Twitter have been battling, he and his team are keeping a close eye on usage to avoid any untoward incident. Neighbourly is a platform that doesn’t allow users to broadcast messages, since only people in close proximity get to see someone’s query or answer.
Google is hoping that Indians will take to the app, helping set the stage for it to be taken out of the country. The launch of Neighbourly comes just a month after the company announced it was pulling the plug on its flagship social network Google+, which failed to keep up with Facebook’s stratospheric growth momentum a few years ago.
As for now, the company says it isn’t thinking about how to monetise the app. For now, the priority is to get as many users on board and iron out any of the kinks that might show up.