Founders Humbled By Cambodia Visit

Manu and Lenz from iwantmyname are just back from a head-spinning ten days in the tropical heat of Cambodia, participating in the Good For Nothing Challenge (GFN). Here’s a quick overview from Lenz about how the visit unfolded and what was achieved:

The mission was to support NGO and other social initiatives as the South-East Asian nation grapples with poverty and the need to improve literacy and numeracy amongst its young people. The trip certainly gave us a crash course on the current situation in the country. We learned about the various approaches being taken to help improve the situation and the work that is done by both large NGOs and grassroots charities, of which there are over 3000. It soon became apparent that all NGOs are not equal and contributors need to be judicious about where they expend their time and resources.

However, the idea behind GFN was to go to a country that faces massive challenges and work with local NGOs and charities to make a change by applying our knowledge across the various fields of our expertise. During our lunch breaks we enjoyed local speakers that told us about their experience in the aid sector and shared about their lives in Cambodia, which really made a big difference in understanding the environment we worked in.

Cambodian School

Our first day saw us visiting a school next to an old rubbish dump in one of the poorest slums in Phnom Penh. Grit, the project Manu and I worked on, maintains a lab there. We gave out Android based tablets for school kids to use in their time off to teach them maths. This lab gave us a good way of testing progress, testing various interaction models and, most important, working with the local teachers to increase the impact we can have by helping them teach kids in a fun and easy way.

The Grit lab is in a house that has no air conditioning, just one window and a few fans. When the power goes out, which happens quite regularly, there is no way at all of cooling down the room, which makes for quite a challenging environment when the thermometer is nudging 40 degrees. I managed to observe the kids in there for about an hour and after that my attention rapidly faded. Picturing myself learning in there every day gave me a very high incentive to focus my efforts for the remainder of the week. Our biggest challenge with the technology was overheating tablets. The games are not the issue, the CPUs are idling, it is dust and heat that kills them!

Developing an Android-based learning environment for tablets

With this in mind I started coding a working learning environment for Grit that implemented the interaction designs we came up with after watching the kids learn on the tablets. Manu worked on a curriculum and on selecting content for the kids to play with that aligned with what they were learning in class. Manu also made lots of progress on her Khmer language skills because a lot of the maths they learn in the early years is in Khmer.

Because we lacked Khmer content for the tablets we instead worked closely with the team that developed an Android learning course to foster a local developer scene. It is hoped that this will give schools a way to teach Android development. This team worked with KAPE and their schools to create a first learning game in Khmer during the week. They also translated the entire learning materials into Khmer which was so successful they have now been asked by universities if they would be able to use the content as well to teach older students.

We ended up with a working learning app that runs on Android tablets and can expose any Android based game that is relevant for the age of the kids playing. We also implemented quizzes that are in sync with the curriculum and help us track progress as well as give feedback to the teachers. Because helping kids is our main objective, we are developing all the software via open source and everyone who wants to contribute can do so on github. We plan to organise a few hack sessions in Wellington over the next months and are looking forward to meeting many of you who want to help out and hack on something meaningful locally.

Cambodia is an incredibly diverse country. But their are huge inequities in wealth distribution, especially in the capital Phnom Penh. It also has one of the highest density of charities worldwide; which is a big issue because just giving money to someone may only finance a brand new Range Rover — and there are loads of them everywhere. Being in Cambodia and doing due diligence who we give money to and who we help by cutting some code, made me confident our time here was well spent. It was also incredibly well organised and the time we needed to hit the ground running was hours not days or weeks. Working in Cambodia is very challenging but also very rewarding and I am sure Cambodia will see us again.

In terms of the future of GFN, we are already talking about the next event. No location and time yet but if you are interested in joining us, please get in touch — it will be a week well spent.

GFN Cambodia was an amazing experience for both of us and permanently changed the way we think about aid work and about education. We are stoked that we built a global tech company that in turn enables us to make a dent in the international aid work with very targeted and well researched actions which genuinely target those most in need.