Have app, will travel

  • Family
  • Friday, 30 Jan 2015

Choo (right) with Auristela Conserva (left), head scientist for seeds and seedlings of tree species from the Amazonian floodplains, and her team of researchers. Conserva works at the Mamiraua Institute in Brazil, one of the two NGOs that Choo hopes to help with her mobile app. Photo: MAMIRAUA INSTITUTE

Inspired by her travels, IT expert Alicia Choo is developing mobile apps that will teach kids about nature and raise funds for environmental groups.

IN 2006, Alicia Choo quit her job as an IT professional in Singapore, packed her bags, and trekked across the terrains of 10 different countries – Bolivia, Brazil, Egypt, India, Jordan, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, Syria and Turkey, to be exact.

It was an adventure of a lifetime for Choo, no doubt, who named it round-the-world (RTW) 1.0 with the theme “Ancient Civilisations”.

Last year, Ipoh-born Choo did it again, this time “with a twist”.

RTW2.0, which began on Dec 1 last year, is themed Nature and concentrates on exploring the natural land and sea environments in and around South America, Spain and Vietnam.

Thus far, she has gone diving in the Cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and in the seas around the Galápagos Islands. She also explored Torres del Paine national park in Chile, Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains, Perito Moreno glaciers and Tierra del Fuego national park, all in Argentina, on foot.

Next on her list is trekking the Brazilian Amazon (with a side trip to the Rio Carnival), Socotra in Yemen, Camino de Santiago in Spain, and also visiting Son Doong Cave located in the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in Vietnam’s Quang Binh province.

After an e-mail interview, we Skyped while she was at El Calafate city in Patagonia, Argentina, having just returned from trekking over 100km across Torres del Paine in Chile and El Chalten, Argentina’s trekking capital.

“It was so cold, windy and wet and I was trekking eight to nine hours a day, but I didn’t feel tired at all because the scenery was just so beautiful!” enthused Choo, 37, who has her past marathon training to thank for keeping her fit, especially since she also lugged a drone along to take photos.

She then explained how this time round, her journey has been more than just about savouring the beautiful landscapes and marine life she encounters.

Here’s just one reason Choo wants to help nature: This green turtle, seen swimming in waters off the  Banda Islands, Indonesia, is threatened by hunting, poaching, and egg harvesting, not to mention boat strikes, fishermen’s nets and reef destruction. Photo: TOAR PANTOUW/Coral Triangle Centre

“Right after RTW1.0, I knew my second trip would be themed Nature. It just took me some time to come up with how to go about making RTW2.0 different. Initially, I wanted to volunteer one month of my time with a conservation body, but I realised that it does not fully utilise my capability as a tech-savvy IT professional.

“Yes, I can help collect turtle eggs or plant a tree, but there must be a better way of utilising my talents,” said Choo, who quit her job as a director in IT infrastructure (aka the “Cloud”) before beginning her second tour.

She asked herself two questions: “What were NGOs always short of? And what IT solutions could she bring to those NGOs?”

The result is Level-up 4 Good (levelup4good.com), which offers free mobile game apps through iTunes.

The fun and educational games, aimed at children aged between five and 13, help raise awareness and funds for four NGOs – SPCA Singapore; the Charles Darwin Foundation, which protects the Galápagos Islands’ marine reserves and indigenous species; Mamiraua Institute in Brazil that conserves the Amazon rainforest and ecosystems; and the Coral Triangle Centre, based in Bali, Indonesia, that cares for the coastal and marine ecosystems across six countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste).

Choo with a couple of — very dressed up! — llama ‘friends’ in Peru.

Each game is centred on the different NGOs’ causes to help educate gamers. A donation button allows those who would like to contribute to the NGOs to do so easily.

“Hopefully, the kids will share the lessons of the games with their parents and their parents will then donate. Most NGOs have their own websites, but it will cost them money to create an app.

“These free games give the NGOs the opportunity to leapfrog onto the app platform, and since it’s a fun game, people might just check in once in a while and hopefully donate while playing the game,” explained Choo, who developed the first game within 10 weeks.

As of Jan 16, the four games had been downloaded 11,400 times.

Although coming from the IT industry gave her an advantage, developing the games was still an eye-opener for Choo.

An overview of the Charles Darwin Foundation Research Centre on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos, taken by Choo’s drone. Photo: ALICIA CHOO

“I have to say the mobile gaming industry is very different from the one I come from, but the fundamental project management principles for software development are the same,” said Choo, who holds an executive MBA from the National University of Singapore.

To develop and market the app, Choo roped in talented freelancers, whom she found through the Internet to keep costs down.

“Having travelled so much, I am a strong believer in cultural diversity. Each culture has its strengths, and that’s how I chose my freelancers,” said Choo.

She works with a designer from the Philippines and a programmer from Pakistan; the games are monitored from Israel and marketed online by an American freelancer. So far, she has spent US$10,000 (RM36,000) of her own money to create the four games; this includes product development, marketing and administrative costs.

The games are currently only available on the iOS platform; her next step is to develop Android versions.

A giant Galápagos tortoise gets its picture taken — lugging along a drone (circled) paid off for Choo, as it gave her the chance to get amazing pictures. Photo: ALICIA CHOO

On Jan 19, she launched a month-long Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign together with the Mamiraua Institute and the Coral Triangle Centre to raise funds for the Android development and to create more awareness about the two NGOs.

Choo hopes to raise US$15,000 (RM54,000) to cover development costs; any additional funds will go directly to the organisations. (Link to the Mamiraua Institute campaign at tinyurl.com/qf2nkxg and to Coral Triangle’s at tinyurl.com/n3rva62.)

“When we are financially blessed, it’s OK to raise our standard of living, but we must do so in tandem with raising our standard of giving. This is just my way of doing sustainable philanthropy instead of a one-off thing,” said Choo.

“These games are an extension of me. So long as the iTunes and Google Play platforms continue to exist, these games will be online, free for download.

“Half the profit from revenue generated from the games, be it in the form of advertisements or in-app purchases, will go towards the NGOs. The other half I will use to improve the existing games or create other games for causes I believe in,” Choo said.

Many of us dream of travelling for long periods to soak in the world’s natural wonders – but Choo actually is living the dream.

“Whenever we break out from our ordinary routines, all our senses automatically come alive. Travelling the way I do for long periods of time helps me collect memories and feelings of what it means to truly feel alive,” said Choo, who also plans to visit friends and relatives in Britain, Greece, the United States and Turkey during her journey, which is targeted to end in July.

Choo (right) with Auristela Conserva (left), head scientist for seeds and seedlings of tree species from the Amazonian floodplains, and her team of researchers. Conserva works at the Mamiraua Institute in Brazil, one of the two NGOs that Choo hopes to help with her mobile app. Photo: MAMIRAUA INSTITUTE

Her travels undoubtedly provide her with priceless life lessons.

“It reinforces the importance of celebrating diversity and that we are collectively stronger in our diversity. It is also important to know how to be one with nature, a knowledge that we humans are slowly losing as the majority of us now live in cities, an environment shaped to man’s liking rather than what Earth truly is.

“Mark Twain guides me with his quote: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime’.”

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Have app , will travel


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