The Good For Nothing (GFN) Challenge happened over the duration of six days from 31st March 2014, and ended with the final presentations on 6th April 2014. Feeling the remains of his sprint towards the deadline, we caught up with the New Zealand team’s Gary Elshaw to find out more about the GFN projects this year and the other impressions of Cambodia’s startup scene!
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Hello! Could we start with a little introduction of you and your group’s relationship with the Good For Nothing challenge?
Sure! I’m Gary Elshaw and I am an ex film & media lecturer, with about five years at a university over in New Zealand. One day I just started messing around and started doing really weird things… then I ended up making a script for Apple and they distributed it around. All these were done during my time teaching, and after I finished with lecturing I decided that I wanted to do something involving technology and communications so I started my own consulting firm.
Then the opportunity for the Good For Nothing challenge came up last year and Sarah, Dave, Danielle and myself got together. Dave’s the developer and he’s involved in all sorts of things, like the Grit Learning project. It is about making games for children, specifically Mathematics. The rest of the team does something similar, like looking after websites and strategies.
How has this year’s GFN challenge reception been for you guys?
This year has seen two active projects out of the original nine because lots of people fell out. (Laughs) In the beginning, Sarah and Danielle, the main organisers, found about five potential projects we could be involved in, and it usually comes down to the scale of how many people is it going to take to accomplish the goals set; which is two projects for this year.
Half the team is working on a social enterprise website, with the idea that all of the social entrepreneurs in Phnom Penh and the rest of Cambodia put their resources on the site to achieve collaborative learning and teaching of business information. Everything has to be done in six days and often; you are learning something entirely new for the project. It is always a sprint.
How about the project you are currently involved in?
There are currently eight schools under this educational literacy program, advocating for children to read and write. We realised that they are doing everything on paper, or long tracking sheets, and it is very hard for teachers to create and access content.
We got twenty tablets that would serve to solve this problem, but how would we implement them in a place that has no Internet connection, no printers and photocopiers, and no electrical outlets and/or power? If there is no interconnectivity, then how do you make the tablets all talk to each other? How do you make the data transferable and send it back to Phnom Penh for monitoring? So Dave and I have spent most of our six days working out the system, rather than the interface/design, and came up with a final solution. We have designed it so that all the tablets go through a $30 router that is portable. All the teacher has to do is plug in the router and data can be shared amongst the classroom.
Other than that, we have also been trying to work out the problem of the tablets’ battery lives because they only have three to four hours of energy for a classroom of about 60 children. Often they have to do tests for about 45 minutes, so often they have to keep charging the tablets to make sure they are usable for the next class. We have started working out the paper prototype of our solution, and it’s all on paper, but it is going well.
It is amazing that you did all that in a timeframe of six days. Does it inspire you personally?
It really can be done in six days and I think that it is one of the beautiful things about the GFN project. You are often in a competition with yourself to make things happen, and when you think in contrast with the norm of technological projects to go on for months… it makes it addictive. I want to do more, and I don’t want to go home. I want to stay here and keep competing!
Where do you see yourself in the future with this project?
Dave and I just want the prototype to be exactly what’s required. Whatever we have developed here in Phnom Penh, we want to leave a good note for future developers so that they know the requirements and doings around this area.
The exciting thing about this project is that it can be done anywhere in the world to help children. All you need is a $30 router and some tablets.
Let’s talk about Cambodia itself. It is your first time here so, are you enjoying yourself?
I love it: the food and the people. There is an openness to the people here that I don’t see in other places. I really like the openness and I want to stay here. Tomorrow the US ambassador will come down to talk to us and learn more about our projects, but of course I will be asking for a job; because why not?
Was it a refreshing experience working with the homegrown startup companies?
I think it is potentially easier to start a company here than home (New Zealand). Cambodian infrastructures are pretty good, and we have been really lucky to go to some of the best offices, like USAid. The most interesting thing is that all the resources are good, like wifi and mobile coverage. When you throw in their enthusiasm and talent, to have both of those things are great. I know quite a lot of people are into social enterprises and startups over here, so networking is pretty easy compared to a bigger city.
We always hear the reoccurring opinion that Cambodia is an emerging market and people are starting to come here to recognise the potential for startups. What are your opinions on this?
Sure, I agree with it. The projects here, like the GFN Challenge, are really parallel to the things that we are interested in, like education and entrepreneurship. This makes the place really supportive and sharing within the society.
What do you envision for Cambodia’s scene in the technology and startups sectors?
I imagine that there will be a lot of local people involved, and I think that there will be a lot of people coming here who want to actually help. That is the good thing about globalisation, where people want to move and do different things. Lots of my New Zealand friends have moved to other countries, and some of them are coming to Southeast Asia.
What does the people over in New Zealand think about the Cambodian scene?
I think it’s different from New Zealand’s perspective. Most people there think Cambodia is very, very far away, very remote and only a place for holiday. People are always imagining that for Asia. I think that most people want their eyes opened, but they have to be taken somewhere else to have that happen.
Speaking of sharing previously, can you share with us the last film (or book) that you saw that is related to your line of social work?
Most of the stuff I do for leisure isn’t really related to my work. I consider them outside of everything. I am pretty geeky but my books and film are way outside!
How about the three albums we would find you with on a deserted island?
There will definitely be a Red House Painters album… and probably some Miles David or something like that because it is good for sleeping.
Last question! What is your one advice to all the Cambodian startups out there?
My one advice is to make an effort to meet people. Find out what you want to do first, and meet people because everyone is very open about discussing ideas. If you just start talking about your ideas, then people here will get enthusiastic and want to help. There is also a lot of support here if you can find the right people. Very often you just need to meet two or three people, and they will point you off in the right direction.
Thank you Gary!