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Tech innovator Cambodian girls create prize-winning poetry app

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
LiterTree won second prize at the annual World Pitch event in Silicon Valley, California, where they pitched their business idea live to investors, executives and academics from Uber, Stanford and other organisations and won a grant. Photo supplied

Tech innovator Cambodian girls create prize-winning poetry app

The creation of five girls aged 13 and 14, LiterTree is a team dedicated to one sole purpose – the preservation of Khmer poetry, which is at risk of being forgotten due to four decades of neglect following the killing of artists and the destruction of books and other artefacts of cultural heritage during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

To do this, LiterTree developed the Naeng-Norng (rhyme and rhythm) application to benefit students, particularly high school students, as well as poets and poetry lovers.

LiterTree is made up of Pollak Raksa Chea, 14, Dalen Heang, 13, Kakrona San, 14, Engtieng Ourn, 14 and Ena Im, 14 – all students at Phnom Penh’s Liger Leadership Academy who formed as a team for this year’s Technovation programme in Cambodia.

Technovation is a global tech education nonprofit empowering girls and families to become leaders, creators and problem-solvers, supported in Cambodia by USAID’s Development Innovations, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and the Institute of Technology of Cambodia.

LiterTree told The Post about their app: “It was designed to help students. With an uncomplicated app design, we believe this app will be a useful source for Cambodian literature students who study poetry.”

The young girls’ team wants to help preserve Cambodian poetry and increase the number of Cambodian poets as the art form dies out in the Kingdom with the introduction of modern technology.

The app intends to make poetry fun and easy by putting all the materials needed to write Khmer poems available in one place.

“Khmer poetry has really specific rules and structures for us to follow, but the app will help to make writing easier by providing suggested topics, lessons where you can learn different types of poem and a search function for finding rhyming words in Khmer – we are the only app out there that has this function,” said LiterTree, “The easier writing poetry is, the more people will write poems, and the more people write poems, the more this culture will be preserved.”

There are five different functions on the app to help users: viewing posts; posting their own work; learning structure for writing different types of poems and background information; suggested topics to write about; and the search function, allowing users to search for rhyming words in Khmer.

“We believe the search function is excellent for Cambodian poetry writers who struggle to find words. We’re planning to input as many Khmer poems as possible. Currently available lessons on the app include seven types of poetry: the four line rhyme; the six line rhyme; the seven line rhyme; the eight line rhyme; the nine line rhyme; the ten line rhyme; and the eleven line rhyme,” said LiterTree.

The app is the result of one year of work and mentorship from Technovation, which helps young women across the world use cutting-edge technology to solve problems they face in their community and build businesses.

Tara Chklovski from Technovation, who organises the annual World Pitch event where LiterTree won second prize, told The Post by email: “They flew to Silicon Valley, California, and pitched their business idea live to investors, executives and academics from Uber, Stanford and other organisations and won a grant.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
LiterTree is made up of Pollak Raksa Chea, 14, Dalen Heang, 13, Kakrona San, 14, Engtieng Ourn, 14 and Ena Im, 14 – all students at Phnom Penh’s Liger Leadership Academy who formed as a team for this year’s Technovation programme in Cambodia. Photo supplied

This year, entrants numbered 7,200 girls aged 10-18 from 57 countries, all tasked with developing a mobile application to solve an issue they’ve identified in their community.

LiterTree was the second team from Liger Leadership Academy to enter the Technovation competition, the first being in 2017. The 2017 team were awarded second place in the Junior Division by a panel of distinguished judges and received $5,000 cash, with LiterTree repeating the feat again this year at the World Pitch Summit held in Silicon Valley in mid-August.

Social Relay, a team from India, placed first with an app called Baton, designed to maximise the social impact of initiatives started by social work interns or students in underserved communities after the students’ internships end. They took home a $12,000 prize.

“Everyone at the competition was so supportive, we all kept on praising and encouraging each other. We were a little bit nervous, but we presented our pitch with confidence smoothly and wanted to give our best for the nation. All our courage came from the backing that we received from the incredibly kind hearted Cambodian supporters living in the US. They made a surprise appearance at the summit, making us feel the need to do our best and forget about stage fright,” LiterTree recalled of their presentation.

The team encountered challenges when working on the project. They had a very short time to develop their app, while coding was also something the team had to learn through tutorials and mentors, not to mention the inevitable differences in ideas among five ambitious young girls.

“We are all very distinct from each other so obviously different ideas popped up a lot and we had to learn to accept them, take them critically and develop or merge certain ideas. We learned to build a successful business, team work and coding,” said LiterTree.

The $5,000 prize money will be used to continue developing, securing and sustaining the app, and the rest will go towards their education in STEM subjects.

“Our future plan is to work on and further develop our app to help preserve Khmer poetry. We will start dividing jobs between each team member to help tasks be more organised and easily done. We’ve also thought about finding donors as well.

“We will input as many existing rhyming words and lessons as possible by 2020, also adding more fun functions such as videos of authors reading poems by 2022 and a hangout system for users by 2024,” the team said.

More information on the team and their innovative app can be found on Facebook (@LiterTree).