“When I was a kid I loved geography, was absolutely obsessed with it, and had all the large continent maps on my bedroom wall,” says lawyer Tudor Clee.
“I memorised the cities and capitals but always wondered what the people were like who lived there. What was it like to be a kid in Gabon or Iraq? Most information about such places was always from an adult’s view. There were no details that a kid wants to know – do they drive cars, live in a house or what is their school like.”
That inquisitive nature as a child has helped Mr Clee to create Touchable Earth – an app that aims to improve children’s understanding of other nationalities and cultures across the world with the children being the teachers.
Each school is given tablet computers and stars in its own video for other students to watch and interact with. The project has schools in Iraq, South Africa, Nepal, Romania, India, China and Yemen involved.
Each participating school provides four chapters detailing their culture, the games they play, their school and family and friends.
Started in 2011, the app has been so successful it was recognised as one of the winners in the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations’ Create UNAOC 2012 competition.
“The most amazing part is when you see the way kids enjoy interacting with kids from nations they have never heard of. You think of prejudice in many parts of the world but these kids don’t get that. They want to be friends with a nation they didn’t know existed a few minutes prior and they want to go and visit.”
Mr Clee initially started the project as a way to do something productive while trying to achieve his lifelong goal of visiting every country.
“I was at a conference in the USA for social entrepreneurs through my previous work as a fashion designer. The main thing I obtained from the conference was for a modern idea to be successful it needed to have a business model underneath it built with a social purpose. Toms Shoes is a perfect example where, for every pair of shoes sold, a pair goes to a child in poverty.
“So it got me thinking and next thing I’m buying a $500 digital camera, despite never practising photography before, and flying to Nepal to take photos and videos for Touchable Earth.”
The task has not been without its challenges, including how to manage the number of tablets donated, ensure all tablets are maintained and provide high level programs for the students to start with.
“Just trying to find a good maths program is a tough assignment because on Google Play alone there are 5,000 maths programs. And I must admit I never thought about managing tablets but that is needed when you have kids pushing every button. Some tablets had 300 selfie photos because the students had never taken digital photos or videos before.”
He has since built contacts with schools in each nation and become involved with large organisations including iEARN, a non-profit organisation made up of over 30,000 schools and youth organisations in more than 140 countries.
“I contacted iEARN early on and after making a successful pitch they offered to put me in touch with schools that would be interested in international learning. So what was probably the biggest challenge – finding schools willing to participate – was solved and there would be no having to cold call South African schools to ask if they wanted to be involved.”
Mr Clee is working on a funding structure where people buy and donate the app to schools as a way to build up funds for original content, tablet computers and internet connection. So far all the purchases of Google tablets and internet connection have come from his income as a lawyer.
“I’m keen to drive the initiative but the project is starting to grow way too big for me to fund so the next stage is to find a bigger partner to help grow it. The goal is to have at least one school in every country using this app in the next three to five years.”
“If that kicks off, it will see me cut down on my case work which is sad because I enjoy being a lawyer but this project is a massive opportunity and the time has come to do it.”