Program Spotlight: YSEALI U.S. Study Tour

In the age of millennials, it is not uncommon to have one’s smartphone within reach at all times. New technologies have transformed the way we connect to one another, communicate, and even perform everyday tasks. With just a few taps on a phone you can grab a car, buy your food, or even find a date!

Every week it seems like there’s a new, must-have app to address our most important needs, and even some we didn’t know we had. And if a group of young leaders from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, and Singapore have their way, the next big app in Southeast Asia might just help to address one of our region’s most rapidly growing needs – to fight deforestation.

Four members of President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) recently visited the United States for three weeks, from July 25 to August 14, to explore how they can do just that through a youth-focused mobile app that brings attention to cases of deforestation and illegal logging across ASEAN.

The idea for the Log This! app was generated by Al Muhd Dinie Hafizuddin B Pg Azman (Dinie), Vannak Oum (Bobby), Arifuddin Jamil (Arif), Christina Ho, and Yiaheutoua Vang during the YSEALI Generation Earth workshop organized by Cultural Vistas in Siem Reap, Cambodia this April.

The group was among 72 youth leaders from across ASEAN, including myself, who worked in teams during the workshop to develop ideas to addressing transnational environmental issues. Field trips in Siem Reap helped to illustrate the real need for action and collaboration.

The YSEALI recipients of the U.S. study tour share a moment with their American and ASEAN mentors during the closing ceremony of April’s workshop in Siem Reap.

The app aims to integrate the power of technology with the power of youth to play a role in advocating for preservation of the environment. The idea is that anyone can report or ‘log’ any incident of illegal logging or deforestation. Once it is ‘logged’, it will instantly be directed to particular authorities per country.

Why is this so needed? Well, they say that every two seconds an area of forest the size of a football pitch is lost to logging or destructive practices. Most cases of deforestation are not reported. Governments are ideally the primary institutions that must act on the matter, but this does not mean that citizens are left to watch these destructive activities. With this app, everyone would be empowered to play a role in preserving the environment.

The idea won these young leaders a seed grant and the chance to visit the States.

Dinie, Arif, Christina, and Bobby kicked off the tour in Washington, D.C.

Dinie, Bobby, Arif, and Christina visited five U.S. cities, beginning here in the nation’s capital with stops in New York City, Burlington, Vermont, Duluth and Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Seattle.

While stateside, they met with various government and educational institutions, NGOs, tech startups and app developers to learn about environmental management best practices, enhance their understanding of mobile technology, explore possible partnerships, and experience the culture and diversity of the U.S.

In Washington, D.C., the highlights included meetings with the National Park Service, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, as well as a weekend hike through the Arboretum at James Madison University, not to mention a special introduction to one of America’s favorite pastimes.

Meanwhile in Vermont, the importance of having a business plan, not just an app or product was stressed during a session with the Vermont Small Business Development Center. Two important questions were raised: “what problem will you solve?” and “why?” Speakers also explained the importance of creating a plan for selling the app or plan to potential funders and partners.

“I was surprised to learn that the traditional mode of business where you first create the product is fundamentally wrong,” said Christina, currently a junior at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. “This experience showed that surveying and finding the market niche and gap is the crux to a great business idea!”

The group also received valuable feedback upon making their pitch to students in the Emergent Media Center at Champlain College about the importance of having an anonymity feature for potential app users to help avoid any potential safety concerns.

Land trusts, building partnerships, and forest conservation in Minnesota was the focus of their visit to the Twin Cities. The group visited 3M Company, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Nature Conservancy, and was also treated to a delightful evening of home hospitality with an American family.

A meeting with Congressman David Reichert in Seattle offered the group a comprehensive overview of Washington State’s forests and the Congressman’s efforts in working to preserve them. They were also introduced to several pieces of legislation and ongoing preservation projects.

The three-week U.S. study tour had a significant impact and opened doors to many new possibilities for the app, as well as for each individual’s personal and professional pursuits.

“This was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Bobby. “Every single day was exciting and educational. We learned a lot about what it takes to make a project like this a reality. My team and I never expected to have the chance to meet with high-ranking officials in both the private and government sectors. They were so welcoming, and willing to share case studies, experiences, and the challenges they face in their professional work. The tour has opened up a new world to me.”

“My perspective and understanding of the United States has broadened,” added Christina. “I have gained a more varied understanding of politics and environmental governance. This came at the right time because I am an environmental studies major. Moreover, I learned so much about business and innovation – I left truly inspired!”

No matter what comes next, you can count on these young leaders to continue utilizing the networks they have formed during their U.S. visit and sharing the ideas and knowledge they have gained through YSEALI at home to raise awareness of environmental issues across Southeast Asia.