A few decades ago, the idea of a phone smart enough to serve as a communication device, camera, media player, location tracker, and more would’ve been restricted only to sci-fi books and the most forward-thinking of minds. Nowadays, those functions comprise just our smartphone’s basic features, and with each new model introduced to the market, this rectangular piece of glass, metal, and plastic takes on more power and functionality. While we often sing praises of smartphone companies, app developers also deserve plenty of credit. These innovative individuals harness the power of technology to add even more punch to your phone. Ria Lu is one such individual.
Ria’s the CEO of Komikasi, a company that creates games in both physical and digital format to promote Philippine comics and literature. Local writers may know her for the Talecraft card game that she developed to make story-building more fun and interactive. A graduate of Computer Science from De La Salle University, she’s gone on to develop apps for various companies as well as for her own purposes. In 2014, she co-founded Unlock and Load, a lock screen app that helps you discover new products and earn rewards from looking at ads. Now, she’s taken on an advocacy that’s close to her heart through Girl+, an Android app that helps empower women by helping them stay safe while commuting.
On getting her start in the app development business
From Ria’s portfolio, it seems like she’d had her eye on the app industry from the beginning. However, during our interview with her, she admitted that it wasn’t always the case. “Back when I was young, what I wanted to do was really content regardless of the medium,” she admitted. “I love the different creative media. I like games. I like comics. I like animations, books. Sa ‘kin, the different media, each has their own merit, and there’s a way to use it that makes it fun.”
Her love of media stemmed from her love of stories as a child. She spoke of having books ranging from children’s storybooks to Reader’s Digest collections at home and turning to them for entertainment, saying, “Growing up kasi, we weren’t allowed to watch TV during the week, sa weekends [lang]. And we can’t play games during the schoolyear. We can only play during summer and Christmas. So what do you do ‘di ba during the week? After you study, after you finish your homework, what do you do? So we would read. We would make stories. We would fantasize.” That would later inspire her ultimate dream to build a company that creates stories.
Ria studied Computer Science in college, because there had been no degrees in “Games” at that time, but that decision served her well. “[My company] started with comics,” she explained. “That’s why it’s called Komikasi.” She shared how they’d branched out into providing art services such as posters, billboards, and other graphics for companies until another opportunity cropped up. “Eventually our clients started asking for games. Small-small lang. Quiz type. ‘Yung parang, ‘We have a launch this weekend. Can you make a quiz game that we can showcase?’ So we did that, and in 2010, dun dumami ‘yung demand for apps,” she said.
On the joy of creating apps
We asked Ria what she enjoyed the most about her job, and she said that it was the creation process. “Para siyang toy. It has a potential to create anything that you want to create. And it really pushes your creativity and limits. Like kunwari, not so long ago, let’s say a decade ago, you wouldn’t think that we can actually track our location.
“If you read science fiction, every now and then, iisipin mo na parang, ‘Paano ko kaya ‘to gagawin? I can do this eh.’ So it’s parang problem solving na may creative aspect to it. It’s fun. It’s a tool. It’s really only stopped by your creativity. That’s the fun part para sa ‘kin. Its really to think of what can we do to do something that looks magical but actually isn’t? It’s just technology,” she shared.
On the inspiration for the Girl+ app
With all the horror stories that we hear these days about women being kidnapped in taxis and whatnot, Girl+ couldn’t have come at a better time. Though Ria hadn’t had any personal encounters that spurred her to create Girl+, she’d heard plenty of secondhand stories from friends who’ve worked in BPO companies. “It’s 56% female actually in the BPO industry. And these are high-paying jobs. If you work hard, you get to higher positions. So there’s a lot of women in higher positions in BPO. So para sa ‘min, wow, this is a good thing for women. For empowerment of women,” Ria said.
Being a member of the women organization Soroptimist, empowerment is a very important issue to Ria. “The problem is along with the good thing comes some negative things na parang people don’t seem to see. Women have to commute at night. They come home at all hours of the day. That’s why nag-i-increase rin ‘yung crimes against women, especially when they’re commuting… Even if sabihin mo, yes, Filipina women are generally empowered people, there are things attached to it. Kasi it’s something new also. It’s a new thing that’s happening… na opportunities for women are really growing.”
She shared how she and her business partner Misha Fernandez had talked about the rampant problem of commuter safety. During their discussion, they’d determined that they didn’t need to do something grand to help solve this problem. “What we were thinking was that we just need kahit na a small tool to help these women help themselves. So the aim of Girl+ ‘rin is not to save you, but really to give you something so you can save yourself. That’s why the function of Girl+ is really just a panic button that makes a loud sound na para, if you have would-be attackers, ma-turn-off sila,” she explained.
On developing the Girl+ app
Ria and Misha had previously paired up to create the Unlock and Load app, which they’d put on hold in 2015. During one of their brainstorming sessions, they realized that it was just the tool they needed for Girl+, since they didn’t have enough resources to develop a whole new software. “Lumabas ‘yung idea na, ‘You know what, we have Unlock and Load. It’s a working system. We just need to add functions, and then they can use that na.’ So that’s what we did.”
They decided to keep the lock-screen concept for Girl+, but instead of displaying ads, it would display important content. “Problem namin with our women’s group Soroptimist is information dissemination. We have an annual scholarship program wherein we find women who are basically the primary breadwinner in their families who want to finish their studies, college, and they don’t know that the scholarship exists. Or we have other programs under Soroptimist that actually help women, but people don’t know,” Ria shared. And so they designed Girl+ to feature announcements and information while having two accessible buttons—a panic button and an emergency call button.
The concept is simple and sound, but there are challenges to it taking off, first of which is the fact that it’s an app. “Here in the Philippines, people kinda use apps, pero hindi pa talaga, not a huge, huge population talaga,” Ria explained. “Look at the more popular apps right now. Let’s not count Facebook and Twitter, because everybody’s on Facebook anyway. But let’s say apps like GrabTaxi or EasyTaxi or Uber. If you look at their downloads, it’s not din ganun ka-laki. Because apps are still quite new pa rin to a lot of people in the Philippines.”
That said, their target users are professional women who likely utilize apps on a regular basis. “But then our second problem was the app is currently on Android, not on iOS. Kasi iOS doesn’t allow you to take over the lock screen,” Ria said. “So we might have to change it for iOS and think of a different way of doing it.”
On the future of Girl+
While the app is functional, Ria admits that it has certain limitations. “At the moment, the emergency call button just calls the trafficking hotline. But ideally, what we’d really like to do is be able to come up with a number that they can call that puts them through the channel that they actually need.” She explained further, “Maybe it’s not trafficking. Maybe you really just had an accident, I need help. Or something as simple as I had a flat tire in the middle of the road. I don’t know what to do. There’s somebody somewhere you can call, pero you don’t have to remember all these phone numbers. So that’s the ultimate goal.
“There are existing groups for different sets of problems, and we’d like to consolidate those… We’re actually talking to some groups already right now, because there are some groups locally who are involved in something similar din to what we’re doing. So ‘di ba, instead of competing, ‘di na. We have the same aim eh. Let’s work together.” One hurdle to this goal is the cost of maintaining a dedicated number with an operator active at all hours of the day. However, Ria hopes to garner enough support to eventually turn that dream into reality.
They’d also like to apply the crowd-sourcing concept to their app. “We plan to add more features on Girl+ that actually encourages the people helping people idea. One of the functions that we’re planning sometime in the future pa—my partner calls it the White Knight function. It’s basically parang citizens helping citizens,” she shared. This would allow you to alert pre-approved people within your immediate vicinity should you have an emergency, so that help will reach you faster. “That one though is a little more complicated, ’cause of course there’s the issue of security. Kailangan talaga pre-screened the ones who are part of the program. There’s issue pa about internet na will it be able to send data and call the next guy if wala kang internet? So these are things that have to be considered. But that’s something that we really want to do.”
On the Girl+ initiative
“At the heart of it, Girl+ is more of our push, our advocacy to empower women. It’s not the app itself. The app is the tool that helps us do what we’re planning to do, which is empower women,” Ria explained. “We have a hierarchy that we believe in. Think of it as a triangle. At the bottom of the triangle is really protection. If you’re a woman that’s already empowered, main [concern] talaga natin is protection. You have to be protected. Kasi if you’re not, masisira ‘yung opportunities mo or the joy of that.” To address this issue, the team of Girl+ conducts talks for companies regarding commuter safety.
“The second level naman of the pyramid is kunwari, more or less you’re okay. You’re safe. You’re fine. Second would be what can we give you to push you further? So kunwari you’re a [call-center] agent. What can we do now to make you supervisor naman? What skills can we teach you to further your career?” She said that many of their workshops fall under that category, wherein they tackle image and personality development, confidence building techniques, and the like.
The pinnacle of the pyramid is about paying it forward. “Once you’re fine, you’re successful, you’re safe, then we conduct mga talks and workshops to help you be of help to other women,” Ria said. “We actually are planning forums for that. To be able to just talk about the issues. Kasi sometimes there are issues that we fail to see or just fail to talk about.” She gave an example, saying, “More women are getting out of the house and working. Which is a good thing. Who now takes over the role of the mother in the house? Are we leaving a hole once we leave that role and take on another role? Just things like those. There are no hard-and-fast answers for that yet, but the forum is just meant to stack all those issue and come up with solutions that can actually benefit them.”
Want to support the Girl+ initiative? They’re currently looking for more content to feature on the app’s lock screen. So if you write article or blog entries that you think will be helpful for women, send them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach them there should you be interested in arranging workshops for your school or company—at the moment, event locations are limited to Metro Manila and nearby areas accessible by car. And of course, do download Girl+ on Android, and encourage your friends and family to do so too.