NYUAD Students Win Google Cloud Developer Challenge with Stories that Travel

New York University Abu Dhabi Campus

What started as a spontaneous discussion in the NYU Abu Dhabi student lounge one day has been translated into a USD 21,000 award from one of the Web's biggest names.

NYUAD students Lingliang Zhang, Moïri Gamboni, and Mariko Kuroda—all sophomores—are the first place winners of the non-enterprise category in the worldwide Google Cloud Developer Challenge for their website Travellog. After progressing through the different stages of the competition that started on September 4, 2013, the winners were finally announced on January 28 this year.

Travellog is an online social media platform that enables people who travel the opportunity to share their stories and experiences. Kuroda, who developed the visual design of the website, describes it as a platform where people can post their travel stories and pictures for other members of the community to see. The website incorporates Google Map in its navigation. It allows people to view the wide scope of contributors on the map from all over the world who have shared their travel stories.

One of the main objectives of Travellog was to highlight the love of travel that many people have but have no way of expressing. Zhang says: "I think when we built it, we had a very unique viewpoint from the community we came from — it was what people who travel a lot would like, so we wanted to make it a very good visual experience, to make people excited about visiting new places."

The Google Cloud Developer Challenge is open to contestants from six regions around the world to build an application using Google's Cloud Platform in several categories (including social media, education, enterprise, not for profit, personal productivity, and gaming). The challenge also required that the contestants incorporate some of the existing tools in Google — such as Google Drive or Google Maps — into their apps.

The challenge came to the students' attention when it was posted on Facebook. "We had the idea before, but the Challenge served as an impetus to get going and actually build it," says Zhang.

He added that the idea came to them when they realized that there were many senior students at NYUAD travelling all over the world — taking photographs and writing about their experiences — however, there wasn't a way to share this content. Attributing the original idea to their fellow student Alejandra Pinto Miguel, Zhang says, "She was the one who originally told us about the idea and inspired us. She gave us a lot of the concepts and ideas behind the project. Without her, the project never would have taken off."

Kuroda describes the essence of Travellog as a deeper and more personal insight into the experiences of travellers. "Travellog is unique in that it's not simply a travel guide, but a place to explore different corners of the world through the eyes of another person. It's the variety of perspective as well as modes of expression – whether that be prose, poetry, or photography – that makes Travellog one of a kind."

Zhang and Gamboni, both computer science majors, have had experience competing on developing apps. But this was their biggest challenge to date. "We've had quite a lot of background in building apps in general — last year we won the NASA Hackathon, we've done a few Hackathons, we've built things for the school like a voting system — this was one of our first times working with Google Services, and that was a challenge," says Zhang.

Despite the challenges they faced, the experience taught the students a lot. "I think I learned about how far you can take a really simple idea that your friends toss around — how very quickly and with very few steps it can become a real thing," Zhang said. "The gap between ideas and reality is very small."

In regards to the future of Travellog, Zhang hopes that the community surrounding Travellog can grow. "It would be cool if it keeps being used; I hope it fosters bigger things, a culture of developing for fun outside the classroom. It's a movement we're trying to push with the students."

As for the prize money, the students haven't decided yet how to spend it. But they also said the money wasn't the motivator anyway. Simply gaining the knowledge and creating an app that Google found impressive was on many ways compensation enough.

Visit Travellog and share your own travel stories.