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The world’s first suicide prevention app designed especially for use by Indigenous people on mobile phones or tablet devices is on trial usage in Australia. Suicide rates are substantially higher in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, accounting for 4.2% of all Indigenous deaths compared to the 1.6% national suicide rate.

Can an app help save lives and begin to change this situation? We think so.

iBobbly (a name derived from a Kimberley greeting) is a new Android app that aims to help reduce the extraordinarily high rate of youth suicide among Australia's Indigenous people. The app delivers treatment-based therapy in a culturally relevant way, and employs youth relevant technology to do so.

“Indigenous Australian youth have a high rate of mobile phone usage so it makes sense that we engage them on technology they are comfortable with and able to use in their own private time,” explains Black Dog Institute researcher Professor Helen Christensen. “Once the app is downloaded they don’t need ongoing Internet access and the program is password protected, thus maintaining confidentiality if the technology is shared amongst the community.”

ThoughtWorks built an Android app and associated website to help the Black Dog Institute undertake a pilot study to gauge the effectiveness of the app in reducing suicide rates and improving mental well-being in the at-risk youth. The project was done in partnership with HITnet, an enterprise specialising in delivering health and social information to Indigenous communities through innovative technology, including touch screen kiosks.

Technical Stack

A major constraint for the project was a very tight budget. The technical stack reflects this in making maximum use of free and open source components.

A website written in Ruby on Rails with a MongoDB database on a Heroku server allows administrators to set up participants for the pilot study and allows researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of the app. The website receives encrypted anonymous data from the tablets as they go online, and makes it available to the researchers in tabular form.

The Android app was written for Android 4.0.3 (‘Ice Cream Sandwich’). It uses Robolectric for automated testing and a SQLLite database for storing participant data while offline. GreenDAO was used to generate the database schema. The app was pre-installed on Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 devices generously provided by Samsung.

A key requirement of the project was for the app to be engaging for Indigenous Australian youth. Aboriginal artists Martha Lee, Esah Coffin and designer Danica Manado created appealing artwork in modern Indigenous style. Voice overs for all text in the app were supplied in both male and female Indigenous voices. In addition, there are several animated videos using the same visual theme.

The app was required in two forms, one with male voice and the other with female, and the artists, designers and voice actors were located remotely. Initially, placeholder sounds, images and videos were made available to the content providers via Dropbox. These were gradually replaced with the final forms as they were done. A simple build script copied the content into the development environment and produced the male and female packages of the app.

The App

The app consists of three modules interspersed with videos and brief mood-evaluating questionnaires.

Module 1 -- helps individuals to identify and become aware of their thoughts, feelings and behaviours and gives them some tools to manage their inner experience and get some distance from distressing thoughts, including suicidal thoughts.

Module 2 -- helps individuals to regulate their emotions through several strategies including talking to someone, engaging in enjoyable activities, mindfulness exercises, and ascribing meaning to their experiences.

Module 3 -- helps individuals identify things they wish to stand for and characteristics that they want to embody and encourages them to set realistic goals to help move them in this direction.

A second version of the app is scheduled for trial in several locations around Australia in early 2015.

iBobbly is funded by the Australian Government and NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention. The program was developed in partnership with Alive and Kicking Goals, HITnet Innovations,  ThoughtWorks, Muru Marri Indigenous Health Unit UNSW and  the Young and Well Cooperative Research  Centre. Samsung generously donated 150 tablets for the trial.

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