In late 2014, our Perth team delivered a mobile language app called Yawuru Ngan-ga for the Yawuru indigenous community from Broome in Western Australia. We open sourced the framework so other indigenous communities can develop similar apps of their own more easily.
We were approached by Mabu Yawuru Ngan-ga, the language centre for the Yawuru community, who have native title over the Broome area of Western Australia. They were exploring new ways to preserve their culture in the digital age.
The premise of their first proposal was "shake the phone, get a new word”. Working from that initial idea, here's what we came up with.
The team had good experiences with apps like Duolingo, but unfortunately it doesn't scale down well to languages where the number of fluent speakers could be counted on your hands. Yawuru was nearly lost at the hands of Christian missionaries, and is in the process of being revived, so it wasn't an option for us.
After a two day workshop in Broome (warm weather, crystal blue water and snow white beaches...yep, it's a hard life), we decided that a visual dictionary and some word/audio/picture games inspired by that experience would be a great first step and marry well with existing activities taught in schools.
We began with the two key pieces of the app:
With these pieces complete we were able to spider out into the wider dictionary exploration experience, exploring by category, word of the day, common phrases for tourists, and lastly, as many different games as we could play with, using the combination of words/audio/pictures at our disposal.
All of this content needed to come from somewhere, and we needed to make it simple enough for the language team to be able to manage without any help from the development team. We also had another requirement to make cloud-friendly choices so the language centre didn’t have to manage infrastructure. To satisfy these problem, we created a very simple web-based content management system tailored around the requirements of the app.
The backend was largely a means to an end, so to save time we went straight to our playbook and made choices based on things we’ve had great success with previously:
This turned out really well, and enabled us to quickly spin up testing and demo environments. The only work required by the language centre was to setup accounts for Heroku, AWS and Google Analytics.
On the client side we also reached for the playbook, but we were doing a few things we hadn’t tried, so we added a few pages:
Our web-based approach also provided a couple of unexpected benefits:
That backend is a vanilla active admin experience tailored around their process, so not much to look at. It looks a little like this:
The front-end is designed to be simple and playful, using work from local artists. We tried to pay careful attention to little details which makes the apps feel more native for things like title and tab placement, screen transitions and scrolling behaviour. The front-end looks like this:
We asked the client to let us make the framework open-source if we contributed some of our own time. We wanted to lower the barrier of entry for the 150 or so indigenous languages left in Australia to a couple of local web developers who can follow the setup instructions and style the app for the community.
The framework is called Jila. No, not the mints. Jila means “waterhole” in Yawuru. Why "waterhole"? Waterholes are places people come together, and we wanted this to be a tool the various communities could get behind, rather than everyone re-inventing the wheel as our discussions informed was happening.
Soon! The framework has a home on Github. In the next few weeks all the code should be ported across from the Yawuru-specific version. You two Windows Phone users can use this time to work out what would need to happen to support your devices.
After presenting it at the WANALA conference, we've been approached by a few other communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory about using it. We've also just been put in touch with someone doing research on endangered languages near the India-Myanmar border.
Galiya mabu! [Goodbye and thank you!]