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How IT is saving Pilbara's Aboriginal languages

Creating and cataloguing recordings of indigenous languages is a challenging enough technology task, but the Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre had some additional barriers to overcome: creaky IT systems, a depleting base of native speakers and the ever-present threat of cyclones.
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Written by Angus Kidman on

Creating and cataloguing recordings of indigenous languages is a challenging enough technology task, but the Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre had some additional barriers to overcome: creaky IT systems, a depleting base of native speakers and the ever-present threat of cyclones.

The 21-year-old centre in remote Western Australia exists to document the 31 indigenous languages in the Pilbara region, a relatively urgent task given that several of those languages have just a handful of active native speakers.

IT plays a critical role in performing those functions. "We should use technology to work a lot smarter," senior linguist Sue Hanson said during a recent presentation at the Connecting Up convention for non-profit organisations in Brisbane.

Backup is particularly important, as existing and newly created recordings of speakers need to be carefully preserved and analysed. "We've now got huge archives of material, and that material is extremely precious," Hanson said. "A lot of it is deceased people's stories; we can never replace that."

As well as the usual data destruction considerations, Wangka Maya is also in a high-cyclone risk area, necessitating a particularly rigorous approach.

Previous tracking systems had not always been successful. A custom FileMaker database for tracking existing recordings, photos and other resources ultimately proved unequal to the task. "It all came crashing down," Hanson said. Other technologies can turn into a distraction. Hanson describes a CD-ROM produced in the 1990s to document the Nyangumarta language as one of the centre's "follies".

Despite spending AU$100,000 to produce the disc, only 50 copies were sold, reflecting a rapid shift away from the notion of CD-ROMs as a mainstream delivery system. "It had a shelf life of about six months," Hanson said. "Language resources like that are now outdated."

Wangka Maya now has an organisation-wide technology plan, developed in conjunction with the University of Sydney. A key element has been the creation of an electronic repository to make resources accessible throughout Australia. Given the high cost of accommodation in Pilbara and the adverse conditions, many linguists collect data during brief, intensive visits and then analyse it from another location.

The data transfer process is also time consuming, as linking and tagging between related resources is vital, Hanson said. "If you chuck out all of these relationships, you're losing half the data."

Taking time to do that properly is ultimately better than a rush job, Hanson argued. "As much as we want to get this done before the plastic in the CD-ROMs begins to decay, we need to be patient. We're going to look at this big picture and stick to it and not get distracted by other technology."

An early success for the centre has been the revamping of its website, which is now based on the open-source Joomla platform. The site helps both in attracting funding and in promoting the centre's work and resources. "Even in our area, the most remote communities now have access to the Web," Hanson said.

That also plays into design decisions. "We have to be careful with how much stuff we put on there, because people who are remote have really slow lines," Hanson said.

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