18th November 2015
by Katrina Langford
Project Owner for Local Linguist

I first heard about RHoK and the hackathons that they run about a year ago. I had this idea for an app to help people in Timor-Leste carry out their own research and translate resources for mother tongue language education programmes, but had no idea where to start. RHoK seemed like a dream come true, a group of tech experts willing to help make this idea a reality! 

I spend most of my work hours, both paid and unpaid, working towards a brighter future for the people of Timor-Leste. I've been doing development work there since 1999, when I was 16. I went over for the first time in 2001, where I met my husband. In the early years, I was teaching English, and then went on to study linguistics. I am now a linguist specializing in Timorese languages.

One of the (many) issues that people in Timor-Leste are facing is illiteracy. Worldwide, studies have shown that mother tongue education programs (where kids do their early years of schooling in a language that they speak) makes a big difference for kids who do not speak the national language of the country that they live in. One of the problems with starting to learn in their own language is a lack of resources such as books, posters, alphabet charts, etc. to help facilitate their learning.

Resource creation of this kind, to date, has been very light on the use of technology. Mostly it involves listening, and then using a notebook and pen, or laptop to record or translate data and stories. This means that the resources take a long time to create, and are dependent on highly skilled researchers (which are as rare as hens teeth). We wanted to find a way to use the technology that was already there, namely, Android phones, to create resources of the quality and on the scale that we needed. 

The changemakers for the Melbourne 2015 Winter Hackathon

The changemakers for the Melbourne 2015 Winter Hackathon

So that was the background, and until I heard about RHoK, I wasn't sure where to start. We put together an application and were thrilled to bits to be accepted as one of five changemakers for the most recent Melbourne Winter Hackathon which took place in May 2015. In late April we all went along to the Ideation evening, and pitched our projects and then sat down and workshopped ideas with a group of people. This was my first experience with the world of hacking, and boy was it an eye-opener!! I hadn’t realised how many different areas of expertise there were in the hacking world, and I started on a steep learning curve that evening (I now know, for example, that ‘Ruby’ is not just a girl’s name!)

In mid-May, RHoK ran an Agile 101 workshop for all of us where we learned about lean and agile principles. These weren't really concepts I'd heard about before, and they're not something we generally encounter in the aid and development sector. The biggest thing I took from that session is how a good work flow for a project is not a linear process, but rather a series or iterations with the planners being involved throughout the process. 

Near the end of May, RHoK ran their Info Night, where we pitched our projects again based on the feedback from the Ideation Evening, and the things learned in the Agile 101 session. The aim of this evening was to get some of the hackers thinking about what projects they wanted to work on for the hackathon. 

Then it was the hackathon weekend itself. It was an amazing experience with a really great vibe. I was really amazed (still am, really) that there were people willing to so generously share their time and expertise to make this idea into a reality. We got up and gave our pitches again, now much improved from the first time we had pitched at the Ideation Evening. Once the pitches were over, the changemakers stood in different places around the open breakout area, and groups of hackers started forming around them.

The Local Linguist team hard at work on Day 1 of the Melbourne Winter Hackathon

The Local Linguist team hard at work on Day 1 of the Melbourne Winter Hackathon

People were asking lots of questions, and there was a really positive vibe. We all moved over to a long table, and started planning using a whiteboard. Everyone was lovely, and I even had my 2 year old son and husband there for a bit on the Saturday. My husband was included as well, with lots of questions about Timorese culture and norms, to make the app as user friendly in Timor-Leste as possible. There were lots of designers there on the weekend, so we ended up with the front end of the app by the end of the weekend. 

Since the hack has finished, a couple of people have really taken the project on, with one concentrating on the app itself (we now have a working prototype which was tested in East Timor), and another concentrating on a database for the app to output data to. 

All of the coding is WAAAAY over my head, but I am learning as I go (I now know what words like UX and Github mean, woohoo!!). The app and website are well on the way, and it looks like we will be able to use it to start collecting data and creating resources in East Timor in 2016. You can check out our progress over here! Once the app and website are created, our dream is that other people will also take it on, use it and run with it, and we will change the way data is recorded and local language resources are created around the world.