Aboriginal communities in Western Australia collectively speak more than 60 languages. Communication barriers have been a long-term challenge for these communities when accessing public and social services and when engaging with law enforcement.
However, a new app called Yarning is breaking down language barriers and fostering better interactions between Aboriginal communities and the state’s police officers.
Yarning allows officers to select and play aloud key messages to Aboriginal people in their first language, including those relating to rights in police custody and COVID-19. For many Aboriginal people, this is the first time they have communicated with a government representative in their own language.
“The Yarning app is the first of its kind in Australia,” says Western Australia Police Force (WAPOL) Commissioner Col Blanch. “By providing key messages in Aboriginal languages, we are being fair and showing our care for Aboriginal people.”
WAPOL is responsible for the world’s single largest police jurisdiction. It covers an area of more than 2.5 million square kilometres and has over 150 police stations.
Yarning is available to more than 7,000 police officers across WA. It increases their awareness and understanding of Aboriginal culture and important matters in Aboriginal communities. It also helps officers interact with Aboriginal people in a more respectful and equitable way.
The app was also designed to help lower arrest and incarceration rates for Aboriginal people, who are significantly over-represented in Australia’s criminal justice system. Despite representing just over 3 per cent of the total population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 30 per cent of prisoners across the country.
Microsoft Power Platform enables speedy deployment
Yarning was designed by WAPOL’s Aboriginal Affairs Division in collaboration with the WA Government’s Aboriginal Mediation Service and its Department of Communities, the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, and several Aboriginal Elders.
Officers and staff developed a prototype mobile app that was trialled in the Pilbara police district in March 2021.
WAPOL engaged Microsoft partner Modis – soon to be known as Akkodis – in June 2021 to productionise the mobile app and create a desktop version. Using Microsoft Power Platform, Modis was able to launch the full version of Yarning in just six weeks.
“Microsoft Power Platform provided the user-friendly interface, stability and security to support this rapid and agile development process,” says Peter Hawkins, Interim Senior Vice President at Modis Australia.
“We were able to design features collaboratively in workshops, and deploy them instantly to officers in the field with existing Microsoft Office 365 E5 licences. And if amendments were needed, we could easily update the app and deploy a new version instantly.”
Modis used its own Rapid Delivery Platform, which is built on Power Platform and is available on Microsoft Azure Marketplace, to accelerate Yarning’s deployment.
The company also leveraged Power Platform to develop a back-end management tool that allows police officers to independently add new languages, phrases and regions as use of the app grows.
Yarning currently supports eight Aboriginal languages, with a further three to be added in 2022. Modis is also working with WAPOL to add new sections to Yarning on cultural protocols, youth language phrases and rights in custody.
In addition, Modis used Microsoft Teams to manage development sprints and tasks, as well as share links and sound files. This enabled quick and effective collaboration between members of its development team during the project.
Fostering respect, care and inclusivity
Since launching in August 2021, Yarning has delivered a number of positive outcomes for WA’s Aboriginal communities and WAPOL.
The app has helped police officers forge stronger and more inclusive partnerships with Aboriginal communities. Its scalability and agility has enabled officers to communicate essential healthcare messages during the pandemic. Yarning can also be used to deliver emergency warnings and road safety messages to Aboriginal communities.
Dee Lightfoot, CEO of Aboriginal Interpreting WA, says Yarning is prompting more Aboriginal people to use the interpreting service. It has experienced a 25 per cent increase in requests for assistance since the app’s launch.
She says, “Aboriginal languages have been invisible for quite some time and this application illuminates to our community that it is okay to communicate in Aboriginal languages.
“Often when people are with the police, they are not necessarily feeling at ease. But when they hear their language in the app, it is a really strong sign that the people they are talking to are interested in communicating with them openly and accurately.”
Achieving global recognition
The rapid success of Yarning was recently recognised on the global stage, with Modis winning the Inclusion Changemaker award in the Social Impact category at the 2022 Microsoft Partner of the Year Awards. The award honours a Microsoft partner that provides innovative technological solutions to help customers solve challenges of diverse representation, economic access, digital inclusion and/or accessibility.
“The impact Yarning has had in helping to achieve inclusion across Indigenous communities is something that I am incredibly proud of,” Hawkins says.
“Winning the Inclusion Changemaker Partner of the Year Award is another milestone in our 13-year partnership with Microsoft. It shows that when we work together, we can provide innovative and tangible solutions to empower people and communities – and create positive change.”
Vanessa Sorenson, Chief Partner Officer in Microsoft ANZ, says Yarning “goes a long way to address the communication gaps, improve fairness and understand cultures”.
“The app is both tapping into purposeful work and using technology to solve some of our more challenging social issues,” she says.
While Yarning was originally developed for WAPOL, Modis is exploring opportunities to extend the app beyond its current use.