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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

30 November 2023

Bringing together Indigenous and Western knowledge

The Indigenous Australian Datathon tackles challenges that people living in regional and remote communities face by bringing together Indigenous knowledge and cutting-edge technology. Hear from JCU Innovation Facilitator Dr Samantha Horseman and JCU PhD Candidate Steve Schwartz who share their experiences mentoring three of the teams at the 2023 event.

Since 2021, the Indigenous Australian Datathon has been bringing together people looking for innovative solutions. In its third year, which was recently held at the JCU Ideas Lab on the Cairns Nguma-bada Campus in Smithfield, almost one hundred participants came together to solve real-world Indigenous community challenges in Australia.

The Datathon is set up as a competition where a series of teams solve real-world problems, with the best solutions being crowned the winner of the competition and receiving additional support for the proposed project.

The nine competing teams consisted of Traditional Owners as well as software programmers and mentors with experience in project management. The teams worked on finding solutions for pressing issues such as coastal erosion, Indigenous health, protection of rock art, animal management, fauna identification and emergency management.

Dr Samantha Horseman and Steve Schwartz (Provided: Samantha Horseman)

Helping improve Indigenous health

Dr Samantha Horseman was one of the organising committee members for the Indigenous Australian Datathon as well as a mentor for the POD10x team that focused on Indigenous health.

“What we are learning from the Rangers and Traditional Owners is that they would like to see a more spiritual connection to health, which would in fact assist better health outcomes,” Samantha says.

The POD10x team decided that health issues from an Indigenous perspective could be better addressed by developing a health framework that looked at Indigenous spiritual and mental health.

“In this Spiritual Safety Gateway framework, the group wanted to include family, land, bush medicine, lore, ceremony, song and dance, hunting, sorry business, yarning, and arts and crafts, and how this impacts effective health outcomes,” Samantha says. “Over the weekend, the team worked on a proof-of-concept of what such a health platform could look like.”

The team also recorded short YouTube videos that were developed using artificial intelligence. The team envisions these ‘avatars’ as a digital twin of a patient and their current physical and spiritual health status.

“This project is a testament to the potential of merging traditional wisdom with cutting-edge technology to create a healthier future for Indigenous communities,” Samantha says.

Saving lives in remote locations

JCU PhD Candidate Steve Schwartz from the Centre for Disaster Studies is also a volunteer Local Controller for the Queensland State Emergency Service (SES). At the Datathon, Steve coached two teams — Drones Torrescue Strait Away and Hot Topic — who were nominated respectively as the winner and runner-up of the 2023 Indigenous Australian Datathon.

Steve says that having a skilled mentor on the team is essential when members with different backgrounds work together. “You've got Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, and you've got high-tech AI knowledge, and the two groups initially didn’t know how to speak to each other to get on the same page to generate solutions,” Steve says.

“Being a Kiwi and ex-infantry, as well as a current emergency services member, and an Academic, means that I can sit in both worlds, and I can facilitate bringing knowledge from these cultures together. It’s something I’m passionate about: search and rescue, emergency management, valuing Indigenous knowledge and AI.”

© James Cook University 2023

Saving more lives after boat accidents

The winning team, Drones Torrescue Strait Away, wanted to develop improved systems to ensure more people can survive boat accidents in the Torres Strait. “In the Torres Strait, the primary means of transportation is a boat. Unfortunately, this can lead to a high rate of accidents and also a high rate of deaths,” Steve says.

“On a personal level, I was involved in a search up on the Torres Strait about six months ago for a man who had fallen off a boat and sadly passed away. So, there is a personal connection there.”

Steve says that the Drones Torrescue team know the conditions in the Torres Strait firsthand, and they were very aware of what needs to be done in an emergency situation. “After a boat accident, the two main issues are communication and search and rescue capabilities,” Steve says.

The team developed the idea to use mobile phone repeaters, which can extend the range of a mobile phone, and integrate them into a series of drones. This way, the search and rescue crew would be able to contact the person in an emergency situation.

Drones could also be used to deliver potentially lifesaving items. “Perhaps delivering a lifejacket or other life-saving items to them would be a possibility,” Steve says.

Bushfires: A hot topic

Steve also mentored another team, Hot Topic, that aimed to save more lives by decreasing the potential for catastrophic bushfires. Bushfires are a danger not only to residents and properties, but also to the firefighters.

“There was an Indigenous firefighter who walked into the room. He had a broken hand, which he had broken while fighting a fire just the day before,” Steve says. “He asked, 'instead of only responding to bushfires, how do we prevent the fires from becoming really bad in the first place?'.

“The team proposed that drones could collect relevant data about bushfire-prone regions, such as fuel load, topography, aerial images, weather, humidity and background temperature."

The data could then be imported into an app that would tell firefighters where the high-risk areas are. “The app could identify red zones and green zones in terms of fire danger."

Steve says the team, consisting of Traditional Owners and programmers from the software company KJR, were very focused and worked together really well. “The thing that really impressed me was, by the end of the weekend, the programmers had a functioning app,” Steve says.

(Provided: Samantha Horseman)

When people collaborate, everyone wins

The Indigenous Australian Datathon was a win for all participants, Steve says, no matter if they were standing on the podium at the end of the competition or not. “The big thing is not so much the outputs, but developing an understanding of each other's knowledge sets,” Steve says.

“You've got Indigenous leaders coming in and learning what the ‘geeky’ people can do for them. And you get the programmers realising the valuable knowledge that the Traditional Owners bring to the table,” Steve says.

“To see them communicating and collaborating, that's just got to be good. The understanding and the goodwill and the relationship building is what matters. That's the big takeaway for me.”

The IMPACT10X AI Simulator internship

One of the next events that Samantha and the JCU Ideas Lab team are planning is the IMPACT10X AI Simulator internship.

The internship is a two-month program designed to empower students and innovators from Far North Queensland as they embark on their innovation journey.

The event will be held in the Ideas Lab on JCU’s Nguma-bada Campus from 27 November 2023 until 31 January 2024. Those who have a passion project or career aspirations linked to research and innovation can find out more about the program on the IMPACT10X AI Simulator internship website.

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