Ebooks Without Borders: Where’s Spot Ngaanyatjarra?

A phone call from a former colleague gave Penguin Random House Ebooks the chance to work with the Spot the Dog IP to create an interactive, animated ebook for a great cause: helping the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), whose mission is to get kids reading in remote parts of Australia where access to books, resources, teachers — pretty much everything we take for granted — is limited.
This was new territory for us. We’d never worked with a partner in this way before and they’d never worked on a project like this, so there was a lot to learn for all of us. Luckily, once we’d talked through some ideas and our Ebook Technical & Design Manager, Koko Ekong, had shown them some spread mock-ups they were over the moon and talking about launches, fanfares, and advertising!
There were challenges (wouldn’t be a project without them…): they wanted the book to be dual-language, in English and Ngaanyatjarra, the native language of the target community. As we were adding audio and animation everything was doubly difficult to orchestrate, but Koko nailed it by creating an ebook that worked in both languages. Koko also put a lot of work into finding a reading platform for Android which could deliver a high-quality animation and audio experience on the old and underpowered devices that people in the indigenous communities had access to.
One of the best things about the project was Koko’s trip to Australia to help deliver the launch. Here are some of the highlights from his trip.

— Julia Midwinter Director, Ebook Ops

Sydney
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Having left London on a dreary and rainy morning I was mentally prepared for a full-on assault of Australian heat, humidity and sunshine the minute I disembarked; I was met instead with a very cool yet sunny evening — it never occurred to me that being in a different hemisphere the Australian winter was just beginning.

It was my first time in Sydney and I was given a brief tour of some local attractions once I’d met up with Karen Williams, Executive Director of the ILF; we discussed expectations of the coming trip and I spent the evening familiarising myself with the rules and norms of the indigenous community we would be spending most of the week in.

Alice Springs
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I met up with my travelling companions from Pearson Australia and the ILF—Cindy Manfong, Lisa Woodland, and Karen Williams—at the airport to begin the first leg of our week-long journey; I’d already been in communication with Lisa in the month or so before arriving and it was a pleasure to finally meet her in person. The first stop was an overnight stay at Alice Springs for an impromptu(ish) interview at the local radio station; I’m told the interview went really well, though I have my doubts as I was still fighting jet-lag and thus decided to wing it. We were then whisked off to the town’s art centre to see an exhibit of found-object art by convicts from a nearby prison, mostly consisting of broken golf clubs and worn cricket mitt-derived creations.

Art exhibit, Alice Springs
This was where I first learned of the problem of alcoholism and violence that’s fueled in part by a lack of education and opportunity in these indigenous communities, an unfortunate cycle that’s led to some negative racial stereotypes of the native aboriginal people and in many cases led to the incarceration of prisoners whose works I was currently enjoying. It’s a complicated matter that’s in-part rooted in the country’s colonial history — trying to help these communities break that cycle was the reason we undertook this project, and standing there amidst the prisoners’ efforts I felt privileged that what we were doing would be a small part of that effort.

Warburton

Sunset in Warburton
Touching down in Warburton, the first thing you notice is how red everything is. The soil is a deep red ochre, the dustiness of which you’re forced to adjust to fairly quickly given that a thin film of it covers everything in sight; I was immediately struck by how much it reminded me of the Harmattan season growing up in West Africa, only not as severe. We were met at the landing strip by Anne Shinkfield, a truly impressive woman who started and runs the shire’s community playgroup. Both Anne and her husband Rowan have dedicated more than a decade to living and working within deprived indigenous communities in Western Australia, hoping to make a difference. They don’t have much of an online presence but you can read more about them here — there isn’t a donation button but I’d encourage you to get in touch and give what you can.

Sadly the only photographs of our time at Warburton were those taken with the community camera and even those can’t by shared without express written consent — there are strict rules governing photography and the use of cameras within the shire.

Once a person dies in the community, his or her name can no longer be used or spoken. I’m not sure if this is for perpetuity, but for the period we were there it meant a community of people some of whose names were in a state of flux — lucky for me with my uncommon first name, not so lucky for a couple of my travelling companions. Anne Shinkfield had long refused to relinquish her first name so the community referred to her using a mashup of her last name and title — “Mishinkfield” — while the rest of us agreed to refer to each other as Disney characters for the duration of the trip (unimpressively, this pact lasted all of one day I think).

The first few days involved meeting community elders and setting up the playgroup for the launch. This involved everything from technical setup and coordination, to baking cupcakes for the children and brewing (and drinking) more tea in two days than I probably ever have before—the jet lag was still in full effect, probably not helped by Warburton being in a different timezone than Sydney.

Prepping for our flight to Uluru

The launch itself went without a hitch and was successful by all accounts, though it would have been nice to see more men from the community present; we had mostly mothers and their children in attendance. We demo’ed the ebook on a large projector for all to see and it was especially gratifying to see and hear the children squeal in delight at first seeing Spot come to life. Due to a complicated translation between English and Ngaanyatjarra (it may require three or four words to describe one English word, and the sentence structures were different) I’d made a decision to have two separate language editions—both aural and written—available separately but as part of the whole; I was especially relieved when the local linguist confirmed that it was indeed the right call. whew. I’d also been working blind with regard to device testing—I didn’t have an actual local device to hand—so it was a relief to find that much of the guesswork paid off and the animations, audio and overall performance was satisfactory on the dated hardware prevalent within the community.

Post-launch, the rest of the evening was spent taking in indigenous fabric-painting and having fun learning to blow glass, my creation being a gift to the locals using the native symbols I’d learned during my time there. We retired after a late dinner and my rejecting Karen and Cindy’s many hilarious attempts to trick me into trying kangaroo-tail—seeing the disembodied appendage in all its glory before the fact killed all enthusiasm for the delicacy. The crocodile was delicious though, and more fishy in taste than I expected.

Uluru
Ayres Rock / Uluru
The next morning we boarded a tiny Cessna for a 4-hour flight to the northern territory and an eventual tour of Uluru/Ayers Rock; this was meant to be our one afternoon of rest and relaxation after what had been a fun but grueling week. After a series of comical mishaps—including a close encounter with a deadly spider the size of my hand, touching down at a closed airport, being temporarily stranded, and a mixup with our hotel rooms in which we were all assigned to a single two-bed room—we finally made it to our bus in time and began the tour. Although we never got close enough to the rock (we must have been a couple of miles away, at the least) it’s truly awe-inspiring in scale; iphone photos do not do it justice. It’s located in a semi-arid desert, a few hundred miles from Alice Springs, and is a monolithic sandstone rock that’s sacred to the local indigenes. The highlights of the evening were performances by indigenous aboriginal dancers, watching the sun set over Uluru—it famously changes color and appears to glow red—and an amazing dinner by candlelight in the middle of the desert.

An amazing sunset
Dinner in the middle of nowhere

PRH’s First Dual-Language Read-aloud Ebook

The project was a success, so much so the ILF began mulling scaling the project to other shires before we’d even returned to Sydney. This was a project that I initially saw as just a technical and creative challenge, but having seen the direct impact it had with the children at the shire I feel truly privileged to have been a part of what the ILF is trying to accomplish. The ebook itself is more a product of thinking outside-the-box than it is technical wizardry, but I believe the real feat was having so many stakeholders working harmoniously (for the most part) across the many different timezones on a project with as many undefined variables as this turned out to have and pulling it off without a hitch: from Jody who assisted with testing on local devices in Warburton, relaying the results by video to me here in London, James and his team who set up the download platform from his base in Sydney to meet our stringent requirements, the ILF for providing translations when needed, all the way to the lovely indigenous lady who recorded the audio translation from English to Ngaanyatjarra. For a first stab at this I think all involved not only pulled it off but also had a memorable experience doing so.

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