York student Alejandro Mayoral Baños, a second-year Master's student in Interdisciplinary Studies, is spearheading the development of an app to help First Nations, Métis and Inuit students network with other Aboriginal members around the York community.
"There are apps available that focus on Aboriginal languages, but for networking there isn't anything yet," Alejandro says, "we're tapping into the digital generation."
Alejandro has been working with York's Centre for Aboriginal Student Services to develop the app. Planning started last January and coding began in July. They're hoping for a mid-January release on Google Play (Android) and Apple Store (iOS).
So far the app has been focused at York, but they're now expanding it to other post-secondary institutions. "Many of our students are struggling a lot – they come from reserves, come from communities with different lifestyles, they feel lost," he says. "Students in post-secondary institutions have a lot of necessities, (including) crisis management."
"Many of our students are struggling a lot, they come from reserves, come from communities with different lifestyles, they feel lost," Alejandro says. "For whatever reason, many don't want to identify as Aboriginal—they don't want to be differentiated since they may still face discrimination, even here at York."
Through the app, he wants to build an informal support system for Aboriginal students. They can search for other users, connect and start a conversation with them, and in the process build a network. The app will allow users to set up forums on any topic, for example: 'what are the struggles for aboriginal people here at York?'
The group will also be building in access to calendars so users can find relevant events and ceremonies. The development group has been working with Aboriginal students, faculty members, alumni, staff and Elders to build in features they as users want, he says.
"The community has asked for a safe environment so users will have to get an access code before they can access the apps features. Once they've authenticated for the first time, it will provide automatic log-in for the devices it's installed on," he says.
What it won't do is replace apps that already offer chat and video features. "This is not a replacement for apps like Skype," he says, "this is a first step. We're not trying to replace those apps. We're trying to be the first step of communication."
As a community-building app, users will have the option of joining a cyber clan, named after animals. "We have eagles, turtles, bear, wolves, and every clan has a role," Alejandro says. The wolves are the forum moderators, he says, and it's their job to keep the forums a safe environment.
There will also be a special role for mentorship which requires special skills to deal with crises. The developers would also like to see the app make its way to reserves so they can have access to the Elders for advice, or for when they have identity issues.
Alejandro notes there have been many people with their hands in the process to develop this app and all of them deserve thanks:
Elders: Blu Waters, Billie Allan
Faculty: Ruth Koleszar-Green
Staff: Nancy Johnson, Jolene John, Randy Pitawanakwat
Students and community members: Lisa Stewart, Samantha Craig-Curnow, Thane Higgins, Rob Lackie, Tsitra Mckay, Jared Visitor, Mariah Abotossaway, Kayla Webber, Jesse Thistle, Candice Jacko, Robyn Grant-Moran, Serena Hill, Joseph Milando, Stefano Federici
Supervisors: Miguel Gonzalez, Stephen Chen, William Wicken