The little Cape York Indigenous community of Wujal Wujal has become the first town in Australia to launch a private wireless network that gives residents access to a range of free telecommunication services, even during severe storms.
Queensland’s smallest shire has set up an emergency management wireless network, creating a hotspot within the valley where it is located, and allowing all residents and visitors to communicate in the town.
“It’s all about creating equity and accessibility for our mob,” Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire Council chief executive officer Eileen Deemal-Hall said.
“The WiFi dome will allow us to have that autonomy.”
The network, installed by South Australian-based infrastructure engineering company Factor UTB, was originally designed to let the council and residents communicate with local emergency service following power and telecommunications blackouts in storms, which can leave the community isolated from the world and each other.
However, the council-managed network, funded under the Queensland Government’s Works for Queensland infrastructure program, has brought other benefits.
“Local phone calls within the community are now free, as is video-conferencing and the transfer of images and videos. Devices such smart phones, tablets, and personal computers are all be supported by the network,” Ms Deemal-Hall said.
“It will also allow our council assets to talk with each other. And the network possesses battery back-up to ensure the service will remain uninterrupted, even if mains power is disrupted.”
One of 17 discrete Indigenous communities within Queensland, the Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire Council services a population of around 680 residents and relies solely on grant funding.
It’s not the kind of community, Ms Deemal-Hall acknowledges, that would ever have been expected to punch above its weight in pioneering technology.
“But Wujal Wujal has always been ready for change,” she said. “They just haven’t had the opportunity.”
Technology is now set to play a crucial role in facilitating sustainable development within the Indigenous community and connectivity to mainstream economies.
Last year the council installed a water monitoring system capable of providing crucial around-the-clock data on the health of the Bloomfield River, which empties into the Great Barrier Reef, and also provides fish – an important food source for the community.
“We do daily water testing here,” Ms Deemal-Hall said. “We want to set the standards.
“Water is the embodiment of our culture. We want to use technology to not only maintain our regulatory compliance requirements, but honour our cultural obligations.”
The council has set up a high-tech weather station to monitor trending changes to the climate in the region. An innovative new sewerage treatment plant is also in the pipeline. It will adapt to fluctuating population numbers, withstand extreme weather events and maximise discharged water quality.
Partners, including the Queensland Reconstruction Authority and the State Department of Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning, are all lending their expertise to facilitate infrastructure projects and further Wujal’s vision – as is the council’s designated State Government Ministerial champion, Leeane Enoch, the first Indigenous woman elected to Queensland Parliament, who is currently Minister for Science, Information Technology and Innovation.
“With the assistance of our capacity partners, we are looking at niching ourselves, so we can become a hub of learning for other councils in a range of strategic and innovative functions,” Ms Deemal-Hall said.
“We also want to use our data to select construction materials that pose minimal risk to our environment; enable us to collaborate with research institutions; and open opportunities to market our findings to manufacturers involved in developing weather-resistant products for climates similar to ours.”
Technology also offers opportunities to make every grant funding dollar stretch further. The council is investigating the possibility of equipping its workshop with 3D and 4D printers capable of replicating maintenance parts onsite, thus avoiding exorbitant freight costs associated with manufacturer-produced replacements.
The CEO is quick to acknowledge that technology can be intimidating.
“But definitely, from where we sit, we see technology as an opportunity where we can connect our mob,” she said.
The council is working with QUT researchers to develop a language app that will translate English into Wujal Wujal Yalanji, the community’s main Indigenous language.
The app will not only be used to help keep the language alive among younger members of the community, but will also be marketed to tourists as a novel way to explore Indigenous culture within the region. Local Elders will be engaged to undertake the translation work for the app.
The community’s Indigenous Knowledge Centre is introducing youngsters to computer coding skills and also conducts weekly ‘Text Savvy Seniors’ sessions for older community members to promote dexterity in the use of IPads.
In order to whet the interest of senior citizens, the centre has accessed the recorded stories of past community Elders, as well as photographs dating back to the 1800s, from the John Oxley Library collections within the State Library, as well as the Lutheran Church archives in Adelaide.
“Modern technology will also allow us to develop new digital songlines,” Ms Deemal-Hall said. “A new story we are creating in our lifetimes.”
Wujal Wujal will use the Emergency Management Network and Forum technology to help preserve its past, secure its future – and tell its story.
“It’s the little community that could,” Ms Deemal-Hall said.
“We might be small. We might not have as much money as Bill Gates or Elon Musk, but we certainly can influence others through our story, facilitated through our relationship with our capacity partners.”