York master’s student develops app for indigenous community to network

first-nations-friendsYork University 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 members of York’s aboriginal community.

“There are apps available that focus on aboriginal languages, but for networking there isn’t anything yet,” says Mayoral Baños. “We’re tapping into the digital generation.”

Some of the members of the app development team, from left: Lisa Stewart, Billie Allan, Alejandro Mayoral Banos, Samantha Craig-Curnow, Nancy Johnson
Some of the members of the app development team, from left: Lisa Stewart, Billie Allan, Alejandro Mayoral Baños, Samantha Craig-Curnow, Nancy Johnson

Mayoral Baños has been working with York’s Centre for Aboriginal Student Services to develop the app, titled First Nation Friends. Planning began in January and coding started in July, and the hope is for a mid-January 2016 release on Google Play (Android) and the Apple Store (iOS).

So far, the app has been focused on the York U community, but the team is working to expand it to other postsecondary institutions.

“Many of our students are struggling a lot; they come from reserves, come from communities with different lifestyles, they feel lost,” Mayoral Baños 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.”

A menu screenshot of the First Nation Friends app
A menu screenshot of the First Nation Friends app

The team will also build 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 design features that they, as users, want.

“The community has asked for a safe environment, so users will have to get an access code before they can access the app’s features,” says Mayoral Baños. “Once they’ve authenticated for the first time, it will provide automatic login for the devices it’s installed on.”

What it won’t do, however, 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,” says Mayoral Baños, adding the wolves are the forum moderators, 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.

Mayoral Baños notes there have been many people involved in the development process, including:

  • elders Blu Waters and Billie Allan;
  • faculty Ruth Koleszar-Green;
  • staff Nancy Johnson, Jolene John and 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 and Stefano Federici; and
  • supervisors Miguel Gonzalez, Stephen Chen and William Wicken.