Tech4Good | Telstra Foundation |

Helping autistic young people take control of their own futures

By Natalie Falzon August 20, 2021

How can we address the issues of unemployment and underemployment of autistic young people, through helping individuals take more control of their career choices and find work opportunities aligned with their strengths?

An empowering platform for autistic young people, that gives them the ability and confidence to map their future, and provides carers, employers and schools with an invaluable input for career path development.

This is the story of myWAY Employability, a career pathway tool for autistic young people. Over a third of autistic people are unemployed and only a quarter attain post-school qualifications. The premise of myWAY Employability is to enable self-determination in young people as they prepare to step into their working life. It does this by matching an individual’s profile to career, training and education pathways. It helps them see possibilities, it encourages them to dream and it gives them the confidence to make it happen.

For disadvantaged communities, workplace doors may be frequently found to be more closed than open. The statistics tell us this is likely the case for those on the autism spectrum. Unemployment and underemployment rates for this cohort reveal an uncomfortable truth: there are barriers to autistic young people finding work.

Enter Autism CRC, a partner backed by Telstra Foundation’s Tech4Good Challenge program and driven to empower autistic people to use their strengths and realise their potential. Based on six years of foundational research, they arrived at the conclusion that self-determination is key to improving autistic young people’s employment prospects. So, Autism CRC set out to create a service to encourage and enable this cohort to make informed choices and take definitive action around their own career and education paths.

From the start, myWAY Employability has been designed for and with the autistic community. Initial research indicated that early engagement would be key to establishing a truly relevant service that could factor for a literal spectrum of user requirements. And so, myWAY Employability was developed via a collaboration between Autism CRC and Curtin University that involved more than 300 people (including young people aged 14–30), parents, allied health professionals, disability service providers and educators. A collaborative Human-Centred Design approach, built on learnings and skills imparted by the Tech4Good Challenge’s educational phases, helped the team to explore needs and preferences, identify potential solutions and develop the concept that became myWAY Employability.

A commitment to evidence-based co-design, that gathers such a numerous and varied group of problem-solvers, necessarily creates some challenges. Foremost of which was how to forge a unified sense of team. From an initiative that started with two people–Cheryl Mangan and Marina Ciccarelli – the core team was rapidly expanded to bring in key skillsets. The priority though was to find people aligned with Autism CRC’s values.

Human-Centred Design also involves ongoing feedback, constant critique and iteration. With ups and downs and twists and turns to navigate, the team realised they had to become comfortable with ambiguity. It became essential to call this out and to encourage the team to feel safe to work through it together with open communication. And so, simple mantras such as “There are no stupid questions” created the conditions for success as much as any innovative technology.

“We sought people and partners aligned with our values and who would be able to work towards the goal effectively. This created an essential culture of trust and enabled us to learn from autistic young people together.”

-Cheryl Mangan, Autism CRC

Fast-forward to August 6, 2020 and myWAY Employability was launched as a web platform. Unlike other career planning services designed for the general population, it enables a personalised profile to be matched with relevant career information, resources and pathways. It then provides a springboard for goal-setting and action planning. This is a huge leap forward for autistic job-seekers: myWAY helps young people with big dreams to break them down into manageable tasks and make meaningful progress.

With the service currently live, the team is keeping community feedback front-and-centre. Since launch they have requested weekly feedback from users; most has been overwhelmingly positive, and the team has proactively responded to critical feedback about usability by minor “tweaks” or refinements in the user experience and functionality.

And what of the impact? To date, myWAY has over 1,100 registered users. It has also reached over 10,000 unique visitors with 81,000 page views and an average session time of 4 minutes. Current anecdotal evidence indicates positive responses to the service from employment seekers, families, schools and community organisations. Deeper user insights are being collected and prioritised for development whilst exploration of additional features continues in an inclusive, human-centred way.

“This is a wonderful initiative that I firmly believe will be a gamechanger. I would like to see funding provided for you to expand to the employment and disability sectors supporting post-school people on the spectrum. Great real-life examples and has left me full of new hope for my children on the spectrum.”

-Parent of young autistic person

Where to from here? On 30 March 2021, Federal Gov’t announced a $6 million grant to the organisation, with part of the funding pointed at improving the pathways for autistic people from school to employment. The realisation of myWAY in its current form is paving the way for further funding, which will enable Autism CRC to embed the service more systemically in school transition planning practices and inclusive HR approaches.

Tech4Good | Telstra Foundation |

A new app seeks to open up Auslan and break down barriers

By Natalie Falzon August 20, 2021

How can we create more inclusive communication between young Deaf people and their friends, families and carers, by making Auslan more accessible, understandable and useable for people across the entire hearing spectrum?

An app that provides learners with highly relevant and current video-based Auslan tutorials, all created and curated by the Deaf and hard of hearing community themselves.

This is the story of Auslan Anywhere, a huge step forward in empowering Deaf and hard of hearing people and their hearing parents, friends and peers to inclusively communicate with each other. Built on engaging, bite-sized educational content created and curated by the Deaf community, this incredible app puts Auslan in the hands of anyone who has an interest in learning it. With the right level of critical mass it may also be the key to Auslan’s more widespread societal adoption.

Let’s start with a statistic that shines a light on one aspect of the challenge: 9 out of 10 Deaf children are born to hearing parents. In such households, communication between family members can be a daily challenge. There is an increasing demand of parents and adults who want to learn Auslan for their children but do not have enough support or resources. Auslan Anywhere provides a solution to assist parents with continuing to build their vocabulary in Auslan.

As Auslan evolves like all languages, it can become less accessible and intuitive for hearing parents, siblings, friends and carers to use. In the household context illustrated above, the hearing parents of a Deaf child may fall behind in their ability to clearly communicate using Auslan, leading to broken conversations and strained relations.

My 10 year old son is Hard of Hearing and is nonverbal. I’m keen to learn his language more and communicate with him better.

– Parent of Hard of Hearing child

Auslan Anywhere was the concept of Expression Australia, the leading peak body for the Deaf and hard of hearing community in Victoria. It seeks to break down the barriers of communication between hearing and Deaf/hard of hearing people, and one of its principles is that both communities have a shared role in communication. When Auslan Anywhere was conceived in 2018, it was imagined to come to life as a two-way conversation. On the one side, the Deaf community as the content creators. On the other side, the hearing community as the content consumers.

Through their participation in the Tech4Good Challenge, Expression Australia deliberated a great deal with the program coaches and Telstra experts on how to best engage content creators within their community. The more they deliberated, the more they realised just how fundamental the aspect of community creation and curation would be to Auslan Anywhere. It ensures that any video tutorials uploaded are truly reflective of Auslan at any given moment in time. This is important for a language that is constantly evolving and means learners have the best possible opportunity to practice language that is current and resonant with Deaf and hard of hearing Auslan users. Community-led content also gives the app the credibility it needs to succeed–this is Auslan content genuinely created by the community, for the community.

We can’t understate the importance of deaf people producing this for the deaf community. We must stay true to this value proposition.

– Christiane Langenberg, Expression Australia

However, the app’s reliance on the community has also been its greatest risk. Content creators are generous with their time and cannot be taken for granted. They deserve and need appreciation and motivation in equal measure. A special relationship has been developed between Expression Australia and the creators. As Product Manager Christiane Langenberg explains, “we’re co-designing this with the creators, staying in close contact so we can constantly understand their motivation levels, and working on enhancements to the product that will prompt them to keep contributing to the cause.”

The co-design element of Auslan Anywhere has been a revelation for Expression Australia. Previously community engagement was always a priority but always unstructured. The approach to engagement for Auslan Anywhere set a new benchmark–it was built around a co-design approach that more meaningfully factored for community participation, and truly empowered creators to bring forth their ideas. Such has been the impact of this co-design approach that Expression Australia is now developing its own co-design framework and toolkit. Their ambition is for this to be used in a standardised way across the organisation, which will help them forge ever closer connections with the community.

The commitment to co-design is not the only lasting impact on Expression Australia from their participation in the Tech4Good Challenge; there have been broader all-of-organisation impacts as well. Most notably perhaps, the discipline of Product Management–an essential backbone for any digital product launch–has been adopted and woven into Expression Australia’s working rhythms. A Project Management Office has been established with investment in the appropriate people, processes and governance. Product-led thinking has been embraced by every level, not least by the organisation’s leadership. In all, the lessons learned through the Auslan Anywhere journey are being applied throughout Expression Australia, and they are creating a distinctly modernising effect on how the organisation thinks and works.

Let’s return to discuss the impact of the Auslan Anywhere app on its users. It’s early days but there are 1,606 learners in total across all states in Australia signed up to Auslan Anywhere. There are 46 creators signed up and over 650 videos have been posted. This ‘double-sided’ platform is shaping up well. Since the public launch of Auslan Anywhere in April 2021 the anecdotal response has been overwhelmingly positive, suggesting that the app is already being received as a much-needed tool for families and others to improve their Auslan so they can interact with the Deaf community.

Recognition as a finalist in the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards provided additional confidence that the product is primed to make the right impact. Kudos to Today Design for their stellar digital design work in helping bring the app to life. Let’s hope this is a sign of more to come.

This is exactly the type of project Tech4Good aims to fund – such a progressive, impactful product for our community. The innovation shown and co-design approach taken are just two of the reasons that Expression Australia’s Auslan Anywhere is a deserving finalist of the Premier’s Design Awards.

– Jackie Coates, Telstra Foundation

Tech4Good | Telstra Foundation |

Sparking First Nations connection in innovative virtual classrooms

By Natalie Falzon August 19, 2021

How can we use arts education as an opportunity to help students better connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culture – and enable teachers with resources built upon the work of young First Nations artists?

A groundbreaking, cross-curricular, virtual classroom-based education unit, that is empowering primary school teachers to feel much more culturally competent in the delivery of First Nations arts content.

This is the story of an engaging education resource co-created by young First Nations people from Roebourne (WA), that is now being rolled out in primary schools across Australia. NEO-Learning champions the digital arts movement via futuristic modes of online education. It’s not only changing how digital arts content is delivered – it’s changing how young people across Australia engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

It begins with Big hART – an arts organisation driving social change. For over a decade it has offered an outlet for young Aboriginal people in Roebourne – a former gold rush town in the Pilbara – encouraging them to express themselves through innovative digital forms of creativity.

NEO-Learning is a Big hART initiative that builds on this incredible legacy in Roebourne and takes it to the world (well, to Australian primary schools, for now) in the form of groundbreaking digital arts education.

Propelled at pace by their participation in the Telstra Foundation’s Tech4Good Challenge accelerator, Mark Leahy and April Phillips are the duo steering NEO-Learning’s course; he is a musician and she is an educator. Initially Mark was leading and managing the project more-or-less on his own. It wasn’t long before he realised he needed someone who knew their way around the education sector and the curriculum, and someone who had empathy for teachers and students. In April he found that person and also someone innately passionate about both digital methods of education and First Nations culture (she is a Wiradjuri-Scottish woman). Together, Mark and April – backed by a tight cohort of supportive specialists as well as experts from Telstra – have formed a formidable team.

In contrast to the typical product development trajectory, which puts all energies toward the launch of an MVP, NEO-Learning has truly been in ‘permanent beta’. From the sketchiest initial version of a lesson plan, the team have delivered lessons, taken feedback on board and iterated their methods in time for the next classroom. NEO-Learning has been constantly learning-whilst-doing and making improvements week-by-week.

Perfection and winning doesn’t feel like the goal, it’s about learning, understanding, adapting and building a keen focus on users.

– April Phillips, NEO-Learning

So, what have they learnt? The first was about the use of technology in classrooms. As Mark and April took their pilot to different schools, they saw that their ideas of using high-tech interfaces to deliver digital arts education were going to be challenged by available technologies. Instead of forcing their way forward with a lowest-common-denominator technology, they took a more pragmatic approach. If a school did not have tablets, they would use desktop computers. If there weren’t enough desktop computers, then they made it work with pens and paper.

Another key insight along the way was ensuring the content was designed for the teachers as much as for the students. With every session that was rolled out, Mark and April encountered teachers feeling the pressure of cross-curricular priorities, unfamiliar with digital arts as subject matter and under-confident with their cultural competency. They felt neither safe nor empowered to deliver the content on their own.

Perhaps Mark and April’s most important realisation across their journey was that the success of NEO-Learning hinged less on the content and more on how it was delivered. The more they trialed their approach, the more they found themselves focusing on the nuances of delivery. To further support teachers the team moved to an online virtual classroom approach in which lessons were delivered by virtual educators. A punchy 1hr lesson duration was trialed initially but did not provide enough time for the students to deeply engage, so they extended the session duration.

NEO-Learning now has a clearly defined shape and form. It’s a unit of learning delivered to Primary school years 3–6 across 3 weeks and 3.5 contact hours. Facilitation via an online virtual classroom means it is already geared for national roll-out. Whilst its content is anchored in digital arts and culture, it ticks multiple cross-curricular boxes, including literacy, numeracy, science, arts, design & technology, geography, and health.

Through sheer effort and continuous iteration, NEO-Learning is now gaining traction and making an impact. 1,015 students have taken part in the pilot so far, with perfect attendance from teachers across lessons and workshops. Cultural connections have been forged, with 89% of classes now adding Aboriginal words to their weekly spelling lists. Inroads are being made on digital literacy. From limited experiences of live virtual learning, every school has now participated in a virtual classroom experience. From 97% of teachers having limited skills in digital drawing, the program is steadily winding this number back with every session.

Further impact will come from NEO-Learning’s next moves. More continuous student and teacher touchpoints will create ongoing engagement; new units of learning and self-service toolkits will be added; a podcast hosted by artists from Roebourne’s digital lab is also in the works.

I wanted to thank you again for the part you are both playing in the education of my students. Many of them have not met an Aboriginal person before, so in a very real way you are changing the world 1 person at a time.

-Teacher, South Australia

We now circle back to where it started, in Roebourne. The impact of NEO-Learning has been felt keenly here too. The young people of the Pilbara have seen their art amplified, championed and recognised. Through ongoing digital art workshops they continue to express themselves and their culture, learn new skills and gain feelings of pride, belonging and security. NEO-Learning’s work started here and will always come back here.

Image credits: Big hART

Tech4Good | Telstra Foundation |

Empowering innovation where it matters most

By Natalie Falzon August 19, 2021

How can we provide innovation funding and support for non-profits to experiment, take risks and realise potentially game-changing digital products and services for their communities?

An investment and capability-building accelerator program based on lean startup principles, that empowers participating non-profits to build groundbreaking digital products and services from the ground-up.

It seems that new startups are emerging daily with innovative products and services that seek to transform our lives. Apparently, it’s easy: all you need is an idea, a laptop and internet access. But for many non-profits striving to create change for their communities, it’s anything but easy. Most rely on funding to survive and funding is typically risk-averse. Non-profits are far more likely to be backed in pursuit of certainties than supported to experiment and break new ground. This means that their ability and capacity to develop digital products and services is often impeded from the start. This is where the Tech4Good Challenge comes in.

The Telstra Foundation is Telstra’s philanthropic charity. Its vision is to create social change through technology; one of its core activities is to support non-profits to reimagine what’s possible so they can amplify their impact.

In 2018, the Telstra Foundation launched a bold funding initiative – The Tech4Good Challenge – purposefully designed to run counter to the usual philanthropic conventions. Where most non-profit funding is focused on provision of capital, the Tech4Good Challenge (let’s call it T4G for short) puts the focus on building capability as well as powering capacity. And where most funding steers toward certain outcomes, T4G instead steers into opportunity and allows non-profits to embrace risk, run experiments and push the envelope.

To deliver on this premise, T4G takes the form of an accelerator program in which a cohort of non-profits are backed, supported and mentored to build digital products or services. It borrows its frameworks and methods unashamedly from the startup world. Participating non-profits are encouraged to use Human-Centred Design principles, employ Agile practices and build their concepts iteratively via ongoing user feedback loops. A collective of carefully selected mentors–among them entrepreneurs from the start-up world as well as experts from Telstra–provide guidance and coaching throughout. The non-profits are also connected to each other via a digital community platform and key meet-ups mapped throughout the program.

In Stage One of T4G, 15 non-profits working with disadvantaged youth used our seed capital, training and coaching to scope their digital concepts over a 5-month period. Based on the business cases and pitches put forward, a cohort of five non-profits–Big hART, Autism CRC, Expression Australia, Infoxchange and Orygen–then received Stage Two funding to build and pilot their products. Stage Three funding was just recently released, enabling the cohort to scale their emerging products and services.

Each participant has confirmed what can be achieved when you unleash creativity, experimentation and digital innovation in the non-profit sector– we believe this is a sector well placed to find innovative solutions to some of our most pressing social challenges.

– Jackie Coates, Telstra Foundation

So, what of the impact? From its own feedback loops with the non-profits that make up the present accelerator cohort, the Telstra Foundation has identified four big ways in which T4G is making its mark on participants and their communities.

1) Encouraging closer community engagement

T4G empowers non-profits to work closely with the young people they serve in developing new product and service ideas. This co-design approach has helped non-profits to forge deeper empathy with their communities, strengthen connections and be more responsive.

The program structure and format has encouraged us to be responsive to young people’s needs in a way no other grant program has ever allowed, let alone enabled.

– T4G Challenge partner

2) Shifting product design mindsets

For non-profits used to funding constraints and ‘waterfall’ management oversight, T4G has revealed a new approach to innovation that has powered a shift in mindset. Working in ambiguity, operating with agility and experimenting (relatively) liberally have become embraced as new norms.

There is an incredible degree of safety and trust in the process. Perfection and winning doesn’t feel like the goal, it’s about learning, understanding, adapting and building a keen focus on users.

– T4G Challenge partner

3) Building capability for today and into the future

Building capability was a driving intention behind T4G and has been delivered in spades. A skills gap has been recognised and is being filled. T4G has given participants training in a range of digital disciplines, which will pay dividends not only in the short-term but also the long-term.

From a professional development perspective, our team who have been directly involved in the programs have improved their capability and importantly, been given the confidence and support to think differently.

– T4G Challenge partner

4) Delivering organisational ‘ripple effects’

Whilst T4G sought to have specific impact on a relatively small group of product-focused peers within each non-profit, its ‘ripple effects’ have been felt throughout their organisations. There have been broader changes across mindsets, approaches and systems as a result of The T4G Challenge; up-skilling at an individual level has been mirrored by an upgrading of operating practices at an organisational level.

It is not an overstatement to say that we now operate as a start-up in many ways thanks to the encouragement and knowledge that we have gained from this program.

– T4G Challenge partner

The biggest impact has been the mindset shift. The skills and learning acquired have meant that the company is in a much better place to use digital solutions to better serve the communities and young people we work with.

– Mark Leahy, Big hART

Of course, we can’t forget the overall impact this is all striving for–improving the lives of disadvantaged young people. Early data on the social impact being created by T4G –via its incredible non-profit partners at Big hART, Autism CRC, Expression Australia, Infoxchange and Orygen–will be coming soon. For the Telstra Foundation this will only be the beginning of what is hoped to be a significant trail of impact over the medium- and long-term.

Next, we join our cohort as they move into a scaling mode. Where the opportunity to create social impact will be greater than ever and, we hope, the ripple effects will continue to be felt throughout our partner organisations. We’ll keep you posted.

Tech4Good | Telstra Foundation |

A digital circuit-breaker for young people struggling with stuck thoughts

By Natalie Falzon August 18, 2021

How can we create a circuit-breaker for young people struggling with mental health challenges, that helps them get out of their head and get on with their day?

A highly personalised app that helps young people break the cycle of repetitive negative thinking, via a range of engaging clinical therapies available wherever and whenever they may be needed.

This is the story of Mello, an app that channels the therapeutic efficacy of clinical psychological treatment in an engaging and easy-to-use digital interface. With three-quarters of young people contending with mental health difficulties–and struggling to engage with treatments currently offered to them-–this is an innovative service that is badly needed. Mello’s focus is on the core psychological triggers underlying depression and anxiety–the most common mental health challenges faced by young people.

Mental illness is the leading cause of disability for young people worldwide. The peak period of onset for mental illness occurs as young people prepare to leave the known confines of education and join the workforce. It’s a critical time and conditions including anxiety and depression have significant consequences on a young person’s ability to complete education and move into employment, develop close friendships and intimate relationships, and maintain their physical health.

Add to this picture that rates of access and use of mental health services by young people are the lowest of any age group in Australia–and available treatments often fail to engage and deliver effective outcomes. We’re describing a situation that has the look of an impending crisis. Orygen, a mental health research organisation and service provider based in Melbourne, sees it as exactly that. Its digital arm, Orygen Digital, is working on what it believes might be an important part of the solution: an app called Mello.

The origins (no pun intended) of Mello emerged from the premise that innovative digital technology could hold the key to effective interventions for young people, helping them access and use therapy when they need it, and where they need it.

With funding and support from the Telstra Foundation’s Tech4Good Challenge, the team at Orygen Digital forged ahead with the product concept and pilot. And it was in the midst of adopting a Lean startup method and breaking in new Agile practices that they realised the true challenge they faced: how to operate with a ‘fail fast’ startup mentality whilst adhering to organisational tenets of thorough research and clinical precision.

However, as they say, with challenge comes opportunity, and since that early realisation Orygen has found its way forward, merging clinical rigour and tech-development pace into its build framework. Both agendas are held as equally important and their balancing is continually monitored in order to steer toward optimal outcomes. This has been nowhere more evident than in the development of Mello’s user experience. A constant and open tension exists in the design of a service that is gratifying and easy-to-use whilst built around a solid clinical evidence base. And over time it’s fair to say the balance has shifted––from the early days when clinical rigour was the primary yardstick to the approach of today, which unrelentingly pushes for better user engagement potential.

Tech4Good offered a way to bridge these two fields by merging our scientific expertise, rigorous research methodologies and clinical knowledge with technology expertise to build a mental health app that is not only likely to work, but is also loveable and enjoyable to use.

-Imogen Bell, Orygen Digital

Mello is now firmly on track and being readied for a soft launch. The MVP is due to be released in September 2021. A pilot trial will commence at that point, to be completed in early 2022. It’s shaping up to be an amazing service consisting of over 20 different intervention strategies personalised to a young person’s unique context. Despite the broad number of therapies on offer, it has a very clear and singular focus: breaking the cycle of repetitive negative thinking that drives anxiety and depression.

Interestingly, it wasn’t always this way and originally the concept was far broader, seeking to address all forms of mental health conditions and disorders. The commitment to focusing on one key challenge (repetitive negative thinking) has actually helped stimulate the team to go deeper, push the boundaries and be more creative with their solutions. The team also focused wholly on the design of an app, rather than invest their energies in other digital channels, in order to be able to deliver on an ‘anytime, anywhere’ proposition. ‘Less is more’ is a big part of the Mello story.

The results of the aforementioned pilot will, in due course, tell us the story of Mello’s impact on its end user audience. In the meantime, we might reflect on the impact that the Tech4Good Challenge has had on Orygen––and in particular its digital division, Orygen Digital. Participation in the program has not only helped accelerate Mello from concept to reality, but has reshaped how Orygen Digital design products and services, run their operations and work together as a team.

It is not an overstatement to say that we now operate as a start-up in many ways (combined with academic rigour) thanks to the encouragement and knowledge that we have gained from this program.

-Professor Mario Alvarez-Jimenez, Director of Orygen Digital

The hope is that, with these trickle-down effects being felt throughout the organisation, impact will continue to be created by Orygen Digital. Whether in updates and improvements to Mello, in scaling it to reach broader audiences, or in the development of entirely new product and service concepts. We can’t wait to see what they do next.

See here to stay up-to-date with developments.