Environmental scientist

    Mikaela Jade

    With a background in environmental and not computer science, becoming a tech entrepreneur meant a steep learning curve for Mikaela.

    Entrepreneur, environmental scientist and Cabrogal woman Mikaela Jade is empowering people to tell their stories using technology

    Mikaela Jade always felt a strong connection with the landscape and the bush growing up – but it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she learned about her ancestral connection to the Dharug Nation of Sydney where she lived.

    Drawing on her love of country and passion for the environment, she signed up for a Bachelor’s degree in environmental biology at the University of Technology, Sydney. This led to a career working as a park ranger that spanned 21 years, during which time she worked at the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, Ningaloo and in the ACT.

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    It was this experience and passion – and seeing Augmented Reality (AR) technology for the first time at the University of Canberra in 2012 – that sparked an idea for a new app. “What if we could use mobile technologies to view holograms of Traditional Owners telling stories of culture?”

    Something out of nothing

    The next steps wouldn’t be easy. At that time, Mikaela moved to Kakadu when her partner got a job as park manager there, and from the remote Northern Territory town of Jabiru – 250km from Darwin – she started to build her business, Indigital.

    With a background in environmental and not computer science, becoming a tech entrepreneur meant a steep learning curve. “We had to learn how to use drones to do photogrammetry [photo mapping] of cultural places so we could use image recognition technology for the AR to ‘see’ the sites. Then we had to learn how to work with developers internationally to help us build the app,” she says.

    Mikaela with her yarbork (sister) Jawoyn senior traditional owner, Bessie Coleman.

    With YouTube to refer to and a mentor in the UK, Mikaela taught herself how to use the tech. “I would work as a ranger during the day and at 11pm hop on skype for a few hours talking about AR and image recognition,” she recalls.

    The learning curve wasn’t the only challenge – as an Indigenous woman working in a remote area, it was difficult to be taken seriously and secure funding. While the app she built was quickly successful and gained international recognition – Mikaela was invited to talk about it at the United Nations in New York – it was also very expensive.

    Empowering through education

    And so Indigital pivoted from an AR content app to an EduTech platform. “I realised that I should be empowering other people to do this,” Mikaela says.

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    Then, two years ago Indigital partnered with Microsoft and Telstra Purple to look at ways to reshape the workflow to save money and enable Traditional Owner communities to tell their own stories through AR. “My dream is to make sure that the 400 million First Peoples around the world have access to a digital future,” says Mikaela.

    Expanding on the new EduTech approach, Mikaela also launched Indigital Schools, which teachers can use to teach AR and Mixed Reality production through a cultural lens. “We want kids to be able to work together to use the platform to create content that helps them gain a greater understanding of our history, language and lore,” she says.

    Mikaela has come a long way from midnight Skype calls in Kakadu – in recent years, Indigital has been recognised with multiple international awards. “It’s a massive privilege to be able to win some of the awards we’ve won,” says Mikaela, who stresses she hasn’t worked alone in building Indigital into what it is today.

    Her dreams for the future of Indigital? Big! Namely taking the platform and using it to empower First Nations people all over the world to tell their stories through technology. “When people are able to see their work in AR for the first time, the way they express their excitement, it never gets old for me,” she says.

    Mikaela’s study and career pathway

    • Bachelor of Environmental Biology (Coastal and Marine Systems), UTS
    • Park Ranger
    • Founder and CEO, Indigital
    • Master of Applied Cybernetics, ANU

    This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Tech 2020.

    Gemma Chilton

    Author: Gemma Chilton

    Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.

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