The project at a Glance

The Challenge

To provide a reference tool for users and learners of NZSL both on the web and via mobile apps.

The Solution

A redesigned online dictionary website for NZSL with signs and their equivalents in English and Te Reo Māori with image and video references for how to produce the signs.

What We Did

User experience
Site development
Search results improvement
Open sourcing and stewardship

The Outcome

The NZSL dictionary is used heavily both as a reference and teaching tool across New Zealand


Aotearoa’s official sign language

New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand. Like Te Reo Māori, it is important to foster understanding and use of the language in order to be an inclusive society. Victoria University of Wellington’s Deaf Studies Research Unit (DSRU) produced the first paper-based dictionary of NZSL in 1997. An updated online dictionary website launched in 2011. The online dictionary contains over 5,000 signs with equivalents in both English and Te Reo Māori with image and video references showing how a sign is produced and example videos showing how the sign is used in context. The online dictionary can be searched by their English or Te Reo Māori word, or by sign features, such as hand shape and location.

Website and apps

Ackama took over responsibility for the website and both the iOS and Android apps, which were originally built by an independent developer. As well as maintenance and open sourcing, both the website and the apps required considerable updating and redesign.

Ackama worked closely with the language experts at DSRU and with other developers including Dave Moskovitz, the creator of the ‘Freelex’ database that provided the back-end for the website, and Greg Hewgill, the developer of the original mobile app. Although much of this work was funded through grants obtained by the DSRU from the NZSL Fund and other sources, Ackama also sponsored and funded time on the project and Ackama staff also volunteered their own investment time to contribute to the project.

Together with the DSRU, Ackama went on a journey from using open source technology for reasons of price and flexibility to building an entirely open source ecosystem whereby the website, apps, data and scripts are all open source technical components which work together to provide the NZSL dictionary. The community had access to all of these components and could improve upon them or add new features. By open sourcing the NZSL dictionary we encouraged the wider community to be involved in making NZSL more accessible. We were also enabling international reuse of the codebase for other countries to have a technical head start in creating their own online sign language dictionary.

The NZSL Android app got up to the number 6 ranking in the worldwide category “Top Free in Books and Reference” apps on Google Play and in October 2018 the website and apps were nominated for an NZ Open Source Award.