More than 20 percent of New Zealanders experience “digital exclusion”, among them a disproportionate number of Māori and Pacific people. That means many of us will miss out on a suddenly critical ability to connect for work and education — and to get the vital information we need to keep ourselves and our whānau safe, writes Kirkpatrick Mariner.
I first started using a computer for work back in the late 1990s. When my employer gave me a laptop, I wanted to bring it home every day and show my family and friends how this metro Poly-Asian had made it. The laptop was over 10 kgs and the bag itself was probably another 5 kgs. But I didn’t care. I was the man!
The age of the internet had arrived. I didn’t realise then how pervasive and essential that technology would become. And how dependent we’d all be.
Several years ago, when I entered the government world of digital inclusion as a principal advisor at the Department of Internal Affairs, there were reports floating around that the digital inclusion in New Zealand was around 90 to 95 percent. New Zealand was touted as a leading nation. I thought: Great, we have some work to do, but we are all good.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The 90-95 percent was based on connectivity infrastructure across the country. It wasn’t about how many of us have access to the internet — or have the skills, motivation and confidence to use it.
The reality is that we have a digital divide that mirrors the social and economic inequality in our society. And that’s a major concern as the Covid-19 pandemic exposes just how digitally unprepared we are.
Across the world, governments are taking swift action to slow the spread of the virus and limit its impact by insisting on social and physical isolation, limiting travel, and ordering people to stay clear of the places we go to for the necessities of life — schools, supermarkets, libraries, places of worship, cafes, and more.
In government, as in the private sector, we’re looking to technology to keep New Zealanders connected to everything we need in these unprecedented times.
But without affordable connections and devices for those who are most in need, and without the required skills, a huge number of New Zealanders will miss out on a suddenly critical ability to connect — for work, education, shopping for supplies, and social interaction. And, importantly, they’ll miss out on timely (almost hourly) access to vital information to keep them and their whānau safe.
How many New Zealanders are we talking about?
From my observations in my professional and personal worlds, I think up to 30 percent of New Zealanders are digitally excluded. That means they don’t have “the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy”.
That’s how the National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital equity, which, it says, “is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.”
The Department of Internal Affairs estimates that more than one in five New Zealanders experience digital exclusion. According to a 2019 report by Motu Research, the most digitally disadvantaged are Māori, Pacific, people living in social housing, or with disabilities, the unemployed, people living in rural areas, and seniors.
The 2013 census also suggests that somewhere between 45,000 to 70,000 New Zealanders have no landline and internet.
And we know from Ministry of Education estimates that between 100,000 to 150,000 students don’t have internet access at home.
In addition to this, child poverty data shows that one in four Māori and Pacific children suffer from material hardship. Material hardship is defined as households that can’t afford specific items that most people regard as essential.
We can safely assume that there’s a correlation between poverty and being digitally disadvantaged.
Right now, Covid-19 is demanding that we get students on the digital agenda and equipped for the future. If we don’t do this soon, we’ll see this crisis further exacerbate social inequalities. That means the most vulnerable groups in our country will continue to be marginalised and become an entrenched poverty statistic (if they haven’t already).
In fact, the signs were there well before Covid-19.
A recent 2019 digital exclusion report by the Citizens Advice Bureau, which surveyed over 4,500 customers, showed that Pacific peoples particularly struggled to access online government services.
And a review of the 2018 census found that many New Zealanders weren’t equipped to handle online data collection, which led to very low participation rates from Māori and Pacific peoples — almost 20 percent less than in 2013. That failure to recognise the reality of our digital divide has compromised policy decisions and the allocation of resources for Māori and Pacific people.
So, where to from here?
I get that there’s institutional racism, structural inequalities, unconscious bias and cultural blindness across the system. As a brown person, I see this played out most of the time — and I’ve experienced it, too. But we don’t have another 20 to 30 years to turn the system on its head.
For Pasifika, there’s some good stuff happening already, like Pacific in STEM, coding clubs, and some tech internship programmes. But with Pacific people making up only two percent of the digital-tech workforce we have a lot of ground to cover.
We need to do more, and we need to move fast.
The goal is to give all our communities access to high speed internet at no cost or very low cost. They need functional devices and they need to be supported by an agile digital workforce to give them the skills, confidence, and motivation to participate online.
I know that, right now, there’s a hive of activity as the industry, providers and the government try to get this sorted. Some amazing people are on this digital equity journey trying to make a difference. As a colleague told me, we finally have the opportunity to push two-to-three years of work into two-to-three weeks.
In the short term, some internet service providers are stepping up by removing data caps for existing customers, offering packages that allow customers to stay connected during the crisis and extending cheaper service offerings.
The government has provided a stimulus package that will address the short-term needs of businesses and individuals. I know teams are working hard behind the scenes on solutions to ensure more people can get online.
But while we work hard to respond to the immediate challenges, we need to look beyond the short-term. We need to look at solutions that work well now and are sustainable for the longer term, so that we can ensure no New Zealander is shut out of the digital world.
We do have the capability in this country to close the divide. We just need to build the capacity.
Ultimately, we need the technocrats, bureaucrats, private sector, iwi, and community to come together now to ensure everyone has digital equity sooner rather than later.
If we take a more joined-up, collaborative approach, we’ll ensure our most vulnerable don’t get left behind at a time of crisis — and we’ll be better prepared to respond to these unprecedented events in the future.
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