Hiria Te Rangi was a young single mum of twin boys when she spotted that a bit — or maybe a whole lot — of computer competence could be really handy. So she set about acquiring that. And, along the way, she’s realised how those skills can benefit Māori and other New Zealanders.
One of her projects has been to help develop a sensor that signals when a home is too damp and cold not just for comfort but for health, and even survival. Sadly, that device didn’t come in time to save her nana. But it’s saving others — and, as she tells Dale, being a self-taught nerd, that’s let her see more and more clearly how technology can be the driver of important advances.
Kia ora, Hiria. I understand that you’re from Ngāti Porou and Tūwharetoa. But there’s some significant Porirua and Whanganui River in your background too, isn’t there?
Well, Porirua was my home until I was about six because I was with my nanny Tawai Te Rangi (nee Hauraki) in that time. She’d created a kōhanga reo in Porirua at Maraeroa Marae, so that I, my cousins, and all the other tamariki mā in Cannons Creek in Porirua could go to a kōhanga.
Then, when I turned six, I went with my mum, Nayda Te Rangi, and stepdad, Tet Jackson, up the Whanganui River to a little village called Rānana. That’s where I did primary school. There were only 30 of us “river rats”, which is what we called ourselves.
And there we learned how to eel and muster sheep, ride horses and climb up walnut trees. So that was where I came to understand where I fitted into the world. My teachers were Koro Puhipuhi, who we always called “Sir”, and his wife at the time, Helen.
At that time, I didn’t realise there was this thing called kapa haka. It was just a part of what we did. Sir hammered that into us from the get-go, and we did a lot of performing. Then, when I turned 12, nearly 30 years ago, I moved back to my grandparents in Porirua and went to Aotea College.
Ka pai. For generations, living with nanny was quite the norm. Perhaps not so common these days. But what are your feelings when you think back on the grounding you had at the feet of your nana?
We sometimes talk about matriarchs or anchors in the whānau. Well, she was it. Nan was absolutely it for us. And it wasn’t just for me, because I had two other cousins with only six months between us, and we were all a part of each other’s lives at a very young age, and it never stopped.
There’s this massive āwhina that your grandparents teach you and that you don’t realise you’re learning. It’s that deep sense of empathy and caring for others, especially if they’re in your whānau, your whānui, and your community and friends. That’s come through in all of us.
Kōhanga Reo has been a major game changer for our people. Not just to reinvigorate our reo but to create a Māori pride in our ways. What has it meant to you and what might you say of your own reo Māori journey?
My mother used to tell me that, when she got me back, my reo was very good. She just put that down to me being with Nan. As time went on, we dropped it. We never picked it up again. It was really sad to have had something and then to have lost it.
But, a lot of the time, even though I shouldn’t be able to understand people speaking te reo, I still do. I don’t get the detail, but I get the gist of what they’re saying. I can’t reply. It’s the most frustratingly sad thing.
Speaks for many of us, that kōrero. We’re all on a haerenga, we’re all on a journey, all heading to the same place, just in different vehicles going at different paces. I’d just like to acknowledge our people who created those learning nests. We owe them so much. And perhaps that grounding might’ve helped you in the raising of your own family.
Being back in the city and starting off at Aotea College on the verge of your teens must’ve meant an adjustment for you.
Actually, I was suited to city life because there was a nerd in me. And I was naturally introverted. I wasn’t as coordinated as the other kids. I was much more cerebral. My parents would try to get me out, to socialise with the other children and things like that. Even though I did it, and it was fun once I did, it still took a bit to get me there.
I notice you’ve got into choreography, and singing and dancing Afro-Cuban — all of which normally come from someone who’s happy to be on stage. So where did this love of performance come from?
At Rānana School, we had a lot of performance. So, it was a matter of either doing your best given the situation you’re in, or trying to hide in the back, which actually draws more attention to you. So, you might as well be really good at what you have to do.
You had a family when you were still young. How did that change your approach to life?
I got pregnant when I was 19. Before that, I didn’t have a goal-oriented approach to life. I was just going with the flow. I sometimes joke that I really wanted to be on Shortland Street — and then the twins came along.
When you live in Cannons Creek and you have two babies and you’re down to the last $10, and you have to choose between getting something for dinner or putting it on the power . . . well, that’s the point I thought: “This sucks so bad. And it’s not the twins’ fault.” So I just pushed really hard from there.
Good on you. People are dismissive. It’s a much-maligned community, Cannons Creek. And Porirua gets the same negative rap as well. It can be “Struggle Street” for so many of those families. But there can be something inspiring about those communities. Has that been your feeling?
Yeah. Living in the Creek, everyone said hello to one another. Our kids played together at the playgrounds. We helped out one another. The whole community would come together, especially if you’re in groups like church, or just being in school. And Windley School in Cannons Creek is one of the best schools I’ve ever seen. They’re decile one, but they really love those kids and, at the grassroots level, there are people who just keep giving of their time, energy and āwhi.
You’re a self-taught internet geek. And I understand that part of the reason for that was, when you were looking for mahi, you realised that people working in tech were on much better pay than those who weren’t. And you said: ’‘I want a piece of this.” Is that how it came about?
Yeah. When I looked at the adverts in the newspaper, I could see that the tech jobs were paying the most. I realised then that I needed to know about computers and the internet world. So I hocked myself up to the eyeballs with a $3,000 computer. And that’s pretty much where it started.
Once I was connected to the internet, I had access to all this information — without even having to leave my house. And soon I figured out that I could build one of those websites myself. All the information for me to learn how to do that was right there. So I just taught myself.
What next? What rolled out after that?
I started volunteering to build websites for charities and sports teams and so on, just to get the practice — and so that there’d be people able to say that I’d built a website for them. I also did a certificate in print design, because there weren’t any polytech courses on web design at that time.
Then I started making phone calls. I’d hustle because I could see where I could get to if I persisted. Next I got a phone call from a place called Change Training which needed a multimedia designer. And, once I’d cracked that first job, I found it was pretty easy to keep going from there. It was just a matter of being resilient and stubborn. Stubborn has got to be the best trait ever. It has got me through so many things.
Is the tech sector gender or ethnic neutral? I ask that because, in other lines of work, Māori women haven’t been given the same opportunities, say, as non-Māori women, or certainly as men. Did you have to carry a bit of a can-do attitude? A don’t-muck-around-with-me style in order to advance?
Yes and no. A lot of the time I’d just say yes to every damn thing — which isn’t necessarily a good way to go. But that was because, in order to be seen that you’re pulling your weight, you pretty much do have to pull more than the others. That’s the sad part about it.
In the daytime, I’d be doing my regular job, but at night, to keep ahead, I’d be learning. Mostly it was code or design packages or something like that. So that I could be confident about delivering on something new in tech.
And, as well as having to handle that extra load, you’d have to be quite thick-skinned because you’d hear people saying things. Typically, those remarks would come from Pākehā men in development or admin roles. At that time, there was no filter on what they were saying.
A lot of the time I’d get: “Oh, you’re a good Mowri, aren’t you?” Or I’d get: “Hiria, can you do the morning tea?” Stuff like that. Sometimes, I’d push back with: “Sure. Here’s the schedule for morning tea for next week — and you’re on next.”
These days, l’d be bolshy as hell.
Fair enough, too. Good on you. We’re now able, in various ways to help our rangatahi to learn how to do coding and master other tech skills that you taught yourself. There’s no doubt that that’ll be beneficial for them and for our people. But just how important?
It’ll be valuable, for sure. But, from my point of view, the ability to build technology isn’t going to be as important as the ability to “translate”. Most of what I do now is in response to someone coming to me with a problem, and then I explain — or translate — to the tech team what the problem is that they need to fix.
To be honest, our wāhine Māori have being doing this for hundreds of years. There’s no difference between tech translating and getting your aunty and uncle to talk together when they’ve been fighting — and sorting out their raruraru. That’s just like translating between a client or an executive, and talking to a tech team to get a problem solved. There’s no difference. Māori women have been doing that for so long, it’s second nature for them.
And that’s where I think Māori in general are very good — because we’re good at people.
There are data sovereignty issues and also intellectual property issues in the technology sector, aren’t there? What would you say are some of the important considerations that we, as a people, should be aware of here?
If you look at the large organisations in Silicon Valley in particular, it’s clear that they’ll just take data and say they own it. Even though it’s about you. So we need to stop that. And the best way to do that is to create our own repositories, or stores of our data, or to create systems or apps which ensure that the people own their data.
And it’s not just a question of overseas ownership. Here in Aotearoa, at the moment, if the government puts sensors in homes and they measure the temperature and humidity, then they own that data. A lot of people will say: “So what?” Well, with temperature and humidity data, you can tell when someone gets up in the middle of the night and goes to the wharepaku.
No one should know that but you. But when an organisation owns that data, they know it. And anyone else they share that data with, knows it too. And you just don’t know where that’s going to lead.
It’s become a bit of a beast. It was supposed to be a tool to share and to monitor, but it’s now become a beast in its own right. Are you disappointed that the big multinational outfits, like Facebook, were intended to be something that they aren’t now?
Yep. We’re seeing this occur. I get riri. We’ve seen, again and again, in the history of large tech organisations, where they start off with good values and intentions but those are whittled away until you end up with a capitalist organisation that effectively uses people as livestock in order to make money.
That may be a harsh way of looking at it, but it’s true. The internet and the ability to open up education were supposed to do good for the people, make things better for them. But, somewhere down the road, someone realised they could make a lot of money from it. And they decided that was better than doing good.
Let’s turn now to your own situation with your nana. You’ve got an issue there with your nana’s house, with the damp, the mould, the mildew. But you didn’t know to what extent, and your curious mind kicked into gear?
Yeah. And my angry mind. Māori wāhine. Yep. Quite stroppy. It’s because, if this was happening to my nanny, if she could get pneumonia over two weeks and die from it, as she did, then this was definitely happening to other Māori and other kaumātua, as well as pēpi.
Just a short check on Google showed me there are over 1,600 people dying every winter from respiratory illnesses. So I was determined to do something about it. Two bright women, Amber Craig and Brenda Wallace, came up with the initial design and build for the Whare Hauora sensor. Then it was my job to make those designs smaller, cheaper, and faster. Which I did.
Sadly, you didn’t get a chance to help your nana. But the uptake of the sensors has been significant and it’s already helping many other families. What, in a way, was such a simple idea is now having important outcomes.
When you start working on something like this, you can feel like you’re just a lone nut. You can have days where you’re not sure whether you’re on to something worthwhile, or you’re crazy.
But then you start to hear from people. I’d give a talk and someone would come up to me, crying and saying: “This happened to my nanny, too.” Others would ask: “Have you got any prototypes on you now? I’ve just had a pēpi and I want to make sure.” And I’m standing there going: “Wow. Yes. We can do this.”
From my point of view, losing Nan was the hardest thing that me and my whānau went through. But, it would’ve been worse if I hadn’t done anything about it.
Ngā mihi to you, sis. Thank you, Hiria. This whole area of research and the development of solutions for some of our problems clearly is important — as is the support for our young men and women who have the potential to invent the tools that can make life better for us. But should these developments largely stay in our own hands?
It’s vitally important, because only Māori have Māori insights. There’s still the routine where other cultures think they can build things for us. But that’s a no. Kāhore. Only we can build the things for ourselves because we are the ones experiencing it. And that’s the difference between a good product and a bad product. Or between a product that’s trusted and one that’s not trusted.
It comes down to the fact that our government departments haven’t trusted us or supported us in fixing our own problems. I don’t know what’s occurring, but, for some reason, it feels like there’s a lid on the pot and it’s going to take at least one or two of us to break through that before we can show what we’re achieving and saying: “Hey, government. You need to get out of the way. Give us the money and we can do this ourselves.”
In some cases, especially like Whare Hauora, we’re going to find that money ourselves. And it might not be from Aotearoa, which is bloody sad, if you ask me.
Which brings me to another point, because we always tend to look to Wellington for support to advance our ideas. But do you think that our iwi are supporting this area of Māori development well enough?
I’m sorry. Aroha mai, iwi, but I don’t think they’re forward-thinking enough. They’re sticking to the tried and true methods, which are needed, especially housing. But at the same time, our rangatahi are coming through and not seeing anything that’s right for them.
Our young people are digital natives. So they’re hoping to see programmes of work that will either benefit them or teach them about the things they’re interested in. Unfortunately, that’s tech, it’s gaming, and it’s social media. It is AR, VR, AI. Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence. That’s what they find interesting. So, when they don’t see that from their own iwi, they go looking for it somewhere else because they’ve grown up with it.
The pity is that technology shouldn’t be neglected when it is a replicator. It speeds things up. Technology and the sciences can help our people to move faster.
What about your own two lads? They must be about 20 now.
I pulled them out of secondary school at fifth or sixth form because their school wasn’t providing for them, and they’re nerdy as hell. Their computer classes were teaching them Word. They were disengaging completely. So I pulled them out and put them into YooBee Tech school where they could choose to do front-end development, graphic design, or post production for movies, or 3D animation for games.
For them, that was the best place that I could’ve put them. The problem, however, is that, in the technology industry in Wellington, there aren’t enough internships or entry-level roles because everyone wants seniors. But they’re not willing to grow them, even though the tech industry is going to get bigger and deeper.
As we wrap up, I wonder what goals you’ve set for your own future.
At the moment, I see myself as getting Whare Hauora into Māori communities, effectively, and having that partnership with the iwi in those communities. We know that many of our homes are hurting our health. We know how much it’s costing us. And we know we can do better. But I honestly think that our iwi and hapū are the way we’re going to pull ourselves out of these damaging, long-term systemic situations.
So, over the next three years, I have to kick into that mahi, clean out the mamae, and use technology as the driver to make those advances.
Nice catching up with you, Hiria. Now, finally, let’s hear about your dancing. The salsa and Afro-Cuban.
Oh, yes. We, like so many cultures, are all about whānau and loving a good time. And that’s where the salsa and Afro-Cuban come in. I remember seeing this badass party that didn’t have any drinking in it. Not at all. People were having a whole heap of fun and dancing like they knew what they were doing. And I thought: “I want some of that.”
And, because of my kapa haka background, I picked it up straight away. But also, just being Māori means that you get it — you get it really quickly. Just as our Pasifika peeps get it really quickly, too. It’s just that whole camaraderie around having a good time. I thoroughly recommend anyone having a crack at salsa, especially Cuban salsa, because it’s fun as all hell, and sexy. Which is how we roll. But it’s a yes from me.
All the best, Hiria.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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