New gaps for old

In a week when the government is expected to make a major statement on the digital divide in New Zealand, a survey of the technological gaps in society shows that they're nothing new. Robyn Hunt reports.

The digital divide in New Zealand was anticipated in the early 1980s, with computer-based literacy and numeracy programmes on marae, and the formation of organisations such as the Technical Aids Trust to ensure accessibility of new technology to disadvantaged groups. Two decades later the digital divide is not simply the gap between those who can afford access to information and communication technologies and those who can’t, though poverty is a factor. It is more complex. It marks a gulf between old and young, urban and rural dwellers, different ethnic and socio-economic groups, those with educational qualifications and those without, and disabled and non-disabled. “Right now, in New Zealand, this gap exists,” according to a PhD thesis by Brendan Boyle, director of the e-government unit for the State Services Commission. “We risk widening rather than narrowing it. We do so at the cost of increasing disparity, reducing opportunity, and alienating a considerable percentage of the population. “Many governments are finding that technology can enable individuals and communities (cultural, shared interest and geographical) to enhance their social and economic well-being and enable them to participate more actively in society and the economy. Such things as enterprise, employment creation, health, education, learning, access to justice, interactions with government and personal contact between people are increasingly being technology-enabled. However, around the world a growing gap between those who are able to access and use information and communications technologies, and those who cannot, is being identified.” Boyle writes that the ability of citizens to access government online will determine, to a large extent, the success or otherwise of government initiatives. Levels of online access are increasing in all the countries studied in the thesis — not just through PCs but also through mobile phones and digital television. A number of factors suppress levels of access; not just economic ones (telecommunications and PC/hardware costs), but also levels of education, awareness and skills, he writes. E-government unit senior adviser Russell Craig says the New Zealand digital divide has some unique geographic and cultural dimensions. It is in the process of developing guidelines and policies, and evaluating standards such as the Government Web Use Standards for Accessibility from the UK for their applicability in New Zealand. Craig says while some of the standards and policies are technical, others will concern content such as the translation of bureaucratic language into plain English. Technical problems such as insufficient bandwidth are relatively easily solved, he believes, but those of skills, attitudes, literacy, educational and economic issues will take longer. Security of private data held by government is an issue being considered, as are wider issues such as how access can be maximised. An example of limitation of opportunity is the increasing number of companies that advertise jobs on web sites and nowhere else.

The education escape Education workers here and internationally are particularly concerned with the increasing divide. Much of the work in the education area has been focused on children. Programmes are targeting poorer communities to assist both parents and children to escape the divide. In New Zealand these programmes are linked to the government’s closing the gaps policy (See computers in homes sidebar.) For example, Homework Centres funded by the Ministry of Education in New Zealand schools in low-decile areas will be equipped with computers with internet links. Poor rural and new immigrant communities face particular difficulties. Larry Stillman, an accessibility and evaluation co-ordinator for Vicnet State Library of Victoria in Melbourne who frequently visits New Zealand to run workshops on internet accessibility, says income levels have an effect on which side of the urban-rural divide rural people might be. However, he says other issues such as insufficient bandwidth, cost of service, and ageing and less than efficient telecommunications infrastructure are contributing factors. Consequently rural and remote users need web sites that are quick and easy to use. Stillman is working on a new site being developed in Australia to help bridge the linguistic divide, particularly for those with languages such as Chinese languages, Tamil, Hindi, Arabic or Greek as their first language. The OpenRoad site will initially include sixteen languages. Content will mostly be links, and will be used primarily as a resource for librarians. Designers at Vicnet say they are keen to include Maori and Pacific Islands content. The site will be launched this month. This points to the new role libraries can assume in bridging the divide, Stillman says. “Libraries need to survive and grow, and buying books that can rapidly become out of date will not be the only answer.” The OpenRoad project involves skills transfer, and trains urban and rural librarians Stillman also specialises in web accessibility issues for people with vision, hearing, and physical disabilities. “Ageing baby boomers are politically savvy,” Stillman warns. “As they age with increasing rates of disability they will be less tolerant of inaccessibility.” He says making sites accessible to people with a disability need not limit designers, such as using a text equivalent for every non-text element. “The on-ramp to the information highway works in the same way as the ramp which gives access to a building.” Stillman says the Web Access Initiative (WAI) has produced comprehensive web accessibility guidelines. Bobby (www.cast.org/bobby) provides free assessment of sites for accessibility, and free use of its logo indicating compliance. Paying attention to accessibility could bring more customers to a site, says Stillman. (According to the 1996 census and follow-up survey, 20% of New Zealanders live with disability – 17% are of working age.) Businesses may also avoid bad press and even lawsuits. Stillman cites two cases taken on access under equal opportunity legislation. Blind Americans took America OnLine to court, and a blind person in Australia took the developers of the Olympic Games site to court for the same reason. In New Zealand cases could be taken under the Human Rights Act. In the US the digital divide is a hot topic. Researchers say 60% of households with incomes of $75,000 or above have internet access, compared to only twelve percent earning $20,000 - $25,000. Black and Hispanic families are only two-fifths as likely to have computers at home as white families. Rural dwellers are less likely to own computers and be connected to the internet - even though they stand to benefit from it more. Another US study suggests the digital divide goes beyond access and into the level of available content. The year-long study by the Children's Partnership examined 1000 Web sites and interviewed low-income users, community leaders and literacy experts to discover what sorts of internet content would be useful for underprivileged people and/or those with weak reading skills. The report found that only 6% of the sites examined had information useful to low-income users and 2% targeted non-English speakers. Only 1% included information on jobs and low-cost housing and the same figure included content that could be easily read by this segment, estimated as 44 million Americans. By comparison, a recent New Zealand Herald report says one in five New Zealanders have difficulty with reading. A study of internet use in Canada released in July suggests that 70% of the country's adults now have online access, up from 55% a year before. The researchers, Angus Reid, said they did not believe any other medium would have had such a significant impact on so many people as quickly as the internet. Moreover, 37% of respondents said the Internet has helped them become more knowledgeable and up to date. In the UK the government's Social Exclusion Unit has published a consultation framework aiming at “neighbourhood renewal”. Proposals include improving IT in deprived neighbourhoods by ensuring at least one publicly accessible, community-based facility in each deprived neighbourhood by 2002; and encouraging people to use them by employing local champions and offering user-friendly courses. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has a £10 million “Wired Communities” project. Several housing estates, tower blocks and homes in rural areas will be wired up in pilot studies. Citizens Online, a charity that raises sponsorship so that voluntary organisations and councils can research the social and cultural impact of the internet and technology, was launched earlier this year. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised an extra £1bn to ensure all government services are online by 2005, and 6000 online centres by 2002 to be in shopping centres, libraries, community centres and places of entertainment. Centres will be in areas of economic deprivation and have extended opening hours to enable people to learn IT skills or pursue interests.

Developmental divide The poorest countries of the world have little access to modern information technology. They lack infrastructures to support it, and the resources to share in the benefits, creating a north-south digital divide. The Group of Eight nations has established a task force and an IT charter to support the development of communications infrastructure in poor nations to include them in the internet-led economic revolution. The Digital Opportunity Task (DOT) Force will promote policies that increase access to the tools of information. The group intends to make communication services cheaper, and foster a regulatory environment supporting growth of information services. The challenge is huge. About 90% of internet host computers are in high-income countries with just 16% of the world's population. New York has more Internet hosts than all of Africa. Zaire, for example, has no internet access at all. However, one man isn’t waiting for the G8. Bernard Krisher is a former journalist whose non-profit group, American Assistance for Cambodia, has been working to create a permanent internet connection to the village of Robib in Cambodia, according to the New York Times. Krisher hopes that the project will support the creation of a woven-silk industry in the village. If the villagers are successful in selling the goods they manufacture, Krisher estimates they could generate as much as $2000 a month in revenue. "We're trying to show that the internet can really help a single village," says Krisher. He believes this project could be a model for economic development in other poor countries. Robib villagers are being trained in the traditional weaving skills of the region. There are other benefits. A local hotel will process credit card payments and doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston will answer villagers' health-related questions. Closer to home, Pacific Islands families are finding the internet a convenient way of sending money home to the islands to ensure children’s school fees and books are paid for directly before money is used for other purposes.

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