Stories by Robyn Hunt

Computers in Homes

Following the successful Books in Homes scheme comes Computers in Homes. The Ministry of Education is contributing $10,000 to the brainchild of the 2020 Communications Trust.
At the Porirua launch in July, Minister of Education Trevor Mallard said, “If left unchecked, the digital divide has the potential to damage opportunities for individuals, communities and the ability for all New Zealanders to participate in the knowledge economy.”
Enabling families to "become wired", the scheme also aims to promote positive relationships between members of the community and offers opportunities for students to become key role models.
Cannons Creek School in Porirua and Panmure Bridge School in Auckland are pilot schools. Both are decile 1a schools. This indicates communities in greatest need socially, economically and health status. Both have a high proportion of Maori and Pacific Islands students.
Twenty-five families from each school with a child of eight years or older in the family participate. Each family receives a PC, provided by accredited recyclers, with a word processing program, modem and internet access to an ISP. A phone line with access to an ISP only may be provided. Technical support, six months’ flat-rate internet access and training sessions are included. Each family pays a small amount to participate and agrees to train at least one other person and to give their children supervised access for one hour per school day.
Victoria University is conducting research to review improvements in IT skills and other related educational topics for both the parents and children. Similar studies in the US have shown that such projects can result in parents moving off welfare.
Two rural Bay of Plenty schools are next on the programme.
The 2020 Communications Trust promotes access to the benefits of information and communications technology networks. Such work is often carried out by dedicated non-proft organizations such as 2020, e vision and the Talklink Trust, or visionaries like Neil Scott at the former Wellington Polytechnic.

New gaps for old

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.