Spare a thought for those ‘bubble bound’ with no email, social media, online shopping streaming videos or conferencing capabilities.

Second thought, maybe they’re the ones with the kids who are reading books, laughing and playing in the yard and cycling round and round the neighbourhood?

Maybe the radio, TV, newspapers and standard broadcast TV fare and a DVD collection will suffice, but it might also illustrate a growing disconnect. With almost everything that can be digitised going online, many are being left behind in the growing digital divide.

Around 20% of the population are already digital refugees, and are likely to become increasingly alienated over the next year as cheque books disappear, the bulk of public information services go on-line, and the technology revolution ramps up.

Internet access is no longer an optional extra; it’s almost a human right. Everything’s online, from banking and bill payments to travel and concert tickets, education, public health information, social support resources and information essential to an inclusive democracy.

According to the botched 2018 census, at least 211,722 households or 21% of New Zealand households,up to 600,000 people, still have no Internet access.

While that’s a 130,000 improvement on 2013, it is still a significant divide. Covering the rent and groceries is taxing enough for those in economic survival mode, let alone adding the cost of Internet and wifi.

Some choose to be Luddites and reject the move online while others are at an early stage and still struggle to grasp the Internet and digital age services that are already mainstream.

Social disruption is amplified for these people as more businesses, good causes and charities no longer accept cheques and Government agencies, clubs and interest groups increasingly limit notifications and newsletters to email.

The ‘old school’ option is travel into town to stand in a queue or wait on-hold while the robotic message reminds you after 30 minutes that there are still callers ahead of you and it might be quicker to visit their website.

Failure to factor in the digital ‘have nots’ ahead of the 2018 census earned StatisticsNZ a fail mark. One in six people were missed out, meaning thedata collected in some cases was useless for planning and decision-making.

Some people, particularly seniors, struggle beyond the basics; anything without knobs or big buttons is a challenge; they fear getting it wrong or doing damage.

My parents only used cash and cheques and when Dad passed away last year, aged 92, my 86-year old mum needed careful coaching to become confident with a credit card.

She can handle email essentials and Google searches on her laptop, but her basic smartphone, now needed for remote catch-ups and health and safety reasons, remains an awkward alien appendage.

Accessing Government sites for pension, health or social welfare can be intimidating, including setting up a RealMe identity which requires proof of identity and photos uploaded to exact specifications.

So what does lack of access to even the basics of technology mean in times of crisis, like the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic when we’re in lock down, and required to work from home, join videoconferences, learn remotely or take streaming video courses?

For a start, so much of what we are referred to for information and help in the midst of this crisis is on the Internet, including forms to fill out for support or help. When you aren’t allowed to leave your home that’s a problem.

Those on the wrong side of the digital divide will be unable to earn or learn online and are at the mercy of old school one-way media or the landline phone, which by the way is now more expensive than a basic smartphone with a $20 monthly top-up.

It’s not just the elderly who are befuddled by the fast-moving feast of ever-changing technology and its often complex updates of software, apps, operating systems and security.

Even some businesses with less than five employees who still send invoices and submit GST and tax forms by hand are at risk of being left behind because they haven’t updated their systems.

Without carefully targeted efforts to connect, train and support the digitally disadvantaged,the gap separating them from the digitally literate is about to become a chasm.

More rhetoric than action

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) began pushing to digitise all online forms across Government departments in 2012 and now wants 80% of transactions for the 20 most common public services online by 2021.

Its lofty vision: “Everyone in New Zealand will have what they need to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from, a digital world.”

Despite ample warning we’re heading in this direction, the investment in preparing those who most depend on these services doesn’t match the rhetoric.

The 2017 Pulse of the Nation report made 23 recommendations to the DIA and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) which were adopted as part of the government’s Digital Inclusion Blueprint.

The Pulse report identified digitally-excluded groups including low socio-economic families, rural communities, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees, Māori and Pasifika and specifically youth, offenders and ex-offenders, the homeless and seniors.

Preference was given to community-based actions; more affordable or free Internet access, advice on escaping expensive contracts, developing digital health literacy (avoiding scams and infections), government subsidies, free skills development and content, including government services and education.

Laurence Zwimpfer, long-time advocate for the digitally disadvantaged, who led the Digital Inclusion Research Group that published the Pulse report in 2017, remains concerned that nowhere near enough is being done to close the digital gap.

His oft repeated warnings were echoed at the 2019 InternetNZ Nethui where it was asked why we were still talking about digital inclusion and not getting on with it?

InternetNZ’s Jordan Carter says government investment and action should be at the heart of its wellbeing policies, not an optional extra.

“Without digital inclusion, there is no social inclusion. If you are cut off from jobs, socialising, culture, news, information, sport, entertainment, banking…. you are cut off, and that isn’t what we should expect – or accept – in a country as small and rich as this one.”

Laurence Millar of the 2020 Trust says those who aren’t connected are often big users of government services and require “high touch community support”, something unlikely to be achieved by market forces.

He’s critical of past surveys that talk about our impressive uptake of technology and minimise the digitally excluded, and is frustrated the 2018 census failed to deliver essential evidence to support greater digital literacy investment.

By averaging across three census results and successive ‘digital technology in schools’ surveys, he believes 25,000-30,000 homes with around 80,000 school-aged children have no home Internet.

“The impact of this inequality is a huge long-term challenge for New Zealand, creating negative outcomes in education, employment, social, and other sectors that will persist for generations.”

The 20/20 Trust has worked to bridge this gulf for a decade but over the past three years its government funding was dramatically reduced.

The latest collaborative iteration is the Digital Inclusion Alliance Aotearoa (DIAA) set up in 2018 by Laurence Zwimpfer to foster inclusive communities where everyone has equal opportunities to use digital technologies to advance education, employment, health and wellbeing.

Zwimpfer, who was with the 2020 (Communications) Trust for 20 years, says New Zealand is a decade behind many other nations with respect to digital literacy.

“We are only now starting to mirror the big investments made by the British and other countries … Australia made a $25 million investment to ensure seniors are digitally connected.”

British research suggests individuals can save around $1,000 a year with better access to services so people can help manage their lives online and by reducing the cost of travel.

Zwimpfer believes those savings could equally be gained here. The MBIE/DIA report estimates “digital inclusion” could be worth $1 billion a year to our economy for the same reasons.

Golden oldies

Digital isolation and exclusion – being unable to connect online with friends, family, government or businesses – is something the elderly and those in rest homes or home alone often struggle with.

Raymond Ross, techspert at NOW Broadband offers an in-home service for those wrestling with communications and technology issues, including seniors at Summerset, Frimley, Atawhai and Mary Doyle retirement centres.

His challenge is to equip them with the skills and confidence to use Skype or Facebook Messenger to communicate with grandchildren or by setting up email, solving printing issues and assisting with smartphone and tablet use.

They don’t like to burden family members, he says, and while some might be familiar with older computers or laptops “when it comes to wifi or Bluetooth or the cloud it can seem like a foreign language”.

Often seniors will say they understand because they don’t want to seem dim when friends or family try to help, but asking help from those with limited knowledge can also create more problems than it solves.

The key, says Raymond, is taking it slow, not expecting them to pick everything up the first time and leaving clear written instructions.

One of the joys of the job, says Raymond, is watching people overcome their phobia to become confident with on-line banking, Google searching and connecting with friends and relatives through email and social media.

Lawrence Zwimpfer says seniors need digital tools to manage their lives but smart phone technology in particular has not been developed with the elderly or those with disabilities in mind.

“It wasn’t so long ago we were helping seniors into phones with larger buttons so they could see the numbers, now we’re asking them to bring up a keyboard on the screen and be dextrous enough that they don’t touch the wrong icons.”

NZ First leader Winston Peters launched the enhanced Super Gold Card in May last year announcing a $7.1 million investment in a major web upgrade, a new app for smart phone access and $600,000 for computer literacy training.

Surely the millions were for computer literacy and the balance for the website!? Zwimpfer agrees the ratio is unbalanced when only half the 750,000 card holders have smart phones and many don’t know how to make good use of them.

Regardless, he says, it’s a toe in the water and other agencies need to be doing the same for the rest of the digitally-excluded groups.

Disadvantaged youth

Much of the focus on technology is around“young people who can text with two thumbs faster than they can talk”, says Zwimpfer, with the prevailing view that everything will change when the older generation passes.

The reality is youth can be disadvantaged too. They might be great at gaming and social media but at risk of exclusion if they don’t grasp the broader use of technology for spreadsheets, business planning or accessing government and business services.

“That’s where the gloss of the digital native wears off. We can’t assume those skills just happen automatically,” particularly for children in low socio-economic groups.

Schools that require students to ‘bring your own device’ can amplify the disadvantage unless classroom technology is provided.

Parents and guardians with the attitude – “We got by without all that sort of stuff in our day so why should we bother” – can make the gap worse. Without access to technology at home children can be left further behind as they grow older, says Zwimpfer.

NOW techspert Raymond Ross says parents of school age children required to use a laptop, tablet or smartphone can become concerned about security and the content they’re viewing.

One solution is to tailor a parental control app on the home router to limit what children can access and when.

Hand up help

Zwimpfer supports a Wellington model where the council provides a free refurbished laptop for residents in multi-storey social housing units who complete four training modules.

The council and local businesses donate older computers to specific community groups who provide support and training for those with the greatest need.

That model, along with discounted broadband access, was fostered by the Computers in Homes charity set up by the 2020 Trust which lost its Government funding in 2017. It had to downsize and now helps people get workforce ready.

Digital Wings, another group chaired by Zwimpfer, has picked up the mandate of repurposing technology for the needy and supports 100 community groups including six in Hawke’s Bay.

When BayBuzz spoke to Zwimpfer he was aboard his bus Dora, outside the Kaitaia library, providing Kiwibank-supported digital banking classes targeted mainly at seniors.

The week previously Kiwibank, ACC and NZ Post announced they would no longer accept cheques. “We think the rest of the banks will follow this year and it will soon spread to businesses … cheques will disappear.”

Zwimpfer had just learned of new MSD funding for the Digital Inclusion Alliance to train 4,000 65-year old plus seniors in a two-year digital literacy programme.

Dora will be outside the Napier Library for digital banking classes, assisted by local librarians, from 8-12 June, coronavirus permitting.

Zwimpfer sees the nation’s libraries supported by local councils as an oasis in the digital desert with upskilled librarians offering help for basic technical problems.

“We don’t need more technicians who will fix your Internet or computer for $120 an hour, but friendly advice and simple answers that don’t require a degree in computing.”

Jane Simmons, communication engagement officer at Napier and Taradale Libraries says that’s definitely part of the service being offered. “Our librarians are well geared to assist with technical problems and people can just drop in and ask.”

Napier and Taradale libraries also run digital workshops and Easytech classes including those for smartphones, e-books, audiobooks and 3D printer use and even lend Skinny modems for home wifi.

Like Hastings Library, which is re-evaluating its free courses, they offer help with email, online banking and printing CVs, with free computer and wifi use.

Zwimpfer says housing trusts and iwi groups should also increase their capacity to offer digital literacy help and the Government and councils should up their investment in the country’s 2,000 librarians.

Efforts to close the digital divide and improve tech literacy at the most basic levels have come late in the game for a country in lockdown with many, specifically the elderly, told to remain in their homes as we try to flatten the coronavirus curve.

That’s a double blow to those already socially isolated who would benefit most from digital media for essential alerts, health and welfare news and online social connection with family and friends.

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