The socio-economic inequities that exist within our communities have created digital inequities that if left unaddressed, will further exclude, and isolate our most vulnerable communities and impact on their ability to participate fully in our society. The cost of an internet connection and a suitable device is a big enough obstacle, add to that a lack of trust, motivation and/or skills then the barriers to digital participation can seem almost insurmountable.
Every New Zealander should have a clear and appropriate pathway to participating in digital life. This is not just an opinion. A UN report on digital inclusion states that the “[a]ccelerated pace of digital transformation risks increasing the social exclusion of already vulnerable groups who are not digitally literate or connected. In 2016 they passed a resolution declaring access to the internet a human right. So why six years later are New Zealanders still experiencing these barriers to access?
According to the last New Zealand Census, 86.1% of New Zealanders had household access to the internet. The pandemic has further exposed the realities of the digital divide, this was experienced first-hand by many library staff who stepped up to support people accessing vaccine passes and the COVID-19 app. The real-life impact of digital inequity can mean a family choosing between the internet for children to do their homework or feeding the family. People can feel forgotten, frustrated, and overwhelmed.
Lack of digital access and digital literacy skills can significantly reduce a person’s opportunity to participate in 21st Century life and further divides our society. Something we saw manifest in the recent Wellington protests at Parliament where misinformation played a key role. By supporting digital equity we can ensure everyone can access support and information, empowering and assisting people to make informed choices and maximise opportunities that support their health and wellbeing, employment, education, social connection, financial independence and civic participation. Māori data sovereignty is also an area of growing interest and urgency, rooted in Te Tiriti/Treaty of Waitangi, Article II, it is focused on ensuring Māori sovereignty in the digital realm, which is intrinsically linked to digital equity in Aotearoa.
There has been lots of research and debate about digital equity over the years, but little progress has been made. The reality, especially in the wake of the pandemic is that there are many issues competing for people’s attention and budget, so why should digital equity be a top priority? With the rapid increase in digital enablement/digital transformation strategies across the banking and service sectors, local and central government, and in health and education shifting more services and support online, our most vulnerable people and communities are increasingly at risk of being left behind. Within a three-month period in 2020, Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) volunteers recorded 4,379 client interactions where digital exclusion was identified. Libraries have often been the ‘go-to solution’ for digital support to help fill this gap and whilst there is no doubt, that they play a critical role in supporting digital equity, they cannot do it alone. We are all accountable for ensuring that we leave no one behind.
So what is the solution? A holistic approach that seeks to permanently remove the barriers to achieving digital equity and creates sustainable solutions is required to achieve any real impact. Such an approach depends on strong strategic collaborations between central and local government, NGOs and grassroots community organisations with a long-term commitment to providing funding. This is not a problem one government ministry, department or organisation can solve on its own, it calls for mutual accountability and systems thinking approach to finding solutions that work for everyone. There is a growing movement and evidence base building around this issue through organisations such as Digital Equity Coalition of Aotearoa (DECA), highlighting the need for change, and providing insights into how we can collectively achieve digital equity. However, the main obstacles we face to achieving sustainable change are a lack of clear strategic direction and policy guidelines, a lack of coordination, and limitations on funding.
One way to overcome these obstacles is to create digital equity strategies and apply a digital equity lens to everything we do. The forthcoming release of the Government’s Digital Strategy for Aotearoa is an encouraging step with the stated objective of this strategy being “Te whakaāhei i te puāwaitanga me te taurikura o te katoa o Aotearoa i roto i te ao matihiko. Enabling all of Aotearoa New Zealand to flourish and prosper in a digital world”. Yet to really make a difference we need to create and support an environment that encourages and funds cross-sector collaboration.
There are a growing number of examples of this happening both in Aotearoa and internationally. Whanganui and the Far North District Councils have both developed digital strategies with equity at the heart of them and are excellent examples of how collaboration between the public and private sectors working with communities can lead to innovative solutions for sustainable change. The Far North’s Nothing But Net digital strategy won the 2021 Excellence Award for better policy and regulation for its community-led approach and is now informing everything they do including place making.
The UN report ‘Leveraging digital technologies for social inclusion’ (2021) advocates for this whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach to inform and support the development of strategy and policy, funding, cross-sector/multi-sector partnerships, the community-led co-creation of context-specific solutions and sustainable implementation.
What does the role of public libraries in supporting digital equity in Aotearoa look like in this partnership model? It is an increasingly challenging landscape to navigate in a world managing the long-term impact of a pandemic. We face new demands and challenges as the pace of digital change increases digital inequity and information poverty. Increasing pressure on already stretched library resources and a rise in internet threats are being managed in the face of ongoing fiscal constraints.
- We need to tell better stories about the work we do and the real impact it has in our communities. There is a wealth of evidence emerging from the NZLPP secondees programme that will clearly demonstrate this. We need to make sure it is seen and heard by people outside of libraries.
- We need to invest in our own digital equity with a focus on digitally upskilling in our library workforce, investing in our technology, and re-examining our resourcing models.
- Public libraries need to have a seat at the table in strategic decision-making at both local and central government levels. We need to ensure our profession is acknowledged for the skills, knowledge and expertise it can bring and the trusted relationships we have with our communities.
A study jointly conducted by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL) identified more than 30 countries worldwide that include libraries in their national broadband strategies and plans. In the UK they established a Library Taskforce which ran from 2015 to 2020 to promote “[public] libraries to national and local government and to potential funders, [creating] a strong and coherent narrative around the contribution public libraries make to society and to local communities”.
There are many overseas examples of how strategic, value-driven partnerships with public libraries can have a positive impact on increasing digital equity. By investing in libraries to maximise their role in the digital space, you invest in communities to help realise their potential. Digital You was a collaborative project in the UK between libraries, community organisations and housing providers which saw 7000 residents of Salford receive digital support and equipment. In Croatia public libraries worked with local homeless shelters, rehabilitation centres and the local law centre to train people in digital literacy and help them find work. A federal government COVID-19 response fund in the USA has enabled some public libraries in some states to purchase laptops and wireless hotspots based on a life-time lending model through single-use library cards. Whilst health boards in Australia are training librarians in digital health literacy.
By framing digital support around people’s day-to-day lives we can help overcome the key barriers and engage people in a meaningful way. Moving beyond basic digital literacy skills to supporting digital fluency where an individual possesses the technical knowledge, digital skills and social competency to confidently navigate their way through the digital space as a digital citizen.
The PLNZ National Strategic Framework 2020-25 challenges us to go beyond books and understand the key strategic role public libraries have in creating a digitally equitable society. The current New Zealand Libraries Partnership Programme (NZLPP), due to end in June, was a Department of Internal Affairs funded initiative delivered via the National Library in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a clear acknowledgement of the key role public libraries have in supporting our communities. Yet again, however, we can see the negative impact of short-term funding as many of the roles it funded will disappear including the staff and the knowledge and community connection they built.
In 2020 Massey University published “Public Libraries as spaces for Digital Inclusion: Connecting Communities Through Technology'' which clearly articulated how public libraries can support digital equity in the community. To date many of its recommendations have not been embraced and embedded long-term at a strategic level. The map is there for us to follow, now we need strategic commitment, investment, and fellow travellers to join us on the journey towards a more digitally equitable Aotearoa!
Jo Cocker is currently the Digital Literacy Specialist in the Connected Communities Department at Auckland Council. Jo moved to New Zealand in 2013 from the UK. After completing an MSc in Information Management at Sheffield University in 2006, Jo has worked in both public and academic libraries and held positions across public, private and community sectors working in the areas of strategic development, project management and advocacy.