Stranded on the wrong side of the digital wall

The rush to an online society is leaving the poor and elderly behind

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By Mazz Scannell

Josephine Millanta, 84, waits for the social welfare office to open on a chilly morning. "All they say is, use your computer. I don’t have a computer and I cannot use one."

On a chilly Wednesday morning, 10 people are waiting outside the doors to the Work and Income centre on Willis Street, in central Wellington.
They walk up and down, avoiding eye contact, holding their phones to their head. To one side, gripping a walking frame, trying to avoid being bustled by the office workers streaming past, stands an elderly woman.

Josephine Millanta is 84. She has timed her bus journey in from Miramar, and the 500 metre walk up Willis Street, so she would be outside the centre when the doors opened. She doesn’t want to get cold waiting outside.

“I don’t want to come all the way down here, I just want somebody to talk to,” she says.
“All they say is, use your computer. I don’t have a computer and I cannot use one, I’m 84 years old.
“I just want to pick up the phone and talk to somebody, it’s not hard – the banks can do it, why can’t Work and Income?”
She nods her head towards the closed doors. “They know so much about me but they cannot do anything over the phone. It’s crazy. I have to come all the way down here to prove who I am.”

Te Puke sits in the heart of the Kiwifruit basin of New Zealand, it is a prosperous town, with a busy main street flanked by four banks. It was rocked in 2018 when NZPost announced that the local PostShop would close.
Typical of those hit were Bob and Mary*. They don’t have the internet and don’t know how to use a computer. Bob struggles to write cheques because he has crippling arthritis. Closing the PostShop would leave him unable to pay his car registration and utility bills.
“The Postshop is more than a place to post letters and pay bills, it is a community meeting hub for all ages and walks of life,” he says.

Fatima Qagim came to New Zealand from Afghanistan. She is fluent in English, well-educated and has New Zealand residency. She works in a restaurant, but also finds time to mentor newer refugees, helping them navigate life in Wellington. She is excited because the local council elections are looming.
During our interview, she Googles ‘Can I vote?’ on her phone. The first hit was the Vote NZ site – it tells her how to vote but not if she was eligible. A quick phone call to the 0800 number confirms that she can, but she has to register, and to do that she needs a RealMe account. She finds the terminology confusing; instructional words include ‘asterisk’ and ‘submitted’.

Millanta, Townsend, and Qagim are the human face of a new underclass –anyone for whom using a computer and navigating online is a struggle. They are the poor, the elderly, those with low vocational or educational skills, or those who with physical or cognitive disabilities.

There are estimated to be around 800,000 of them, and their growing frustration and alienation from society can be seen everywhere in New Zealand, if you care to look.
They go to free public community computer hubs and libraries asking for help. They hang around outside government agencies hoping to get a few minutes with a human face. Some libraries are reporting fist-fights breaking out over scarce public computers between people who cannot afford their own.

These are the digital have-nots. They have been left behind by government agencies and corporates in their race for online efficiency and to make the country look good on the world stage.

When did it all begin?

In New Zealand, the digitisation of government forms began in earnest in 2012. It was driven by the powerful Department of Internal Affairs, to help streamline government services.
Today government departments are being encouraged to have 80 per cent of all common forms online by 2021. Partly, that was to save money –  a report for the Ministry of Business and Innovation (MBIE) and the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) in 2017 stated the economic benefits of achieving “digital inclusion” (their word for digital competency) could be $1 billion a year.

For a majority of New Zealanders, digitally inclusive initiatives make good sense. The country has world-class fibre networks and 4G and 5G mobile internet.  New Zealanders can easily renew their passports, pay tax, register their vehicles, or pay road user charges and police fines online. Transacting online saves money, and for those with the right computers and skills to use them, time.

The push for digital inclusion has been successful for many governmental departments. As well as applying for a visa, passport, and filing your tax return, beneficiaries are being encouraged to apply for welfare online. The Ministry of Social Development reported 295,000 applications for financial assistance were filed online in 2017.

However, the lure of large cost saving initiatives ignores the people who are left behind.

International studies showed that low educational levels, low incomes, lack of technical knowledge and poor understanding of how to use a computer are major hurdles to technology take-up.

Many government application forms are lengthy, complicated and often require previously established “unique personal identifiers” – verified digital identities. And the Ministries differ in which they require – some need a “MyMSD number” and others a “RealMe” verified digital identity – a bit like an online passport. Once you’ve done it, it works well. But it’s not easy – to get a RealMe identity you need to fill in a complicated online form, and upload a digital photo taken in exactly the correct way, usually involving a trip to a passport photo service. Photos taken by phones are usually not good enough. For many, even that can be a step too far. So, as more government agencies move their services online and the internet becomes an essential tool, the effect of the digital divide becomes more severe.

The digital gap

Worldwide, countries are trying to measure the gap between those who are on one side of the divide and those who are on the other.
The 100 – country Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) charts digital availability in 50 of the most technically and 50 of the least technically available countries in the world. The index defines availability as not simply having an internet connection, but having the knowledge to use digital services to manage health, well-being, connect with family and benefit from education. Although New Zealand is not included in the 2019 ADII index, Australia is.
It is ranked 22nd out of the top 50 countries for availability. But the survey also found that one in 10 Australians did not use the internet at all. In New Zealand, that figure is likely to be much higher. The 2013 census revealed 62,000 families (about 250,000 people) were without an internet connection in their homes. No one knows what the current figure is because the latest census, which tried to go digital, failed to provide useable data (see sidebar).

Helping the helpless

Meanwhile, away from the lofty government buildings in Wellington, public libraries have become a dumping ground for the digital have-nots.
Government departments are unashamedly referring their clients to local libraries in an attempt to stem the number of technical questions they receive.
The Public Libraries of New Zealand Strategic Framework 2012-2017 report noted that “Government departments are referring clients to the public library as a place where those who do not have access to the internet can connect to government services.”
In Wellington, the network of city-council-run public libraries is doing its best to plug the gap, with an array of courses, and help to use public computers.

The region has 12 library branches, each with free WiFi and at least two public computers.
Wellington City Council Libraries and Community Spaces manager Laurinda Thomas says many people using the computers need a lot of help.
“It’s never just the online form – they will need an email address and maybe scanning for job applications.”

Even in Karori, one of Wellington’s more affluent suburbs, the public library finds its educational programmes are desperately needed. Manager Karl Gaskin says: “We have a group of customers who mentally struggle to grasp the concept of the internet and they will always struggle, but they want to learn and we are making progress. I get calls from them saying, it’s wonderful what you have taught me, thank you.”

Just over the Rimutaka hills, in the rural town of Masterton, the digital gap is more obvious. Like many rural areas in New Zealand, it’s been slow to get fibre-fast internet, and many low-income people lack either a computer, or fast internet, or both. It’s estimated three-quarters of its working people have no formal educational qualifications, and 15 per cent of them earn less than $35,000. The district scores higher on a social deprivation index.

The Masterton public library has modern computers, photocopiers and scanners. The demand for these services is intense; it has had to issue trespass orders due to fist fighting over the available computers.
For Masterton library manager Sandy Green, who like her staff works hard to help the digital have-nots, it was a reluctant step.
“It’s a balancing act, we want to help but have to consider the safety of staff and others in the library.”
She says the fighting is only a hint of the widespread frustration she and her staff see every day.
“The delivery of so many services online creates huge anxiety for those people who are not skilled in that area.”
She estimates that a third to a half of the technical assistance provided by library staff is about demystifying government forms, scanning, printing, copying, setting up accounts and email addresses.
“We can help people in a non-judgmental way and people recognise that.”

As well as libraries, non-government organisations are trying to plug the gap.
Newtown Smart, in the Wellington inner-city suburb of Newtown, is one of these. It’s tucked in beside the Newtown library.
Around 20,000 people a year use one of the 15 computers at the centre. Over 150 people a year attend its six-week computer introductory and refresher courses. Places are limited and demand is high. Like Masterton library, it too has had to issue trespass notices after fighting. Manager Richard Halton says the most common questions are about passwords and accessing government sites. “They [the sites] are not designed for people who are not confident with websites – they are way more complicated than they need to be.”

While local councils are trying to fill the gap, you could be forgiven for thinking the government seems determined to widen it.
Computers in Homes (CiH) was a community initiative run by a charitable trust, the 20/20 Trust. It supported mainly rural families on low-incomes with school-aged children who attended a low-decile school by training a caregiver, providing the household with a computer and discounted access to broadband through Spark Jump. The new knowledge and hardware for each family was a virtual springboard across the digital divide. Its funding was cut in 2017.

Chair Laurence Zwimpfer says the promise of a computer was a big incentive for a family member to attend the training courses. The computers were reconditioned desktop units and worth little but were still good for learning on. In all the years the programme ran not one was stolen.

20/20 Trust Chief Executive Laurence Miller estimates that at least 600,000 people in New Zealand struggle with technology. He says bridging the digital divide seems to be “Nobody’s number one priority and everyone’s number five priority.”

One group that is getting help is the elderly.
New Zealand First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters launched the enhanced Super Gold card (a welfare card available to anyone over 65 years of age) at the Grey Power Federation Annual Conference in May. The majority of the $7.7million funding is budgeted for a major web upgrade and new app, while $600,000 is earmarked for computer literacy training and skills. How far that will go is another matter – there are 750,000 super gold cardholders. More than half use the internet and about half have a smartphone. Potentially 375,000 people will be left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

When interviewing people who work with low-income families trying to surmount the new digital wall, I found they chose their words carefully. They are careful because they believe in the people they support and they don’t want to lose their jobs for speaking out. Many refused to let me use their real names.
Tina * is a social worker helping vulnerable families with children under 16 years-old.
“It’s very difficult for people, there are different layers of needs and understanding, people feel vulnerable and overwhelmed.
Frances* is a midwife in Masterton. Many of her young mums come from low-income households. Although most homes have an internet connection, they may not have a computer.
But, as new parents, they are required by law to register the birth of a child within six weeks of birth. The new online form is 13 pages long. Frances says there are words and categories some parents simply don’t understand.
“They ask, is ‘Stay at Home Mum’ an occupation? What do I put down?’ Some young women have never had an occupation,” West says.

What is going wrong?

The brave new digital world appears to have been designed by people who have lost touch with the people they serve.
Two examples – the 2018 census debacle and the push for the elderly to use a new app even though half of them do not have a mobile phone.
An expert in digital inclusion, Associate Professor Siobhan Stevenson of the University of Toronto in Canada, says research has found that access to the internet in itself is insufficient to help people at risk of galloping technical change. The problem requires structural solutions and corresponding changes in life circumstances of those who are currently too poor to help themselves.

How to fix the digital divide – or at least make it shallower for New Zealanders

The Department of Internal Affairs launched its “DIGITAL.GOVT.NZ” action plan earlier this year to address the digital divide with a lofty new vision statement: “Everyone in New Zealand will have what they need to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from a digital world.”
It adds that it will “Create the conditions that will advance digital inclusion, measure what success looks like and focus investment so everyone benefits – particularly those who are regarded as digitally disadvantaged.”

When I asked the Minister of Social Development (MSD) Carmel Sepuloni to comment, she declined to be interviewed. Instead, her office referred me to the Ministry for Social Development.
Its general manager of strategy and change, Jo Cunningham, acknowledges that Work and Income centres need to make it easier for their clients to get support and services.
She says they are currently remodelling the centre spaces and installing self-service kiosks and touch screens throughout the country to make it easier for clients to find their way to the online services they need. It also wants to ensure access and support is available for clients seeking help, regardless of the method they are using to do that.

Although the government seems to be waking up to the problem, it doesn’t seem to have grasped how to fix it.

For example, Work and Income has launched “cheap as” data that uses very little or none of the existing phone or digital device data if you use major providers. Cunningham estimates that at least 90 per cent of Work and Income’s clients are connected to one of the four major telephone providers – meaning they must have access to the internet. This will be of great assistance for people who will be able to access MSD websites for free or almost free. Unfortunately, users of Warehouse Mobile – which many beneficiaries use, because it’s the cheapest around – cannot access ‘cheap as’ data.
And, more importantly, as research has shown, access to the internet is meaningless without the skills to use it.
For example, when I asked if the Ministry would provide dedicated support staff to assist with self-service kiosks or to people who are technically or literacy challenged with online services in general, Cunningham replied:

“We are creating training videos to help clients do the things they need to do, like using a USB or checking what they can get from us. People will be able to create and save their documents to a USB, email them or upload them to a website, for example a CV for a job application on a site like TradeMe.”
All very well, but what if the training video doesn’t work? Take the RealMe case.
The website has a snappy little video that outlines the steps to go through to register your identity online. It runs quickly through the steps and includes a lot of information.
When the first RealMe training video was released, Zwimpfer set up a class of eight people at the Lower Hutt Library with the idea of develop a training module based around the video.
He says it took two two-hour sessions over two days to tutor eight people. At the end of the module two participants successfully established their online identity. Even then, each person had to have two screens, one to play the video and one to complete the online form. When each step was completed, the video had to be paused while that section of the form was filled in.
“It was frustrating for everyone,” says Zwimpfer.

Research at Stanford University on the digital divide has found that we are increasingly defined by the ability to access information. Those with access are becoming richer through the power of information, while those without are becoming even poorer in comparison. “If you don’t have access to technology, you are going to be left in the dark ages,” says Professor Eric Roberts of Stanford’s Faculty of Computer Science.

Happy endings?
For some there is a bridge across the divide. Fatima Qasim registered to vote and received her voting papers.

Bob and Mary* were saved because they live in a rich community and a group of local women recognised that the loss of the PostShop would be devastating. They formed a social enterprise group and purchased the Te Puke Post and bill licences from NZPost. The new centre opened in October and the whole town was there to see the ribbon being cut.
Te Puke Centre Charitable Trust Chairperson Karen Summerhay said: “One-third of all donors did not have a mobile phone or a computer, the PostShop was their lifeline to the outside world.”
But for others, like Jospehine Millanta, it seems the dark ages are already here, stranded on the other side of the digital divide.

At 84, she will still have to travel by bus to the Work and Income centre in Willis Street, Wellington, to get her benefit sorted. She could have done it over the phone, if she had a RealMe account. But she does not, because she does not understand computers.

Today her visit is because of an allowance that needs to be repaid.

“Getting down here is hard. I am old, I use public transport, all this could be sorted out on the phone but I cannot do that because I have to prove who I am.
“I don’t want to have to keep retelling my story every time I come in. I want to talk to someone who knows me and who I trust.”
She waited about half an hour for one of her two favourite staff members to become available so she could prove who she was, and then discuss her budget and come up with a repayment plan that suited everybody.
Millanta says that budgeting is important to people on a fixed income. It can take years to repay an allowance made for clothing or food and sometimes the repayments are as little as a $1.00 a week, so she still has money to live on. Every time an unexpected expense comes up she has to go back to the centre to work out a way to budget for it.
At the end of her meeting she is pleased; together they have worked out a budget that covers her day to day expenses and also pays back her allowance.
“It’s been good to work out a plan with someone I trust but, I still have to get back on the bus to go home and next time it will be the same. I would like to be able to prove who I am over the phone.”

*Some names have been changed to protect sources.