Chapter 7

Building digital communities: A history of the 2020 Communications Trust

Laurence Zwimpfer

The 2020 Communications Trust has played a leading role in the development of digital communities in New Zealand. This chapter provides a summary history of its achievements, starting in Wellington and progressively expanding throughout New Zealand and the Pacific.

While the New Zealand Computer Society is celebrating 50 years of computing in New Zealand in 2010, the origins of digital communities go back only 25 years. For the first 25 years of computing history in New Zealand, computers were largely the domain of the information professional and hobbyist. The 1970s witnessed a progression of increasingly sophisticated computing calculators, notably from Hewlett Packard and Casio, but this all changed in 1977 with the launch of the Apple ][ with a colour display, a product that stayed in production until 1993. 1977 also heralded the launch of the Commodore PET and in 1980 in the United Kingdom, the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81. One year later, in 1981, the IBM personal computer was launched using a brand new operating system written by Bill Gates and, as they say, the rest is history.

Although these early computers were priced well beyond the reach of most consumers when they were first introduced, it was not long before they became affordable to the masses (thanks largely to Moore’s Law). Moore’s Law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware in which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. But it was not just the increasing availability of affordable personal computers in the early 1980s that was fuelling the information society; the real revolution was coming from a merger of the computer with a telecommunications connection. This transformed the computer from a computing device into a communications device, one that enabled people to access information online and start to communicate in new ways. Interest expanded quickly from computing professionals and hobbyists to the general community.

The development of videotex, initially as an information retrieval service, but also for conducting online transactions, stimulated community interest, especially amongst business users, the only ones initially able to afford these exciting new technologies. Videotex and teletext were two exciting technologies that emerged during the late 1970s, the former capable of interactive two-way information exchange and the latter one-way broadcast. Michael Tyler defined these as

systems for widespread dissemination of textual and graphic information by wholly electronic means, for display on low-cost terminals (often suitably equipped television receivers), under the selective control of the recipient, and using control procedures easily understood by untrained users.1

Telephone manufacturers responded by building computers into telephones; ICL’s Computerphone was one example. Computer manufacturers responded by building computers with modems that could communicate with each other over standard telephone lines, initially at a transmission speed of 300 bits per second which would support text communications only. But the advantages of a graphical user interface were quickly realised and by 1980 download speeds were increased to 1200 bits per second. Upload speeds, however, were restricted to 75 bits per second as this was believed to be adequate to support the fastest typist.

This asymmetric model has persisted for 25 years, although download and upload speeds have increased significantly. A typical home user in New Zealand now expects download speeds around 10Mbits per second and upload speeds approaching 1Mbits per second. With the promised deployment of fibre to the home during the next five years, New Zealanders can look forward to symmetric services, which will be just in time for in-home high-definition videoconferencing.

It was not until the mid-1990s with the emergence of the Internet that the computer communications revolution started to reach the wider New Zealand community. It began with a small group of computer professionals in universities and local authorities, people who had the vision and authority to experiment with new technologies and commit funds without too much scrutiny from their masters. This was all to change over the next decade, but New Zealand has these innovators to thank for ensuring that New Zealand did not miss out on the Internet. Two of these people worked at Wellington City Council (WCC) — Richard Naylor, as manager of the IT Department, and Charles Bagnall in the Economic and Business Development Unit. Working together to bring Jim Higgins’ project of a New Zealand-based ‘World Communications Laboratory’ to Wellington, they formed what was to become the ‘Info City’ project under the umbrella of the new WCC Capital Development Agency. The Info City project became a central component of a larger strategy.

Wellington takes a digital lead

In 1994, Wellington City Council engaged in a strategic planning process that led to the creation of 2020 Vision, a long-term vision for the city’s development. The 2020 Vision was an attempt by WCC to sketch out how Wellington could be 25 years in the future, i.e. the year 2020:

We’re talking about creating a smart ‘info city’ with an innovative and responsive economy. A city of opportunities for all people to achieve their potential and contribute to the community. A city where today’s actions take account of tomorrow’s consequences. Creative partnerships between business and community.

The Info City project arose at the time a new chief executive, Angela Griffin, a new Mayor, Fran Wilde, and the new Development Agency all came into the Wellington City Council with visions of a better city. These forces led the council to adopt, in September 1995, a broader Info City Strategy with the following goals:

  • To accelerate the normal process of economic development
  • To enhance the achievement of social and community development principles in the adoption of emerging information technologies
  • To create a new ‘frontier’ for business and community development through the development of a new telecommunications infrastructure
  • To ensure that the deployment of new technologies is environmentally responsible

The Info City strategy was implemented through a range of projects, some of which have stood the test of time and continue to this day, notably CityLink and the 2020 Communications Trust. CityLink was established as a private company to build an open, high bandwidth, low cost network in downtown Wellington. The 2020 Communications Trust was established to deliver the strategy’s social and educational objectives through projects such as Wellington Community Net (WCN), the Smart Newtown pilot and Computers for Communities. The Info City strategy also gave Wellington a world-lead in building a digital presence on the web through the Wellington World Wide Web (W4).

The strategy acknowledged the important link between community and economic development and one of the specific initiatives identified was a digital hub for displaying new technologies and providing training opportunities for the public. The centre known as (e)-Vision was set up in July 1998 but closed six years later, not for lack of interest, but because of financial challenges in becoming self-sustaining.

The Wellington City Council’s bold strategy for creating a ‘wired city’ drew international attention. In May 1996, the Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, USA published a case study on Wired Wellington. The case study profiles the development of CityLink and the people who drove this development. In the words of Richard Naylor, who pioneered the establishment of CityLink and is quoted extensively in the case study:

What we’re trying to do here is to get people to look beyond their own paradigm, look outside the box … digital technology opens up new opportunities for everyone, and we want Wellington to be at the forefront of making those things happen.

2020 Communications Trust is formed

The concept of establishing a forward-looking community organisation to promote the development of digital literacy is attributed to Simon Riley, a Wellington-based digital advocate for the last 20 years. Simon arrived in Wellington in the early 1990s as a seasoned media professional with 20 years in media related industries and advertising in Canada and Australia. On arriving in Wellington in 1994, he immediately started to transfer his community media development experiences into community digital development projects.

Sixteen years later in 2010, Simon is still providing amazing digital leadership at both the community and political levels. He has an incredible ability to filter digital initiatives from around the world and challenge a local response. One of his early ideas was to set up the 2020 Communications Trust (2020 Trust).

Also sharing a digital vision for community groups was another New Zealand digital pioneer — Earl Mardle. Earl had come from Access Radio and possessed a remarkable ability to enthuse others in the opportunities presented by a digital future. Simon’s ideas and Earl’s communication skills were powerful influences in building on Richard Naylor’s digital ‘toys’ and Charles Bagnall’s mission to stimulate economic development.

2020 Trust digital pioneers at the 10th anniversary celebrations at Parliament, November 2006. From left: Charles Bagnall, Richard Naylor and Simon Riley.

The net outcome of these energies was that on 10 July 1996 the 2020 Communications Trust was established, with Charles Bagnall and Earl Mardle as ‘the settlors’. An impressive line up of 22 people agreed to be foundation trustees under the chairpersonship of Cr Celia Wade-Brown. Earl Mardle was appointed as the establishment coordinator and was supported by an annual funding grant from the Wellington City Council.

The trustees represented a wide range of business, government and community sectors, but all shared a common view of a digitally literate population. Trustees included representatives from Wellington City Council (Crs Celia Wade-Brown and Allan Johnston), universities and Crown Research Institutes (Dr Brian Opie, Dr Mimi Recker, Prof Richard Dunford, Brent Wood, John Houlker), libraries (Diane Wyber), schools (Errol Jacquiery), information technology industry (John Heard, Alan Lock, Derek Le Dayn), community and ethnic groups (Robyn Hunt and Rama Ramanathan), media and design (Paul Bushnell, Kay Green, Jan Bieringa), digital media consultants (Simon Riley, Jean Drage and Paul Reynolds), government advisers (Colin Jackson) and a legal adviser (Donna Hall).

The stated purpose of the trust was:

To raise the awareness and understanding of the people of Wellington and New Zealand of the effect on the local and global communities of the convergence of publishing, broadcasting, communications, information collection & dissemination and consumer electronics and in particular to assist in the establishment and operation of a centre for communication, education, arts and technology including the co-management of the New Zealand SunSITE.

During the first two years of operation (1996–98), the 2020 Trust focused on the three specific areas that were to set the foundations for the next 15 years — digital skills, digital content and digital infrastructure. The initial projects identified by trustees were:

  • To run introductory world wide web community workshops
  • To establish the (e)-Vision digital media centre
  • To promote the development of W4 (Wellington World Wide Web) to community groups
  • To co-manage the New Zealand SunSITE, with Victoria and Waikato Universities
  • To organise a Netday for cabling Wellington schools

The overriding goal for all of these projects was to enhance the digital capability of the people of Wellington so that they could participate more actively in the wired city. The focus on digital literacy has remained at the heart of all 2020 Trust initiatives ever since.

Building digital skills

In the mid-to-late 1990s the World Wide Web (WWW) was emerging as an exciting new way to access information online. Academics in tertiary institutions with fat Internet pipes were quick to take advantage of this new tool. However, most other people in the community did not have access to the technology nor the skills to start using the web. The 2020 Trust therefore engaged its trustees to start sharing their knowledge with members of the community at Sunday afternoon web workshops, held in the computer laboratory at Wellington High School.

Trustees (past and present) at the 10th anniversary celebration held in the Grand Hall at Parliament, November 2006.

These workshops were a good early example of how the 2020 Trust operates. Its initiatives have a strong practical hands-on focus, with trustees taking an active role in programme delivery.

The real challenge though was to establish a dedicated digital media centre, accessible to the whole community, to provide a hub for ongoing digital skill development. The establishment of a digital media centre for communication, art and technology was one of the cornerstones of the Wellington Info City strategy. In 1997, the council set aside $100,000 to help with establishment costs, but would not release the funds until at least three times this amount was secured from other partners. By June 1998, this target was achieved through the provision of donated equipment and in-kind services from 15 business partners, and on 1 July 1998 an independent not-for-profit trust (the (e)-Vision Trust) was established to set up and operate what became known as the (e)-Vision centre. Foundation trustees were Jon Donovan (chair), Jill Wilson, Jan Bieringa and myself. Paul Reynolds also joined as a trustee later in 1998. The purpose of the Trust, as specified in the Trust Deed was:

  1. to promote and develop knowledge and skills relating to New Media technologies among students at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary, as well as post tertiary) teachers, businesses and citizens in the Wellington region and, from time to time, in other areas in new Zealand
  2. to promote and facilitate the appreciation and enjoyment of the arts through the medium of New Media technologies
  3. to promote and facilitate communication using New Media technologies.

The first pilot programmes were held at the (e)-Vision Centre with school groups in June and July 1998, and the popularity of the centre grew quickly. By the time of the official opening on 28 November 1998, the centre was already being regularly used for ‘web breakfasts’, digital media programmes for school children, event launches, international videoconferences and digital planning meetings. This was largely due to the welcoming venue located on the ground floor on the corner of Blair and Wakefield streets in the heart of Wellington’s media precinct and rapidly growing restaurant centre. The 2000-square-foot venue was leased from building owner Luit Bieringa, at a heavily subsidised rental, and this helped greatly in keeping overhead costs manageable. The large windows encouraged passers-by to look inside and see people using the computers and other high technology equipment. This was important in helping to demystify computer technology by letting people see it in action. Just as important was the high speed Internet connection to (e)-Vision, supported by Hal King and John Vorsterman from Actrix, one of New Zealand’s first Internet service providers, that just happened to be located in the same building.

2020 Trust AGM being held at (e)-Vision, October 2001.

The centre was used extensively over a number of years by business and school groups as well as the general public for exhibitions, workshops, training and presentations. While (e)-Vision was a huge success in terms of the activities hosted there, the financial viability presented an ongoing challenge. After five years of managing to just balance the books and with limited cash flow that at times relied on the goodwill of the centre’s manager, Jan Bieringa, to accept a rain check for her salary, trustees decided at the end of 2003 to hand over operations to Ernie Newman at the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ). TUANZ faced the same challenges in operating the centre profitably, and perhaps not surprisingly, one year later they closed the doors.

While it was disappointing to see (e)-Vision close down, it had helped to bridge a gap for many in terms of access to computer and Internet technologies. By 2004, the availability of Internet-connected computer suites for training had grown significantly at universities, schools, private training organisations and in conference and meeting venues.

But as one digital door closed, others were opening right into people’s homes. Computers in Homes has, without doubt, been the 2020 Trust’s most successful digital literacy initiative. In 10 years the programme has reached over 5000 families, and there are positive signs that the programme could expand to reach the remaining 95,000 families with school-aged children who do not have a computer and Internet connection in their homes.

Clare Coman (2020 Director, 2000–01), Di Das (Computers in Homes coordinator, 2004–present) and Barbara Craig (Trustee) at the launch of Stepping UP, February 2009.

Computers in Homes began with what was probably a throw away remark at (e)-Vision on 11 April 2000, by the then director of the 2020 Communications Trust, Harvey Malloy. He suggested to Clare Coman, the incoming director of 2020, that the Trust should do something like Alan Duff’s very successful Books in Homes programme but call it Computers in Homes. At the table were 2020 Trustees, Ashley Blair, Principal of Cannons Creek School in Porirua, and Barbara Craig, a lecturer in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington. The Trust was in the final stages of planning for NetDay 2000, an initiative that was wiring up schools for the digital age, and the group started to think about what could come next. Computer Access New Zealand (CANZ) was underway promoting the use of refurbished computers for schools. The suggestion to connect homes to schools using low cost refurbished computers and Internet connections seemed a good idea. Clare suggested that a pilot programme could be launched at Cannons Creek with a computer and Internet connection being provided to every family; Ashley suggested a more cautious approach by starting with 25 families and seeing how things went, and so Computers in Homes was born.

Carol Moffatt, who was working with the Ministry of Education developing ICT strategies for schools, needed no persuasion about the opportunities such a programme would present in strengthening links between schools and homes, and managed to find some funding to support a similar initiative in Auckland at Panmure Bridge school. Word spread quickly and other schools started to express interest. Another Ministry official, Joe Doherty, saw the opportunity for Māori and secured funding for a pilot in the Tuhoe region, working with the Tuhoe Education Authority to connect some of their most isolated rural families.

Another early influence in the development of Computers in Homes was Graham Kelly, MP for Porirua. Graham was invited to officiate at the graduation of the first families at Cannons Creek school and he mentioned he had seen similar programmes operating in the USA and strongly supported an expansion within Porirua in particular and New Zealand in general. In June 2001, he set up the Porirua City Community IT Educational Trust (E-Learning Porirua) to champion the roll-out of Computers in Homes to all Porirua families without access to a computer; now, nearly 10 years later, this has proved to be the largest Computers in Homes initiative in the country.

Meanwhile, securing sufficient funding for a national coordinator was proving a challenge. Trustee Barbara Craig recognised the opportunity and the need for research if the programme was to gain traction and persuaded Mike Doig and Dr Paul Froggatt in Victoria University of Wellington’s research arm, Viclink, to take over administrative responsibility for Computers in Homes. This provided accommodation and support for Clare Coman to continue developing the programme while at the same time supporting Viclink initiatives. The partnership with Viclink worked well for a number of years until the programme was scaled up sufficiently to support a full-time coordinator.

In September 2001, Computers in Homes was one of three winners (selected from 23 finalists) in the education section of the prestigious Stockholm Challenge Award 2001. Clare Coman and Barbara Craig travelled to Stockholm to receive the award.

Fuelled by this international recognition and the positive results being reported from the initial pilot programmes, the Trust secured funding support in 2004 from the government’s Community Employment Group (CEG) to appoint a full-time Computers in Homes coordinator, Di Das. Di was a student of trustee, Barbara Craig, at Victoria University and was completing her Master’s thesis on Māori and Pacific Education. Barbara had introduced Di to Computers in Homes in February 2000, and she later wrote in a paper presented to an international conference that this ‘changed my life forever’. Di continues today (2010) as the national Computers in Homes coordinator.

The Trust also approached the Ministry of Education for support at this time to help scale up the programme. Don Ferguson, who was working in the Refugee and Migrant Resettlement Group, recognised the benefits for refugees and developed a policy initiative for ongoing support for around 100 refugee families each year. Don had observed the positive outcomes from donations of computer equipment by Rotary groups and The Ark to the 133 ‘Tampa’ boys from Afghanistan, who settled in New Zealand after being rescued at sea off the Australian coast in August 2001 by the Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa. Families with teenagers are given priority as there is only a short window of time to engage them in education. Furthermore, parental involvement in education is foreign to most new arrival refugee families and Computers in Homes is a good way to connect them with their children’s education. In 2010, the Computers in Homes programme for refugees is still in place.

Carol Moffatt and her successor, Murray Brown, from the IT Policy Unit at the Ministry of Education continued to provide support wherever they could to new pilot programmes. But in the absence of any significant policy work, the programme continued as a series of relatively small-scale pilots. Part of the difficulty for the Trust was in identifying which government agency should take the lead. Computers in Homes was delivering benefits for children (Ministry of Education), parents (Tertiary Education Commission and Department of Labour), and communities (Department of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Health, Ministry for the Environment, Te Puni Kokiri, Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs).

When the government launched its Digital Strategy in 2005 with a contestable funding pool (the Community Partnership Fund — CPF), the 2020 Trust was quick to put Computers in Homes forward as a proven project. In the first CPF round (2006/07), four Computers in Homes ‘scale-up’ regional projects were approved on the West Coast of the South Island, in South Taranaki, Wanganui and Gisborne, supporting a total of 850 families. In the second round (2007/08), a further six regional projects were approved in the Far North, Ngati Porou East Coast, rural Gisborne, Wairoa and Porirua supporting a total of 950 families as well as around 20 families for an exciting new initiative with the Kelston Deaf Education Centre (KDEC), linking families with their children resident at KDEC using videoconferencing technologies. In the third and what is to be the final round (2009/10), another 10 projects were approved, including all of the existing eight regions, but also expanding to Whangarei and Hamilton. In this third CPF round a total of 1584 families are being supported. The CPF provided a welcome ‘whole-of-government’ approach to digital initiatives and enabled successful projects like Computers in Homes to expand and reach whole communities.

But the Trust remained frustrated by the slow progress towards connecting the 100,000 families with school-aged children, who in 2006 did not have a computer or Internet connection in their homes. In February 2009, the Trust launched its 100,000 Challenge — to connect all these families, so that all children have equitable learning opportunities in their homes, not only with access to the technologies, but also with access to parents who know enough about computers and the Internet to be able to support their children.

By the end of 2009, the Ministry of Economic Development, supported by the Ministry of Education, had undertaken detailed research into Computers in Homes outcomes to support policy development work for migrating the programme into mainstream government funding. We hope this will be achieved in 2010, which will be a fitting recognition of the pioneering and persevering spirit that has maintained the programme for a decade.

Computers in Homes national coordinating group meeting at Mahia, March 2010.

In early 2008, the Porirua Digital Trust received a generous donation of computer equipment from Hewlett Packard; sufficient equipment to equip eight learning centres for use by Computers in Homes and for other digital literacy training. The Porirua team approached Microsoft New Zealand for a matching donation of software. Microsoft suggested a national application to their global Unlimited Potential programme which provided not only donations of software, but also funding for computer training. This would then provide support to not only Porirua but to all Computers in Homes clusters. Assisted by Belinda Gorman, Microsoft’s Community Adviser, and Alex Broughton, Microsoft’s Government Relations Director, the 2020 Communications Trust applied for support to deliver training to 4800 people over three years. The application was approved and a new digital literacy programme, Stepping UP was launched with a parliamentary reception hosted by the Hon Steven Joyce, Minister for Communications and Information Technology, in February 2009.

Stepping UP delivers flexible training in small chunks — each digital step is a 2.5 hour module that aims to upskill the learner with some practical tools to help them secure a job or develop within an existing job. While the programme is targeted at Computers in Homes graduates, it is open to the whole community. By early 2010, over 1000 people had completed four digital steps.

In 2009, Stepping UP programmes were launched in six areas — West Coast of the South Island, Porirua, Wanganui, Wellington, Kaitaia and Gisborne. In 2010, the programme is being extended to a further five regions (Taranaki, Wairoa, Ngati Porou East Coast, Hamilton and South Auckland).

Creating digital content

Wellington took an early lead in establishing an online web presence, thanks largely to the innovative endeavours of Richard Naylor during his time as Director of Information Services for Wellington City Council. Soon after his appointment in 1986, Richard recognised the benefits of dial-up access to council information for Wellington businesses and when he purchased eight modems to provide remote access for his own staff, he purchased another eight for councillors and eight for the general public. Commenting on this purchase a decade later Richard recalled, ‘Of course, neither the councillors nor the public knew they needed them yet, but I figured they would soon enough.’

During the early 1990s, Wellington City Council provided an online listing of community organisations — Capital Directories — but as the World Wide Web emerged, this information migrated to become the Wellington World Wide Web pages (W4). The new flexibility provided by the web enabled community groups to establish and more importantly, maintain their own online presence. Furthermore, the webhosting platform was free to community groups.

In 1996, WCC assigned responsibility to the 2020 Communications Trust to continue assisting community groups to establish an online presence. The first neighbourhood community in Wellington (and probably in New Zealand) to establish a site on what is now called Wellington Community Net (WCN) was the Island Bay community. Local resident Tim Jordan produced this first site and managed the 2020 website for many years. He has continued to support community web development ever since.

Launch of Stepping UP and the 100,000 Challenge in the Grand Hall at Parliament, February 2009. From left: Kevin Ackhurst (Microsoft), Hon Stephen Joyce (Minister for Information Technology), Earl Mardle (2020 chair) and Laurence Zwimpfer (trustee).

In 1998, the council contracted an external consultant, Mike Pownall, to negotiate an arrangement with the 2020 Trust for taking full responsibility for W4, including relocating the host servers, which were still supported as part of the council’s internal information services department, to an independent third party. The business case for supporting a fully independent online portal proved challenging and, in the end, the council agreed to continue hosting the servers with contracted support initially from a local software developer, Katipo, and more recently from another local developer, Catalyst.

In 2002, responsibility for managing WCN transferred to the Wellington Region 2020 Communications Trust, or Wellington ICT as it is now known. Tim Jordan was formally contracted by Wellington ICT to coordinate and support WCN and during the last eight years the number of groups using WCN has grown from around 200 to around 600.

2010 is expected to be another milestone in the development of Wellington Community Net, as Wellington ICT’s management contract terminates on 30 June.

One of the foundation trustees for the 2020 Communications Trust, John Heard, was engineering director at Sun Microsystems, the New Zealand distributor for Sun computer systems. Sun had donated a SunSITE host computer to New Zealand and while this was physically located at Waikato University in Hamilton, the web editor was at Victoria University in Wellington and the 2020 Communications Trust had responsibility for promoting the use of the site. While the original purpose of the global network of SunSITE servers was to facilitate the sharing of software between academic institutions around the world, New Zealand schools were invited to use the server for hosting their websites. By 1998, some frustration was growing amongst the three partners (Waikato, Victoria, 2020
Trust) that the site was not being used to its full potential. In the absence of a single driver, and only minimal operational funding resources, SunSITE was in danger of falling into disuse. The original need for a global network of mirrored servers was also diminishing as increasingly powerful Internet search engines could quickly locate software of interest. As a result the 2020 Trust started to explore new ways in which the SunSITE server could be used.

By mid-2000, working in collaboration with the National Library of New Zealand and Sun Microsystems, a proposal to launch a new initiative for schools called Living Heritage was developed. The idea was that schools could build websites about heritage resources in their community and when completed the sites would be hosted on the SunSITE server, which the National Library agreed to manage. This initiative enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Graeme Coe, who was the IT director for the National Library, and Geraldine Howell, who was in charge of school library services. As the National Library was a major user of Sun servers, Murray McNae, the Managing Director of Sun Microsystems, was also happy about this new direction.

The National Library provided a grant to the 2020 Trust for the period from June 2000 to December 2001, enabling the recruitment of a full-time project manager (Emily Flaws) to develop the concept of Living Heritage and commence implementation. The project was supported by a Steering Committee, chaired by Paul Reynolds and including representatives from the 2020 Trust, the National Library, the School Library Association New Zealand Aotearoa (SLANZA), the Library and Information Association New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA) and the Māori Language Commission.

By 2002, the establishment funding was exhausted and trustees had not been successful in securing new funding partners. 2020 trustee, Kath Norton, who is a director of CWA New Media, which had been providing technical support for Living Heritage during the establishment phase, recognised the value of the initiative and with the support of her partners, Jill Wilson and David Copeland, agreed to nurture the initiative until new funding sources were identified. As it happened this took some five years, but eventually an application to the Community Partnership Fund for support in 2006/07 proved successful and again in 2007/08 and for a third time in 2009/10. CWA New Media generously agreed to provide matching in-kind funding that made these bids possible.

In 2003, Living Heritage was recognised as a winner in the e-culture section of the inaugural World Summit Awards. However, despite this international accolade, the challenge remained to provide sustaining funding. The National Commission for UNESCO in New Zealand helped to raise the profile of the project by presenting a special award in 2004 to three schools that had created Living Heritage sites consistent with the aims of UNESCO. The National Commission presented another three awards in 2007 and again in 2009.

As at the end of 2009, some 88 Living Heritage sites had been published with another 30 expected to be completed by the end of 2010. However, as with other 2020 projects, the challenge remains in securing sustaining funding and embedding Living Heritage into ‘business as usual’. Only then will it grow to reach its potential.

Strengthening the digital infrastructure

An important part of the community computing story is in schools. With 760,000 New Zealanders (17.5% of the total population) attending school, access to computers and the Internet were identified as early priorities. In 1995, there was one computer for every 10 students in a secondary school and one for every 18 primary school students. By 2009, these ratios had improved to one computer for every three secondary students and one for every four primary students.

Under New Zealand’s decentralised model of school governance and funding (introduced in 1989 as Tomorrow’s Schools), each of the country’s 2560 schools is governed by a parent-elected board of trustees. The government provides these schools with an annual operating grant to cover support staff salaries, building maintenance and other operating costs. How schools spend their operating grant is a local decision and this has meant that expenditure on information and communications technologies (ICTs) must compete with other funding demands. The priority has therefore been to win the hearts and minds of boards of trustees, school principals and teachers and persuade them about the benefits of using ICTs in teaching and learning. The government, through the Ministry of Education, has given priority to ICT professional development for teachers to ensure the use of technologies in learning have a strong pedagogical driver, as opposed to being ‘technology for technology’s sake’.

The Ministry has also supported the 2020 Communications Trust with a number of its school-based initiatives to expand the use of technology in schools and in students’ homes. During the last 15 years, this has included NetDay, Computer Access New Zealand, eDay and Computers in Homes.

In March 1996, an estimated 250,000 volunteers wired 50,000 schools in the United States as a first step towards Internet access. The 2020 Trust was quick to recognise a similar need in New Zealand, and in June 1997 launched a pilot NetDay programme for 36 Wellington schools. The programme recognised the high labour component of wiring up schools and engaged parent volunteers to help. The cabling hardware, including the Category 5 wiring and networking equipment, was bulk purchased at discounted prices from Mike Stacey Business Development Manager at Tyco Electronics. Mike also made a huge personal contribution in preparing training materials and running hands-on training session for NetDay volunteers around the country. Schools were able to secure supplementary funding from a Ministry of Education capital works fund to cover the cost of materials, while using voluntary labour as their in-kind contribution.

The programme expanded progressively to reach over 600 schools (nearly 25% of all New Zealand schools) by 2001. In the five years from 1997 to 2002, and after four national NetDays, the number of schools with data networks increased from 20% to 85%.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of the NetDay programme was to secure the support of the Ministry of Education in setting standards and recognising data cabling and associated equipment (switches, hubs, patch panels, routers) as part of the capital infrastructure of schools. By 2001, all new school buildings were being fully networked during construction.

However, the challenge remained for many existing school buildings, as schools started to recognise the benefits of networking all classrooms. In 2005, less than 70% of schools reported that more than 80% of their classrooms were networked, meaning that over 850 schools still had limited networking. In the same year, the Ministry of Education commenced Stage 1 of its School Network Upgrade Project (SNUP). Some 333 schools, mostly rural and very small ones, were upgraded. In 2007, this was extended to a further 90 schools. In 2009, the government announced a further $150M to continue upgrading schools’ internal cabling in preparation for the use of ultra-fast broadband. This stage of the upgrade programme includes a fibre link from a school building to the boundary, where it is expected to connect to fibre running past the school either today or in the future. The government’s goal is to have 97% of all schools, serving 99.7% of all students, accessing ultra-fast broadband (with speeds of 100Mbps or greater) within six years.

NetDay is an excellent example of how a 2020 Trust initiative progressed from a fledgling community-driven project in 1997 into a major multimillion dollar government-supported programme.

During the 1990s, while NetDay was helping schools build computer networks, schools were facing a related challenge — how to afford the computers to connect to their networks. A new computer cost around $3000 and schools did not receive any specific funding help from government. Most parents with school-aged children at this time will remember the sausage sizzles and other fundraising efforts schools had to organise to secure funds for their first computer, and setting up a whole classroom as a computer laboratory was well beyond the reach of most schools.

By the late 1990s, businesses and government departments were starting to refresh their computers, moving from the older 486 PCs to the better performing Pentium machines that were first introduced in 1993. Schools were quick to approach organisations replacing computer equipment to secure the cast-offs. But this created a problem for schools and for the donor organisations. Schools needed the original operating system licences to be able to use the machines legally, but these had normally been dumped well before the computer was replaced. Donors also discovered that it was not that straightforward to gift an old computer to a school. Schools generally needed help in both setting up the computers and with ongoing support and their first point of call was often to the donor. While organisations were generally happy to donate their old equipment to schools, they could not entertain the idea of ongoing support. A much less costly option was to quietly dump their old computers in landfills or as was reported in one case, out to sea.

The 2020 Trust became closely involved in trying to broker deals with government departments and large businesses disposing of computer equipment and quickly realised the donation model would not work, especially in terms of ongoing support. Around the same time, some community groups and entrepreneurs were trying to build businesses around refurbishing computers. Under this model, they would acquire surplus equipment from government and business organisations, security wipe the hard drives, remove any identifying marks on the computer (to protect the identity of the source) and sell the refurbished product to schools and community groups. Some even offered a limited warranty on the machine. In order to cover the costs of refurbishment, including a new keyboard and mouse, and often other parts such as CD drives and speakers, as well as handling and after-sales support costs, refurbishers were able to offer warranted machines at around $300, or just 10% of the cost of a new machine.

In order to encourage the donation of surplus machines and promote the use of refurbished computers, the 2020 Trust, with support from the Ministry of Education, established an affiliated trust in 1999 called Computer Access New Zealand (CANZ). The establishment trustees were myself (chair), Ashley Blair, Joan Duignan, John MacGibbon and Carol Moffatt, representing the Ministry of Education. In 2002, Douglas Harré replaced Carol as the Ministry’s representative, and Joan resigned. In 2006 Kevin Win replaced Ashley as the schools’ representative. Graeme Osborne also joined as a trustee in 2006.

For a decade, CANZ has worked with accredited computer refurbishers, who share a code of practice and work to agreed standards. One of the original CANZ accredited refurbishers, The Ark Computers, based in Auckland, is still a member although it has seen three different owners during the decade (Bob Lye, Cory Dyer and Brian Lawrence). The other two accredited CANZ members are Remarkit Solutions (Tim Findlay), based in Wellington, and HCC Pacific (Bas Watson and Peter Brooks), with facilities in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

The other critically important CANZ partner has been Microsoft. In the early years, there was much debate about the legality of operating system licences on refurbished machines; however, the introduction of the Certificate of Authenticity (COA) permanently affixed to PC boxes and the Community Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher (Community MAR) programme has made the use of refurbished computers by schools, non-profit and community organisations very affordable.

CANZ has achieved considerable success, with thousands of computers being donated each year and refurbished. However, the original target market — schools — has progressively diminished, as schools have moved to leased equipment and higher performing newer equipment. In fact, as schools become more technology rich and sophisticated in their need for high performing computers, it has been suggested it is perhaps time for the tables to turn and for schools to donate their surplus computers back to business!

CANZ Trust meeting at (e)-Vision, October 2001. From left: Alistair Fraser, Bob Lye, Douglas Harré, Ashley Blair, Stephen Bailey, Laurence Zwimpfer and John MacGibbon.

In the ‘ICT in Schools Report 2009’, while over half of all schools were aware of the CANZ scheme, less than a quarter of these had actually purchased a refurbished computer. Furthermore, looking forward, only 10% of schools indicated they would definitely be purchasing refurbished machines in the future. As a result, the Ministry of Education has indicated that they expect to withdraw their support for CANZ in 2010, since the original objectives have now been largely achieved.

In recent years, CANZ has transferred its energies to take a more active role in promoting responsible recycling of computer equipment when it reaches end of life.

Tackling the digital waste

In 2006, Tim Findlay, from Remarkit Solutions, drew the CANZ trustees’ attention to the free community computer recycling days being held in Australia and supported by Ann Brownlow from Dell in Sydney. Trustees liked the idea, as the government, through the Ministry for the Environment, was encouraging equipment suppliers to take responsibility for the electronic waste they were producing. While CANZ was not a manufacturer, it was responsible for promoting the use of computers and felt some sense of responsibility for ensuring that equipment was disposed of safely when it reached end of life. Trustees approached Dell, and Ann agreed to support a pilot computer recycling day in Wellington. This was held in September 2006 with CANZ organising the volunteers. It was a huge success, with over 1100 cars dropping off over 50 tonnes of computer waste. This exceeded everyone’s expectations, not least of which Dell’s, which had been used to 10 tonne collections in Australia.

The event achieved national television and widespread print media coverage. So much so, that the phones started ringing from local authorities in other centres, asking Dell to support similar events in their communities. Understandably, Dell did not want to take responsibility for all of New Zealand’s e-waste and the inquiries were referred to CANZ. By early 1997, some 15 centres had approached CANZ wanting support for a local computer recycling day.

CANZ Trustees, Douglas Harré and Laurence Zwimpfer (left and right) and Lara Charles (Chilli) receive the Wellington Region Supreme Award in the Wellington Airport Community Awards for eDay from Minister of Social Development, Hon Paula Bennett, October 2009.

In 2007 CANZ agreed to coordinate a national e-waste day, that was branded as eDay (electronic waste day), in partnership with interested territorial authorities. The first national eDay was held in September 2007, with 12 centres participating. Some 7000 cars dropped off 415 tonnes of e-waste. A similar event was held in October 2008. This time the number of participating centres increased to 33, with 946 tonnes being collected. In 2009, eDay expanded again to 38 centres participating on the day with another 15 centres organising local community collections and consolidating their e-waste at an eDay collection point. The total weight of e-waste collected was 976 tonnes.

By 2009, eDay had grown into a million dollar annual event. The engagement of a professional communications team from Chilli Marketing, led by Lara Charles, resulted in a high national media profile, with national television coverage and extensive print and online media coverage. The primary objective of eDay is to raise community awareness of the benefits of recycling and the potential risks associated with dumping computers in landfills. The practical hands-on nature of eDay is consistent with the 2020 Trust’s modus operandi — to raise awareness by doing something practical that engages people and provides direct community benefits.

In 2008, eDay was recognised by the government with a Green Ribbon Award, and in 2009 at the PricewaterhouseCoopers Hi-Tech Awards for outstanding industry initiative. In October 2009, CANZ was recognised as the Wellington region winner in the Heritage and Environment section of the Wellington Airport Community Awards, as well as the Wellington region supreme winner. eDay promotes a partnership between central government, industry and local communities, and the three awards acknowledge the success of this partnership.

eDay has certainly stirred things up and helped to raise public awareness around the challenges presented by the growing volumes of electronic waste, which is now recognised as the fastest growing type of waste in the world. However, despite the awards, big challenges remain in ensuring that New Zealand has a sustainable ongoing solution.

The digital pioneers

None of the above would have been possible without the immense energy and enthusiasm of the digital pioneers — the people who have led the 2020 Trust and managed its programmes. In the beginning, there was Earl Mardle.

Earl, a radio journalist in a previous life, was appointed as the Trust’s first coordinator in 1996. Earl quickly demonstrated that he not only could ‘talk the talk’ but also ‘walk the digital talk’. A comment at his farewell two years later summed up his digital focus; it was suggested that with Earl’s departure, Wellington Internet Service Providers could expect a dip in their online traffic! After nearly three years with the Trust and a long list of achievements, including an appointment to the international judging panel for the Stockholm city sponsored Bangemann Challenge, he moved to Sydney (for affairs of the heart) and this proved the first real test of the robustness of the Trust. The inaugural chair, Cr Celia Wade-Brown, had already stood down in 1998 and been replaced by myself. So with the two main drivers behind the trust having moved on, it was up to a new guard to maintain momentum with existing initiatives while continuing to innovate new ones.

Dr Harvey Molloy, an information architect with a PhD in English, was appointed as director of the Trust in March 1999, but less than a year later, like Earl, Harvey was attracted to an overseas position, this time in Singapore. And again like Earl, Harvey was able to chalk up some significant achievements with the launch of the largest NetDay project, involving over 500 schools, revitalising interest in the W4 community website and assisting community groups and small businesses in checking their computers for Y2K compliance. Harvey also supported a monthly forum on computer networking for schools and a digital media seminar series at (e)-Vision.

With Harvey moving on a little unexpectedly it was back to the drawing board, and one month later in March 2000, Clare Coman was appointed as the new director. Clare came to the Trust after 10 years experience as a technology teacher, originally in the United Kingdom, but also at Kapiti College. Clare’s experience as a teacher proved invaluable in launching and guiding two of the trust’s most sustaining activities — Computers in Homes and Living Heritage. Clare also played a big role in partnering with the Wellington City Council and the Newtown Community in the development of Smart Newtown. I stood down as chair at the 2000 Annual General Meeting and was replaced by Ian Thomson, who was to remain in this position for the next four years.

Eighteen months later, in August 2001, the trust faced another change in director. Clare had elected to return to the United Kingdom. Fortunately, there was plenty of interest in taking on the role and eventually Alistair Fraser was selected from a strong field of 19 applicants. By this time, the success of the trust was gaining attention around the country with an increasing number of initiatives taking on a national dimension. Wellington City Council was becoming increasingly nervous at justifying support for a national trust, feeling this was beyond the scope of its role as a territorial authority. Alistair was therefore charged with the mandate of splitting the activities of the trust into those that were Wellington-specific, which would be managed by a new Wellington 2020 trust, while the national initiatives would continue under the existing trust. This had significant implications for the national activities, as the split would mean the loss of core operational funding; in turn this would mean the national trust would need to rely on voluntary effort from trustees, as there was no regular income to fund a director. Alistair moved to lead the Wellington 2020 Trust in February 2002. Special mention should be made of trustee, Bill Dashfield, who was largely responsible for masterminding the split of activities and launching the two trusts on their respective paths. For eight years now, the national 2020 Trust has operated without a director.

In 2004, Ian Thomson retired as chair and was replaced for a short term by Andrea Gray and then by Don Hollander, who led the trust for a further four years until 2008. Since 2002, trustees have accepted responsibility for individual projects, and, where possible, project managers have been funded from project funds. A significant change occurred at the end of June 2009, when I resigned as Treasurer and Trustee to take on a funded contract and project management role. The number of funding and service contracts being managed by the trust totalled over 60 and the work involved was beyond what could be reasonably expected from a voluntary role. The trust continues to operate in this way, with project funds the only source of income. A small percentage of project funds are used to maintain the core operations of the trust.

In 2008, with the retirement of Don Hollander, Earl Mardle, who had returned to New Zealand, was appointed chairperson. So, as they say, ‘what goes around, comes around’. Strong connections also remain with two of the other previous directors. Clare Coman, who continues to live in the United Kingdom provides ongoing support for the Trust’s online surveys — for eDay, Computers in Homes and Stepping UP, and Alistair Fraser leads the Computers in Homes, Stepping UP and eDay programmes in Wanganui.

The large number of 2020 foundation trustees (22) worked well in identifying the broad interest in creating a more digitally-enabled population. However, from an operational point of view, it was extremely difficult for Earl, as trust coordinator, to maintain the level of engagement necessary to ensure everyone felt involved. With the separation of the national trust from the Wellington group in 2002, the opportunity was taken to limit the number of trustees to a more workable number (around 10). Only one of the foundation trustees, Simon Riley, remains as a trustee in 2010. Others have joined progressively, exploiting synergies between their ‘normal’ lives and the goals of the Trust. Current trustees are Barbara Craig, Christine Makumbe, Kath Norton, Simon Riley, Sue Sutherland, Michael Wigley, Josh Williams, Laurence Millar, Adele Barlow, Piripi Moore, and of course Earl Mardle, as chair.

Thinking digitally

While the 2020 Trust has primarily focused on ‘digital action’, i.e. engaging in practical community-based digital initiatives, trustees have also made the effort to initiate and participate in ‘digital thought’, i.e. promoting opportunities for people to meet and discuss the implications of migrating towards a more digitally connected world. In some ways the process was sparked by the two World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS), the first in Geneva in 2003 and the second in Tunis in 2005. Trustees Don Hollander, Ian Thomson and I were all engaged in these global discussions and this provided an impetus for the trust to take a leadership role in New Zealand. This included a series of consultations to develop a community perspective of the information society. In subsequent years, the trust, mainly through the efforts of Simon Riley and Don Hollander, assisted in organising a Digital Cities Conference, bringing together the country’s mayors and council officials, all of whom recognised the importance of the emerging digital economy, but were unsure exactly what to do about it. Don was also instrumental in securing support from UNESCO New Zealand and InternetNZ for organising a lunch-time seminar series, called Impact ’08, exploring the social, cultural and ethical impact of information and communication technologies in a number of fields, including entertainment, agriculture, social interaction and identity. The seminars ran simultaneously through the Access Grid, an advanced videoconferencing network at Auckland University, Waikato University, Victoria University of Wellington, Canterbury University and Lincoln University.

In the later years of the 2005–08 Labour-led government, the 2020 Trust was an establishment partner in the Digital Development Council, a government-backed initiative to harness the significant energy that was evident in the community and business sectors for progressing towards a digital future. A highlight came at the end of 2007, when the Trust was invited to represent the community sector in presenting at the government’s Digital Future Summit. The key message delivered at the summit was that communities were ready to take the next step towards a digital future; the next step was for government and business to move on from digital pilots and projects to mainstream policies and programmes.

Reaching out digitally

When Don Hollander took over as chair of the Trust in 2004, he had recently returned from working in Samoa and was very aware of the great opportunities that ICTs could provide for people in the Pacific Island countries. But there were huge challenges in terms of the remoteness of many of the Pacific islands, the lack of underlying telecommunications and power infrastructure and the shortage of skilled personnel to support any technology deployment. Undeterred, Don, supported by trustee Ian Thomson, initiated a number of projects in the Pacific that helped to demonstrate the benefits of ICTs. This included establishing a Wi-Fi link in 2006 between a school on the Samoan island of Manono back to Apia on the main island, providing Internet connectivity to the remote Marovo Lagoon area of the Solomon Islands in 2007 and helping with the reconstruction of the Samoan telecentres destroyed by the 2009 tsunami. A key feature of these projects in the Pacific Islands was the partnerships involved in their implementation — a combination of international expertise and local ownership. In the case of the Manono Wi-Fi link, the 2020 Trust partnered with Computer Services Limited (CSL), a local private sector company, the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) and PacINET, the annual conference of the Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society (PICISOC). The Marovo Lagoon project was supported by local businesses, the Solomon Islands government, regional and international partners, including Aus Aid (Australia Aid programme), SPC (Secretariat of the Pacific Community) and OLPC Boston (One Laptop Per Child) as well as the 2020 Trust.

Don organised the first ICT Pasifika conference, held in March 2006 in conjunction with the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) Wellington meeting and Pacific Communications Forum for South Pacific Ministers. He also initiated Pacific Internet Partners (PIP) to support the development of technical skills within Pacific Island countries. PIP was managed by the 2020 Trust, with support from UNESCO in New Zealand, InternetNZ and, for the first few years, from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Don also introduced New Zealand to the Global Knowledge Partnership and was successful in securing funding for ICT development projects in the Pacific, including the above Marovo Lagoon and Manono Wi-Fi projects. As chair of the 2020 Trust, he also took an active role in GKP and was elected as Regional Coordinator — Oceania for a term (2006–07).

But the opportunities for digital development were not only in the remote Pacific Islands; the Trust discovered a growing need in New Zealand’s own communities. In April 2008, the Waikato 2020 Communications Trust held the country’s first Engage Your Community (e-EYC) conference. The conference focused on web tools and their use and potential for non-profit community groups and other voluntary organisations. The event was very successful and has been subsequently held in Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch, supported by local 2020 affiliates and more recently by the New Zealand Federation of Voluntary and Welfare Organisations.

A key philosophy of the 2020 Trust has been to work with and support communities in implementing their own local programmes. While in some areas there have already been organisations that recognise digital literacy for their community as a priority, in other areas we have encouraged local enthusiasts to establish a dedicated trust. During the last decade trusts modelled on the 2020 Trust have been established in the Waikato, Rotorua, Porirua, the Far North and Taranaki. Some of these have integrated the philosophy of 2020 with an explicit link in their name, e.g. Waikato 2020 Communications Trust, 2020 Far North ICT Trust. Others have focused more on ICT, including Rotorua ICT Trust, ICT Wellington, while others have chosen to emphasise learning, including the e-Learning Porirua Trust and the Taranaki e-Learning Trust. Each trust is independent, but through the magic of online tools such as blogs and wikis and even email lists, each is able to feel supported by the others and share ideas. The eDay initiative has been one of the most successful in this regard with the 2020 affiliates often being the first to step up to the mark to take responsibility within their respective regions.

Territorial authorities have also been, and continue to be, important partners for the 2020 Trust in promoting digital connectivity and literacy in their communities. This of course includes Wellington, where it all started, but has progressively reached a number of other councils, notably in Porirua, Gisborne and Wanganui.

The 2020 Trust has also encouraged partnerships with like-minded organi­sa­tions. InternetNZ has been a sustaining partner for many years and has assisted with funding for many of the Trust’s projects. There has been a close synergy with the work of NetSafe, with key elements of Internet safety being included as an integral part of Computers in Homes. In 2008, the Trust joined the New Zealand Federation of Voluntary and Welfare Organisations (NZFVWO) to explore possible synergies — the partnership with Engage Your Community was an early outcome. Like Computers in Homes, the Computer Clubhouse received significant support from the third round of the Community Partnership Fund. The Computer Clubhouse provides high-end digital learning opportunities for youth in disadvantaged communities and while this is a different group to those traditionally supported by the 2020 Trust through Computers in Homes, the geographic regions are often the same. The Trust has made a commitment to develop this relationship as new Computer Clubhouses are established.

In 2009, the Trust commenced discussions with Grant Sidaway from the SeniorNet organisation, which had established over 80 learning centres throughout the country. SeniorNet supports people who are over 55 and who have never had the opportunity to develop computer skills. A successful pilot was held in Kaitaia towards the end of 2009 with the local SeniorNet centre delivering Stepping UP modules to a number of Computers in Homes graduates.

The evolving digital environment

While this chapter has focused mainly on the efforts and achievements of just one of New Zealand’s digital pioneers — the 2020 Communications Trust, it would not be fair to conclude the story without acknowledging the efforts of some others who shared the Trust’s vision of a more digitally connected and digitally empowered New Zealand. Steven Blyth, who was employed by the Community Development Group in the Department of Internal Affairs, was instrumental in organising the pioneering Flaxroots Technology Conferences for communities interested in both using digital technologies and in exploring how to address ‘digital divide’ issues. The first Flaxroots conference was held in Wellington in April 2000 and some 230 people participated. The second was held in April 2002 at three venues (Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin) and over 400 people participated. A third mini-conference, attended by over 100 people, was held in Kaitaia in September 2003, specifically to showcase the use of technology in rural areas.

Ministers in the then Labour-led government were also playing their part. In December 2000, the Minister of Social Services and Employment, the Hon Steve Maharey, and the Minister for Information Technology, the Hon Paul Swain, released a series of papers focused on ‘closing the digital divide’. They were seeking answers to the following questions:

  • What do we know about the digital divide in New Zealand?
  • What is already being done?
  • What are the technology aspects of the digital divide?

On 26 June 2000, Cabinet had confirmed the following vision for achieving ‘social and economic inclusion and ICT’ (i.e. closing the digital divide):

All New Zealanders, either as individuals or as members of communities, have the opportunity to access and effectively use current and emerging information and communications technologies. This will enable individuals and communities to participate fully in the economic, social, educational, cultural and democratic opportunities available in an information society.

By June 2002, Minister Maharey had released the government’s Connecting Communities strategy and action plan, as the pathway to closing the digital divide. No-one could argue with the suggested action steps, although it was not clear how these would be implemented or which particular government agencies would take responsibility for funding. Behind the scenes was another of New Zealand’s digital champions, Jan Symington. Working from within the Community Employment Group (CEG) in the Department of Labour, Jan was battling for support for a number of community ICT initiatives, including Computers in Homes, the Tupu Youth Library in Otara and other library-based digital learning centres in Auckland, SeniorNet and Wairoadotcom. While Jan recognised that ICT was the new electricity, she had to fight to persuade her colleagues of the benefits that could be expected. She pushed hard for a community ICT national conference, largely to demonstrate to her colleagues in government the rapidly expanding interest and diversity of communities piloting the use of ICTs. Jan was successful, and in November 2003 staged what is now recognised at the first serious engagement of communities with government on ICTs. Connecting Communities — the conference — brought together Māori, communities, government, funders and business to build on the earlier Flaxroots conferences and help to shape a partnership agenda for implementing a more digitally connected and engaged New Zealand. It is somewhat ironic that CEG was disbanded almost immediately after this very successful conference, but the passion of communities had been ignited and the work continued.

The challenge that government now faced was to work out how it could take a ‘whole-of-government’ approach in addressing the digital divide. As things eventuated, this took another two years until 2005, when new Minister of Information Technology, the Hon David Cunliffe, released a comprehensive Digital Strategy. Unlike earlier strategies, this one came with funding. The government claimed the total digital package was around $400 million, but this did include quite a lot of baseline funding initiatives already underway in government agencies, especially the Ministry of Education. But there was new money as well, for connectivity (creating broadband networks), for content development and for ICT skills development (people capability). Initiatives falling into the latter two categories — content and capability — were to be supported by a contestable Community Partnership Fund (CPF). This fund has continued for three rounds over a five year period and even survived a change of government. For many organisations like the 2020 Communications Trust, the CPF has been a lifeline, enabling projects that the trust has nurtured over many years such as Computers in Homes and Living Heritage to start to scale up.

The future

What does the future hold for community computing and the digital literacy of New Zealand citizens? The government’s commitment to invest $1.5 billion in urban fibre and $300 million in rural broadband infrastructure is a welcome development. But before the money is even spent, some groups are starting to question the wisdom of this investment. The challenge for New Zealand is to ensure that the government’s investment in infrastructure is matched by an investment in applications, digital content and people capability. It is not enough to rely on our young people growing up as ‘digital natives’ and automatically becoming productive citizens. While our young people may be very adept at using digital technologies, whether this is by networking on Facebook or tweeting, it is dangerous to assume that they can use their ‘born digital’ skills to live productive lives.

Wikipedia defines a ‘digital native’ as a person for whom digital technologies already existed when they were born and hence has grown up with digital technology such as computers, the Internet, mobile phones and MP3s. A ‘digital immigrant’ is an individual who grew up without digital technology and adopted it later. Marc Prensky is attributed with coining the term ‘digital native’ to help explain a disconnect between today’s students, their teachers and parents. Prensky goes as far as suggesting that this disconnect lies at the heart of many of today’s educational problems. He suggests that teachers and parents should accept this as a given and engage young people in learning on their terms, i.e. using the same technologies our children have grown up with. This shifts the responsibility to the digital immigrants (teachers and parents) to build their digital skills to a level sufficient to be able to engage with young people. One of the best examples of this is the strong interest amongst SeniorNet members to learn about email, digital photography and Skype, so that they can communicate with their grandchildren.

The increasing diversity of digital technologies has huge implications for our society — all citizens face the prospect of lifelong learning in keeping up to date with technologies, especially those used for communications. The need for community engagement in promoting digital literacy is therefore likely to continue indefinitely into the future. The rapid rate of technology obsolescence is likely to mean that as soon as one technological hurdle is mastered, another will be presented. If communities are to benefit from the digital opportunities expected in an ultra-fast broadband connected nation, it is essential that no-one is left behind. New Zealand might even like to consider the bold step taken recently by Finland in becoming the first country in the world to declare broadband Internet access a legal right. As a legal right, it could be expected that similar energies would continue to be invested in ensuring that all citizens can take advantage of the exciting new digital world.

Laurence Zwimpfer BE (Hons), MPP (VUW), SM (MIT), FIPENZ, honorary fellow of NZCS, is an independent consultant in education technologies. His background is as a telecommunications engineer, initially working for the New Zealand Post Office and subsequently for Telecom New Zealand for over 30 years. During this time he championed the use of digital technologies across a number of industry sectors, notably in agriculture, health and education. For the last 15 years, he has run his own consulting and project management company, specialising in the effective deployment of learning technologies in schools and the tertiary sector. For most of this time he has also been a trustee of the 2020 Communications Trust, which pioneered the development of digital communities. He chairs a number of 2020 Trust initiatives, including the National Computers in Homes Coordinating Group, the Living Heritage Steering Committee, the Computer Access New Zealand Trust and eDay, a national electronic waste recycling programme. He is a Harkness Fellow with degrees in Engineering from Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, Public Policy from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and Technology and Policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA. In 2006, the Institution of Professional Engineers in New Zealand (IPENZ) awarded him the Rabone Award for ICT, a Supreme Technical Award for Engineering Achievers, and the William Pickering Award for Engineering Leadership.


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