Monthly Archives: March 2010

Who’s online? Latest figures for NZ

To abbreviate things a bit, the 2010 New Zealand World Internet Project (WIP) report shows that more New Zealanders are online, for longer and at faster speeds.

These trends led the researchers to conclude the ‘digital divide’ is disappearing in New Zealand, with differences in who uses the Internet shrinking by the year. The notion of “Digital Differentiation” is put forward instead – it’s not just a matter of being connected or not, but how much people use the Internet and what for.

While the number of people who can access the internet is growing, a wide gulf separates those who rated their ability to use the Internet at a high level and those with low ability. This gulf maps onto a high versus low income divide. It’s a reminder the ‘digital divide’ is as much about confidence and content, as it is connectivity.

The rise and rise of participation in social networking websites is also evident. Facebook is the dominant platform for those over 20 years old, and with an increasing proportion of older age groups belonging to social networks (as high as 44% of all users in the 40s use social networks).

Other key findings include:

  • The number of Internet users rose from 79% in 2007 to 83% in 2009.
  • Broadband usage jumped to 82% compared with 67% in 2007. Conversely, dial-up access decreased.
  • The proportion of people accessing the Internet via mobile phones more than doubled from 7% in 2007 to 18% in 2009.
  • Nearly half of all users are members of social networking sites and three quarters of these report that Facebook is the site they use most often.

AUT ran the first WIP survey of internet usage in 2007 and with the second round of surveying conducted late last year.  About half of the questions are shared with surveys conducted in other countries. The next international comparative report will be released in early 2011.

Also released this month is the second Survey of Community and Voluntary Organisations’ Use of Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) report. Run by the Waikato Management School, findings from a survey of 757 community groups conducted in November 2008. It follows an earlier survey conducted in 2005.

Broadly speaking groups are using the internet more, with a faster connection and feeling more confident doing so. The area of highest and growing need is assistance with website enhancement: 61.1% overall said they would find this helpful in 2008 compared with 53% overall in 2005. There has been a slight drop in access to high or very high levels of technical support available.

Next month Statistics New Zealand household ICT usage statistics will be released. The results are from a sample of approximately 16,000 households, compared with the 1,250 people surveyed through the WIP research. Figures will update those released in 2006.

Walking directions

If I had the time when biking to Canterbury university I’d make a detour on the way. This wasn’t to stop off at friends to argue about politics or to grab a fresh coffee.

My detour was for aesthetic reasons. I took the long way so I could bike through a glade of trees and duck across a wooded park. This was far more pleasant than sticking to the tarmac even if I could get to my destination quicker.

I was reminded of this the other day when looking up a route to walk to a meeting when I was in Auckland.

The mighty Google maps now suggests walking routes, as well as giving directions for cars. I printed out the map but ignored the route suggested.

Why would I want to walk along busy, congested roads even if it was the most direct route?

Instead I ducked and dived through the inner city. Along tree-lined Greys Avenue, through the underpass beneath Mayoral Drive to Aotea Square, passed the art gallery, then an amble along Lorne Street gazing at fashion and books. Under the towering Metropolis, then through a wedge of Albert Park.

This wasn’t efficient nor direct, but it was enjoyable.

Sure, search parameters can calculate distances with astonishing accuracy. This isn’t really enough. Relying on what some programmers think is most important reduces how the world is portrayed to a narrow and incomplete picture.

I’m all for finding room for art, nature, spontaneity and taking the long route. Suggesting this could be avoided by using a “I feel lucky button” is a cute idea – but actually, I think it’s best to follow your nose.

An e-government response to the climate change crisis: tapping into citizen creativity

I was one of 15 contributors asked to write about the future of e-government. My thinkpiece was part a broad and ambitious e-government progress report.

The original website has disappeared, but you can find a blog post explaining the context here, “A report on the progress of New Zealand e-government”.

I submitted the thinkpiece in June 2007, and it was published a year later.

Every day we receive fresh news about the impacts of climate change. The news is seldom nothing short of alarming. Rising sea levels, more frequent droughts, melting polar icecaps and unheralded species extinction are just some of the impacts foretold. In May 2007 Christian Aid predicted that a billion people could be forced to leave their homes over the next 50 years as the effects of climate change worsen an already serious crisis.

It’s not just not climate change alone we need to be concerned about, as we face a multitude of other global environmental problems such as over-fishing, deforestation, water scarcity and pollution. The magnitude of our predicament is beyond the scale of anything known before.

The case for urgent action is compelling and extends to virtually every corner of our lives and society. It already obvious that the challenges we face are placing incredible strains on our society and how it is governed.

Governments alone cannot take responsibility for tackling climate changes and reducing our ecological footprint. All of us need to respond in concert whether this is as individuals, members of neighbourhoods or associations, or in our workplaces. Policy and people power need to meet.

Current patterns of public participation typically provide limited opportunities for citizens to have input. These are not only limited in number, but also limited in the extent to which they draw on the values and commitment that each of us can offer. As Canadian sustainability expert Mark Roseland (1998) argues:

“To a considerable extent, the environmental crisis is a creativity crisis. By soliciting the bare minimum of public ‘input’, rather than actively seeking community participation from agenda-setting through to implementation and evaluation, local and senior-decision-makers have failed to tap into the well of human ingenuity”.

What is necessary is greater responsiveness by government to the creativity of citizens. An effective and far-sighted e-government programme can make a big contribution by freeing up talents within the ranks of government, better engaging with citizens, and ensuring citizens are well equipped to organise themselves locally.

There is an enormous amount of know-how and enthusiasm latent within the staff of government agencies. Yet strict departmental boundaries and accepted business practices – as the catch-cry ‘we’ve always done it that way’ attests – stifle the natural talents and prevent public servants from confronting anything but very narrow policies. What is really required is for the best and creative thinking to overflow the silos.

IT applications that make debate and dialogue across agencies not only easy and possible but actually enjoyable and productive can support a culture change. As our experience with brainstorming shows us, new ideas and approaches can fast become the norm. E-government tools and policies must allow for original and novel ideas to emerge from across the whole public service. Because ICTs are a disruptive medium it is likely that not all decision-makers will embrace a more inclusive approach to policy making. An e-government programme will also have to regulate and sanction where agencies do not join in with a spirit of open policy debate, as well as offer support and encouragement.

The resulting debate could be fierce. Thinking of just one example, we have government policy and agencies that promote road building with a concomitant increase in carbon dioxide emissions, while other policies encourage people to lessen their ecological footprint by getting out their cars and walking or cycling instead. This type of policy contradiction within government is profound. But only by bringing points of contradiction into the open and vigorously debating them will alternative views be given a fair hearing.

At the same time government taps into its own nous, the floodgates to genuine public participation must be opened wide. Opportunities for co-creating and collaborating on everything from broad policy to small local initiatives will allow the experience and knowledge of citizens to sit alongside the rigour of policy-makers. Online tools promoting participation have the potential to provide ways of involving people with significant knowledge and commitment, including tangata whenua and non-governmental organisations representatives, as well as Josephine or Hohepa Public walking in off the street.

There are many online tools available to promote effective online participation. These include deliberative polling, citizen-spaces, dialogue circles, small group dialogue, discussion forums, and online conferencing. Government agencies need to allow data to be accessed for analysis and re-shaping by academics and other interested parties. An e-government programme would support agencies to develop the expertise and flair so they’re good at working with citizens.

Finally, there is a role for government equipping citizens with an armoury of online tools and skills to support their own organising locally or on social and environmental issues. Examples include running a walking school bus, collecting data on water quality in waterways, acting as a kaitiaki of a beach or park, and establishing a neighbourhood run wind energy generator. Rather than actively controlling or running the myriad of local initiatives occurring around the country (where local knowledge and commitment is the biggest contributor to success), what is needed is support. This must include access to ICT applications and skills. An e-government programme may not want to run these directly, but it could support, fund and encourage community ICT initiatives.

In the UK this has already happened. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister granted e-innovation funding to at least one project creating a series of easy-to-use tools that will allow anyone to set up and manage their own local campaign on any issue that’s important to them (see [now unavailable)). As a public corporation the BBC is providing a open platform for local campaigns through its Action Network. The online network assists citizens to “…change something in your local area, get in touch with people who feel the same way and get advice on taking action”. Anyone can post information about a local issue and call for support. The latest issue online was a Campaign for Clean Air in London aiming to meet WHO air quality standards by the 2012 Olympic Games.

By working to support citizens, better involving citizens in policy and decision-making and tapping into the creativity within government, an e-government programme can make a major contribution by tapping into human ingenuity. This can be done in ways that build trust or connections between citizens and with government. In doing so our collective ability to respond to emerging an environmental predicament and any opportunities will be strengthened.

Stephen Blyth works with both community organisations and government agencies on web content development, online participation and community organisation capacity building projects. From 1998 to 2001 he was co-chairperson of ECO, New Zealand’s national network of environment organisations ( Details of Stephen’s latest work are published on his blog.