Beyond COVID-19

Report | 2020-06-03 | By: Digital Council for Aotearoa

When the Digital Council for Aotearoa New Zealand formed in February we were tasked with advising government Ministers on different options for tackling the medium to long term technology and data issues facing the country.

We agreed with Ministers we would also deliver advice on other pressing issues as they arose. There is possibly no more pressing issue today than that of New Zealand’s COVID-19 recovery. This is a summary of the key findings in our first report to government. It covers the four main themes that need addressing.

Theme (1): Social and digital inclusion

COVID-19 rapidly increased New Zealanders’ reliance on technology for work, education, and social connection.

However, this rapid shift had consequences.

For one, it exacerbated the digital divide in New Zealand. Many people became more vulnerable to poor outcomes and social isolation. For example, people without access to devices, an internet connection and digital skills.

Yes, we heard some heartening stories from people with physical disabilities about how the lockdown had increased their ability to participate as more social and work events moved online.

We saw some great responses from government, industry and communities. They worked at pace to provide a response in the short-term. This included supplying devices to school children and increasing internet connectivity in some regions.

But these measures aren’t a long-term solution. As a country, we need to tackle digital exclusion.

Vulnerable communities in New Zealand need more action. It needs to be delivered in a more coordinated and sustainable way.

We recognise tackling these issues isn’t easy. Long-term strategic approaches take time to develop and implement. So, we have identified actions the government can take now.

We believe government should accelerate the implementation of the Digital Inclusion Blueprint and Action Plan. They should adopt the recommendations set out in InternetNZ’s Five Point Plan. This covers essentials such as affordable connectivity, distribution of additional devices, support for the newly connected and increased infrastructure rollout.

Theme (2): Leveraging technology to empower business

Ninety-seven percent of New Zealand businesses operate with fewer than 20 staff. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) urgently need extra support to help them make the best use of digital tools to boost productivity.

In our research, we learned many SMEs are currently turning to international e-commerce platforms (such as Shopify or Amazon) to continue exporting businesses and to transition from a store-based approach to a digital approach.

We also recognise there is no local equivalent to Shopify or Amazon. There should be. Options for supporting SMEs include building a local e-commerce platform equivalent, providing digital capability training for SMEs and developing incentives to adopt cloud-based technologies.

We know some money has been set aside to support SMEs in the recent Budget announcement, but we cannot emphasise enough how important our SMEs will be in longer-term economic recovery and how they need support to respond well.

We also believe there is an opportunity for larger organisations within New Zealand to adopt digital tools and a re-framing by government of ‘shovel ready’ projects to ‘sensor-ready’ projects for the purpose of creating a new digital infrastructure for New Zealand.

Such a step by government would include creating an evidence base to understand our infrastructure debt, better planning and needs analysis, and the promotion of efficiency and innovation throughout the sector. Taking these steps could also lead to the creation of new, high-margin, export-ready businesses to manage this data.

When it comes to any post-COVID-19 response, there needs to be a willingness to show strong leadership by capitalising on New Zealand’s entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to innovate. We think involving the technology, innovation and entrepreneurial sectors in planning and response could be a good way to explore how to both save jobs while creating new roles in new, adjacent industries.

As one of the few countries emerging from lockdown early on, New Zealand has a first mover advantage. This presents an opportunity to lead the way if we select one or two specific areas to focus on and support.

Theme (3): Enhancing technology sector employment

Data tells us New Zealand’s technology industry now generates more export revenue than the wine industry. In the coming months and years, we expect to see an increase in the acceleration of many digital technologies, presenting an opportunity to invest in digital skills.

That’s why now is the time to heavily invest in digital education pathways into tech-enabled careers. Whether that investment is retraining individuals into technology production, or assisting traditional industries/career paths to join the digitally-enabled economy, the result will be a progressive, effective, and diverse workforce.

And that itself will bring benefits, including more equitable technology developments such as reduced algorithmic bias (association bias, interaction bias, and confirmation bias) and more assistive and Māori-driven tech.

We recommend government focuses on the opportunities here for women, Māori, Pacific peoples, people with disabilities and other communities traditionally underrepresented in the tech sector to provide social and economic empowerment, while addressing the growing skills shortage and historical reliance on importing talent from overseas.

How to do this? We can look at a range of existing models that have successfully helped people transition into new industries (Enspiral Dev Academy, Whitecliffe, and Tech Futures Lab are just a few examples).

Theme (4): Privacy and trust

New Zealanders have responded well to the drastic and necessary requests made by government to contain the virus. However, concerns remain about issues such as the potential for mass state surveillance.

We believe discussions need to be had to strike the right balance between privacy concerns and the overriding health imperative (of today’s crisis) or other imperatives (relevant to tomorrow’s crisis).

Recent announcements such as the approach to contact-tracing, cloud storage and data as tāonga, along with the consideration of automated decision-making to tackle the expected rise in beneficiaries, raise complex issues that need careful consideration to help preserve public confidence.

As well as our own work on trust, we see an important role for Statistics New Zealand’s Data Ethics Advisory Group to provide timely and considered advice on some of these issues. We look forward to working closely with Statistics New Zealand as our own work programme progresses.

As a country, New Zealand has an unprecedented opportunity to take stock and reshape our society and economy. The decisions we make now will inevitably determine the role digital and data-driven technology will play in this important transition.

Thanks to Council members Kendall Flutey and Roger Dennis who presented this advice to Ministers. Thanks to the many New Zealanders we spoke to to inform this report — from business people, to education leaders and people from the welfare, advocacy, tech and disability sectors.

Read the full advice as a Letter to Ministers from the Digital Council of Aotearoa New Zealand on Slideshare.