The impacts of mate korona have been horrific, sobering and far-reaching. It has devastated our world economy, brought industries to their knees and redefined the realities of life for our tamariki (children).
"The surge towards digital technologies means access to the internet is quickly becoming a necessity to participate in society.”
From a business perspective, COVID-19 has caused a brutal acceleration of our digital transformation agendas. A McKinsey survey shows business roadmaps, on average, have been compressed from years into months or weeks. At the same time, consumer adoption and expectations have taken a quantum leap forward.
We have no choice. We’ve been swept up in a surging digital tsunami - all consuming, all encompassing.
But what will become of those unable to navigate this digital change?
The pandemic arrived on our shores and highlighted the inequity that already exists in society. The very groups hit hardest by mate korona are the same groups most affected by the shift to digital.
The New Zealand Treasury report COVID-19: Impacts on Wellbeing identifies these groups as Māori and Pacific peoples, people with disabilities, and lower income New Zealanders.
Societal participation has changed
The surge towards digital technologies means access to the internet is quickly becoming a necessity to participate in society. Those who are least able to connect are at risk of becoming disadvantaged. They have fewer opportunities to access education, health and social services and are less employable.
Fortunately, the New Zealand Government has a plan. The Digital Inclusion Blueprint - Te Mahere mō te Whakaurunga Matihiko outlines four barriers to digital inclusion - motivation, access, skills and trust. It is the first step towards generating consistent, sustainable action for a more digitally inclusive Aotearoa.
What it doesn’t address is the responsibility for the creators and makers of technology; the very agents of change must lead from the fore.
The information technology sector plays the lead role in digital transformation strategies.
However, the biggest challenge it faces is an ongoing struggle with diversity - particularly in leadership positions or roles with influence. According to the 2018 NZ Census, European New Zealanders make up the majority of the technology workforce at 72 per cent with Māori and Pasifika combined at around 5 per cent.
In my office, I can count the number of Pasifika people using the fingers on both hands. I joke with my fellow Pasifika colleagues “Auoi, wouldn’t it be awesome if we had to use our toes too?”!
And it’s not just ethnic diversity - women, people with disabilities and young people are also under represented. If we are to create innovative solutions that are inclusive of all people - especially marginalised groups - our workforce needs to include and reflect all perspectives.
Increasing representation in technology
I started thinking about the diversity in technology after listening to Joy Buolamwini’s 2017 Ted Talk “How I’m fighting bias in algorithms”.
It’s a compelling, confronting story of how facial recognition technology doesn’t recognise the faces of people of colour. When you think about it, that’s about two thirds of the world’s population.
“Artificial Intelligence systems are shaped by the priorities and prejudices - conscious and unconscious - of the people who design them” says Buolamwini. “Specifically, facial analysis software works well for white men but less so for everyone else.”
The statistics support the point. The powerhouses - Google, Facebook, Microsoft - have artificial intelligence (AI) teams that are predominantly white and male (78 per cent).
The results can be hugely damaging to an organisation’s reputation. In 2015, Google hit the headlines when its Google Photo app mistakenly labelled photos of black people as “gorillas”.
This isn’t an isolated incident by any means. There are multiple examples where the lack of diversity leads to bias being inherently baked into our technology. In a recent interview, the New Zealand Police Commissioner Andrew Coster acknowledged AI use could unfairly target Māori and Pasifika people.
It isn’t just facial recognition technology. A MIT Technology Review article by journalist Karen Hao paints a sobering picture of how algorithms in our systems are routinely keeping people trapped in poverty.
She writes “in an era of automated credit-scoring algorithms, the repercussions can also be far more devastating… their comprehensive influence means that if your score is ruined, it can be nearly impossible to recover”.
This is the real-life experience of Daniel and Emma Tautu. Despite turning their lives around, the Tautu whānau found it hard to break the vicious cycle of debt and bad credit ratings. In the end it ultimately impacted their ability to secure housing.
“It made me feel like, [as] a person, I’m uncomfortable to be a Pacific Islander. Maybe if I wasn’t born a Pacific Islander, maybe I would have got a house for my wife and kids already,” Daniel said. “That’s just how I feel.”
As a person of Samoan heritage, reading these words broke my heart.
We are a proud people. Our tua’a were explorers, pioneers and innovators whose sense of curiosity and courage led them to navigate to Aotearoa in search of greater opportunities.
I wonder what would happen if our systems and technology were designed and built with our most vulnerable in mind? I believe the answer is simple. It would create a society where everyone thrives.
The answer begins with reflection. Does your team represent and reflect the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all your nation’s people?