Small businesses owners and managers in Hawke's Bay are at risk of digital exclusion, which could affect their quality of life and stymie the success of their businesses.
It has been recognised globally and in New Zealand that small businesses are at greater risk of digital exclusion compared with companies. This puts the spotlight on Hawke's Bay, where many businesses are small or medium-sized enterprises.
Managers of these operations also form an at-risk group on a personal level, possibly due to a relative lack of skills and resources, in comparison with their larger business counterparts.
This is not only a social challenge but also an economic setback since small and medium enterprises make up a significant portion of New Zealand's productive engine.
As with other regions, there are significant areas in Hawke's Bay that have lower digital inclusion because many small business owners and employees include seniors, immigrants, young students, and Māori, who may not yet be in possession of favourable computer skills and also face difficult socio-economic circumstances.
These can be amplified by the rural or regional location of businesses.
With funding from InternetNZ, the national custodian of the .nz internet domain, I began a research project this year to examine how the so-called digital divide is affecting our small businesses.
The project, which runs until the middle of next year, will also give us the chance to offer these businesses guidance and online resources to enhance their operations.
The drive for this research initiative was magnified through conversations with a variety of community stakeholders, including the Napier City Council, which is interested in the digital city, digital citizen concept. Our initial focus will be the greater Napier area, before moving on to Hastings and then more rural areas.
There is a recognition and realisation by some local small businesses that their digital capabilities play a role in their long-term survival and profitability.
This was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, which made digital inclusion a day-to-day concern. Farmers and food producers are also affected by the Digital Divide through lower levels of access to broadband and computer equipment.
For these regional sectors that are growing and facing global competition, any technical disadvantage and obstacle needs more attention. In proceeding to overcome this contemporary obstacle and catch up, we must first revisit and unpack what the digital divide is.
The definition of digital divide has matured from merely addressing basic internet access. The contemporary understanding includes lack of frequent use, lack of purposeful use, and not being able to obtain benefits from computer and online technologies.
Rather than being a black or white state, the digital divide involves a gradual scale. Some organisations and individuals find themselves relatively below average rather than having good adoption, literacy, and competency.
A modern business' use of the internet has multiple facets, including having a web and social media presence, buying online, and receiving orders online. However, it should go further to cover more specific activities such as financial tasks online, online learning, cloud resources and remote working.
In the research project, we want to find out how exactly the digital divide affects small businesses in Hawke's Bay; how knowledgeable small business owners and employees are about online tools and resources that can help their operations; and what assistance, training, and resources small businesses need and want to overcome the risks of the digital divide?
We are approaching about 20 small businesses from a cross-section of industry to participate in the survey. We are questioning them on, among other things, their internet and computer use as well as the specific components and tasks involved during use such as the website, social media, advertising, selling, storing and sharing documents.
Typically, businesses experiencing digital inclusion will incrementally add new applications and functions while the digital-excluded ones may not use, and abandon, what they have.
New Zealand is not the only developed country in the world where the digital divide is of concern and this makes it even more urgent for us to gather more data and continue the public and academic discussion.
Hawke's Bay as a region also needs to revitalise after the lockdown and this requires regular use of and innovation with technology. Dealing with our shortcomings and the consequent economic wellbeing of the region will have also positive ramifications for our mental wellbeing.
The business and technology scene that we help to shape today will mean a whole lot to future generations.
· Dr Emre Erturk is Principal Academic Staff Member at EIT's School of Computing.