by Moata Tamaira
In July this year I attended NetHui 2013. At its most basic NetHui is a conference for people with an interest in the Internet. This is a vast area of interest however, so unlike other conferences which cater to one sector, like libraries, NetHui draws people from many different disciplines and areas of expertise and throws them all together to see what kind of conversations might happen.
Developers and programmers rub shoulders with teachers and librarians. Some attendees are focused on technological infrastructure, others are concerned with digital literacy and the digital divide. It's a very diverse gathering and one that is made possible by the extremely affordable registration fee (only $40) which allows organisations like not-for-profits and schools to have a presence.
As you would expect with a conference for people interested in IT, a lot of the content is available online including video and shared collaborative notes which attendees contributed to during sessions.
Like most conferences NetHui offers keynote speeches and panel discussions but most sessions lean more towards workshops and facilitated themed discussions. The advantage of this approach is that you get to hear the experiences and thoughts of a range of people. The disadvantage is that discussions can sometimes lose focus.
This was my second NetHui and I suspect that what you get from it depends very much on where your particular interests lie. Because there are such a broad range of topics up for discussion you can tailor your NetHui experience to the areas you want to focus on. My focus was on digital literacy, the digital divide (including issues of connectivity in rural areas), how the Māori community is using the online space, and social media.
Rather than go through each individual session, here are my highlights of NetHui 2013
Meeting people, making connections
NetHui attracts people from all over the country so it offers an excellent opportunity to meet person people you've only ever bumped into on Twitter. I also made a point of seeking out any and all library sector people and was able to catch up with several including Te Roopu Whakahau Tumuaki, Te Paea Paringatai and Brenda Chawner of VUW's School of Information Management.
For me having a chat over a glass of juice and a lamington with interesting individuals is a big part of what's great about going to conferences.
A couple of keynote speeches really stood out for me.
One was the irrepressible Russell Burt, Principal of Pt England School, part of the Manaiakalani school cluster in Tamaki, Auckland. He spoke enthusiastically about their approach to addressing the digital divide in their community, which is to smash it utterly.
Burt has spent time in Papua New Guinea and saw there that success was defined by a person's ability to leave. On his return to New Zealand he saw a similar attitude in South Auckland. How to change this?
Technology is the key. A thoroughly engaging speaker, Burt described their school's ongoing programme of spreading wifi across their community (Tamaki is only roughly 2km by 3km but is home to nearly 20,000) using some existing infrastructure - they strapped equipment onto state houses before they discovered...lamp posts (with the permission of Auckland Transport, of course)! And of supplying their students with their own devices. 2,500 kids have their own device which the family pays for at $3.50 per week.
This has all been achieved with a lot of energy, enthusiasm and philanthropy (both individual and corporate - including a very high-profile donation from US recording artist Will.i.am)
Quinn Norton is a technology journalist and blogger and her presentation was one of the best things I've seen...ever. In it she drew a comparison between the shift in technology that saw mass communication become a tool for dissidents and heretics, namely the printing press, and current movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the work of Anonymous which use the Internet in this way.
I had never considered that a 16th century scholar and translator of the bible (William Tyndale) might have much in common with modern day protest movements but Norton made a compelling argument. The individual pieces of technology may be vastly different but human nature and the desire to use that technology for political purposes has remained essentially unchanged. In each case established power structures are unprepared for the change that occurs.
Norton theorised that we are now in a "liminal phase" and that it might continue to be a bumpy ride as we all try and figure out what this new post-Internet world will be like.
She also used pictures of ninjas riding T-Rexs to illustrate her points, and her young daughter acted as a mic runner! All in all a very challenging and memorable keynote speech.
Technology is easy, people are hard
The above is a quote from someone in a session on digital literacy. I attended a couple of different sessions that looked at the issue of digital literacy from different angles and one of the overriding themes from all of them is that there is no simple fix for the problem of upskilling people so they are better equipped to operate within the digital world.
What was understood was that digital literacy is not about providing someone with a step-by-step guide on how to make spreadsheets. Rather digital literacy is about providing the confidence that allows someone to look at a new piece of software or technology and figure out for themselves how they'll proceed. All the while accepting that the old adage about leading a horse to water but not being able to make them drink very much applies in the world of digital skills.
Did anyone have the answers? Not really. But there was a desire to share resources and knowledge and I'm now signed up to an email list of people who are all concerned with this topic. Hopefully in the future we'll be able to share what we learn.
As you can imagine, the issues of connectivity (or lack of it) were a popular topic for discussion. The Rural Broadband and Ultra Fast Broadband initiatives featured in several sessions I attended. A common theme seems to be that a lot of people want to get connected to it but that there are various barriers. Knowing when UFB will be available in your street being one of them. For others in rural communities the costs of connecting to fibre are an issue.
I see this continuing to be a point of discussion at hui like this in the coming years as the rollout of both UFB and RBI bring up questions of how and when and what's the cost?