Innovation, IT and CALD Communities

At the Sydney National Year of Digital Inclusion Festival held on 16 November, 2016, Pino Migliorino shared his insight into the needs for digital literacy in CALD communities. Pino was also one of our National Year of Digital Inclusion Champions, who were committed to promoting digital inclusion throughout the year.  He has kindly provided a transcript to his full talk.

I am really pleased to be here today to talk with you about one of the issues that is central to delivering digital equity-the particular issues and experiences of Australia’s linguistically and culturally diverse or CALD communities.

Before I start I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Gadigal [gad-ee-gall] people of the Eora [ee-or-ah] nation and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge the dignitaries with us today.

I would like to acknowledge that huge number of people who have immigrated to Australia over the decades since the English arrived here.  They have often come from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and have had to contend with inserting themselves into a society which has not always been either accommodating or easily navigated.

I am comfortable with a statement like this, because over the last 35 years of my professional life I have worked to advocate on behalf of CALD communities to both have access to existing resources and services that should be available to all Australians, as well as achieving some level of equity between groups of people so that communities within our society are not left out nor left behind.

This consideration has specific salience for the discussions around digital technology and digital inclusion and for today I am also pleased to be talking about innovation within this context.

As a person who has had direct contact with all types of immigrant communities ranging from refugees to business migrants, I am all too aware of the effects, both positive and negative, that digital technology can have on CALD communities.

Indeed, a discussion about digital technologies as they affect our culturally and linguistically diverse communities has never been more pertinent and overdue.

  • With each passing day, we are witness to the emergence of new technologies – advances in computer technology, the digitisation of television and radio, the emergence of multifaceted mobile phones, the ipad and other touch screen technology, e-book technology, - technologies that are more efficient and effective - and the use of which are increasingly dependent a high level of digital literacy – our digital ‘know-how’. We define our generations not by referencing age or birth year but by the ability to program the iphone or integrate the email traffic between personal computers, iphones, ipads and cloud;
  • Understanding and using new technologies can be daunting for many of us. In effect, learning to use technologies – email, online services, online research tools and online news sources – is like learning a new language.  For many of us it is a new language, with its own cadence and meaning and even those who have high proficiency in English can at times struggle.
  • Australians from CALD backgrounds are all too familiar with the process of learning a new language, learning about a new culture, and coming to grips with a new social and cultural landscape.  And, as they know, this process if far from easy.
  • Our settlement focus, especially over the last four years has focused on what has euphemistically been called the three e’s: English, Education and Employment. Settlement services across the country are now reframing their activities in accordance with this mantra.

What is of particular interest within this new structure is a lack of a digital framework which it could be argued is essential to all three of these e’s. This is not currently a priority within settlement services, not because this education is not needed but rather because it is seen as an issue which can be dealt with at a later stage of the settlement process.

My frustration in this is recognising the value of innovation and it for CALD communities, and in particular, newly arrived communities such as refugees, balanced against the multiple obstacles to having this potential within those communities realised.

Digital literacy would allow CALD people and communities to:

  • Resource themselves - critique, analyse, navigate and use digital media/sources/tools to find credible and reliable information.
  • Represent themselves -  to voice concerns, needs and issues, to find and produce credible and reliable information and to meet needs, to protect themselves (or their children, or communities) against any kind of exploitation.
  • Communicate amongst themselves - to share settlement experiences, to facilitate cultural maintenance, to underpin ongoing community development, and to connect communities that do not need to be defined by geography locality.

Keeping up with the Digital Jones’

One of the things I have observed over the last few years is that digital enhancement and innovation have certainly taken place but predominately with and for mainstream communities and in English.

If we were to use social service delivery as a focus for this discussion what I would be able to say to you is that access and equity to social services over the last 20 years has almost totally been focused on more traditional communication mechanisms such as face-to-face information delivery, translated pamphlets and the use of bilingual staff or interpreters at the service interface.

Achieving these things were in themselves great advancements in accessibility. The only problem is that while these things were being developed, another level of development was taking place around and often without CALD communities. This change was being kicked along by the opportunities offered by new technology and by the government’s desire to create financial efficiencies. The result has been the significant shift in client interactions to either online or digital platform.

The problem with this is that it has created a new and significant set of issues for access and equity for CALD communities because it requires the new approaches - whether they be apps or portals or 1800 numbers with voice-activated responses- to be able to cope with existing and potential clients who may lack either English language skills, digital literacy skills or both.

So now there is a need to play catch up because if we don’t then we are facing a vastly unfair two tier service delivery system.

I would like to reference myagedcare as a pertinent example for what I’m talking about.

The aged care reforms delivered us two predominant means of interacting with the aged care system- one was a 1800 number and the other was the online portal myagedcare.

It should be no surprise to the people in this audience that neither of these mechanisms has proved either effective or efficient in delivering information options for older people from CALD backgrounds or their carers.

In fact, the number of phone contacts through the 1800 number from CALD clients has been insignificant. Equally, and of concern is the fact that web traffic to myagedcare has not indicated a level of engagement relevant to the proportion of older people from CALD backgrounds.

So now it is left up to CALD communities themselves to compile the data and find the evidence which indicates a significant level of differential access and on the basis of this argue for systemic changes. The result will be retrofitted additions so easily labelled by critics as ‘pandering to the ethnic lobby”

Digital Inclusion: Who Gets to Innovate?

Could this situation have been avoided?

The obvious answer is yes, but the process required to develop systems that would actually meet the current needs of this particular group of clients would have required a design and planning process which should have had their needs as a starting point, as part of the overall needs framework. Not doing so has obviously impaired the system’s accessibility and will require a patchwork of add-ons to meet the needs of a range of more vulnerable or disadvantaged consumers.

The involvement of CALD communities at the planning stage needs to be the new mantra for technology development and like the disability movement, the CALD community needs to firmly adopt the adage “nothing about us without us”.

I want to give you another example of where I think the system has let CALD communities down significantly.

While it might now appear an easy target given the past few months, the means and mechanisms by which the Australian Bureau of Statistics attempted to steer the Australian population onto a digital platform to participate in this year’s census was, in essence, flawed.

Their approach was the archetypal stick. The onus was on people to understand that they needed to participate in the census online and if they were uncomfortable with this, voluntarily opt out. The threshold therefore was set extremely high.  It assumed a level of systemic knowledge and systems competency to be able to negotiate the ‘opt out’ process.

My view is that this laissez faire, sink-or- swim approach is just not good enough.

We need to understand what is the reality around digital capacity within CALD communities; shape our service structures around these capacities; and obviously work to improve not only digital skills but also the access to digital technology for segments in the CALD cohort that are currently disadvantaged.

CALD Communities - Digital Diversity within Diversity

The CALD community is not homogenous, and their ability to engage with new technologies differs widely. There is a need for a more strategic approach that understands the comparative level of digital literacy not only between language or cultural communities but within them as well.

However, a constant in any discussion about CALD communities and digital technologies is that, in the absence of digital literacy, migrants and refugees often struggle to engage effectively in the workplace and with vital basic services.

Digital Technology:  Divider or Equaliser?

When we talk about new digital technologies we are largely talking about the means to facilitate and enhance the flow of information. 

If we include CALD communities in this information exchange we will better facilitate their social inclusion. If we allow barriers of access to develop which exclude CALD communities from these information flows we will be further exacerbating their experiences of social exclusion.

In many ways, it is as simple as that.

Taking the internet as an example: freely or cheaply available internet technology can be used to facilitate English language training, provide service information in-language and allow community groups to maintain their cultural identity through online forums.

Alternately the internet, if expensive and difficult to access, and used by service providers to limit information so that it is only accessible to those who have a high level of digital literacy and English language ability, can become a means of excluding CALD communities from pertinent information sources. Affordability is a serious concern for many households, with a recent Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) report revealing that cost was the most common reason that households with the children under 15 years reported not having access to the internet.

Those from rural or regional areas may face additional barriers to accessing services and information online. Access to the internet is more common in households located in major cities, at 88 per cent, whereas remote or very remote parts of Australia are only 79 per cent. The lack of cheap, high quality and high speed internet services in these areas can be prohibitive for people from CALD communities engaging with digital technologies.

Indeed, as technology advances, and replaces much of the day-to-day human interaction reflective of the service delivery sector of the past, CALD Australians are finding themselves faced with novel barriers– which often present themselves in digital form.

Communication and Accessibility

Communication and the ability to access information are key components of any democracy – key factors in the process of allowing all citizens and residents to understand their rights and fulfil their responsibilities.

Communication is also the key to equitable access and use of vital programs and services.

If services are unable to inform and engage their constituents, then they are indisputably ineffective. 

How successful can housing services be if they fail to effectively inform Australians with low levels of English language literacy? How can education programs claim inclusiveness if they fail to make themselves accessible to our young migrant and refugees?

Facilitating Accessibility: Understanding Difference

How do we, then, ensure that digital information is accessible to our CALD communities?

First, we must acknowledge that members of CALD communities are not homogenous and it would be unwise to suggest that any one technique in isolation would facilitate accessibility.

With this as a basis, we must then consider several factors:

  • English language literacy
  • First language literacy
  • Digital literacy
  • Digital access

The factors intersect in a variety of different ways - resulting in a diverse and variable set of potential barriers to digital access for Australians from CALD backgrounds.

To illustrate this, I will focus on a few distinguishable groups within the broader CALD cohort.

Older CALD Migrants

Older and ageing migrants are a huge group - 23% of the Australian population aged over 65 years come from a migrant background, and this figure will move rapidly beyond 30% in the next decade.  For those older, established communities, this is a significant cohort.

Members of this group can be affected by all four factors simultaneously:

Limited English language ability – older migrants may struggle to acquire English language skills particularly if they migrate later in life. Also, as they get older, CALD migrants can become increasingly dependent on their first language.

Poor first language literacy - there are many CALD communities whose migration history is one in which lower educated and lower skilled migrants were encourage to come to Australia to provide a manual workforce for post-war development. Many of these post-war migrants are now a significant component of Australia’s ageing population. While we do not collect effective data in this regard there is clear evidence in some communities that literacy based communications are less preferred than either face-to-face or audio based communications.

Limited digital literacy – while digital literacy skills can vary, older CALD migrants are generally unlikely to have received training in the use of many new technologies.

Limited access to digital technology - many older CALD migrants operating on a fiscally restrictive pension may be very limited in their capacity to engage with digital technology because of financial constraints.

As a consequence, we can see that older CALD migrants may be very easily excluded from digital exchange.  It is also increasingly evident that older workers, without at least basic digital literacy are being excluded from the workforce.

Mechanisms that can be employed to engage this demographic may include:

  • Increased funding to assist with basic digital literacy training and digital access. This may include additional funding to local governments and libraries to ensure that adequate free internet is available to those who need it.
  • A serious attempt to consider how to migrate CALD clients from their dependence on a ‘human’ interaction (with or without interpreters) to clients that can start on the digital journey even a limited one
  • Innovation in the methods and mechanisms used in client services and age care. This has come sharply into focus with the introduction of consumer directed care frameworks which require the consumer to identify and deal with their care environment with a series of service providers. This is complex in itself, and even more complex for those who may lack both language and digital literacy skills. Therefore, any mechanism or innovation that makes this achievable should be given high priority.

Within this I could envisage an advance where care workers with multilingual applications on handheld devices can work with their clients to both identify and manage their service provision together.


Refugees are a cohort who often have limited digital literacy and English language proficiency.

Getting refugees to engage with digital technologies can be difficult as recently arrived refugees may not have had digital access in their countries of origin. There may be significant privacy concerns for new arrivals in relation to digital technologies.

Migrants and refugees may have lived in countries where there is a substantial distrust of online services. Therefore, it is important information about privacy and security of digital technologies, including who has access to data and how it will be used, is adequately and appropriately communicated.

There are also significant costs associated with engaging with new digital technologies and this can be quite a significant financial burden for newly arrived refugees who are trying to settle in Australia and establish themselves.

Again, I re-iterate here that becoming digitally literate is comparable to becoming literate in any other language.

Many newly arrived refugees may have limited a educational history in light of significant displacement during their schooling years. Just as it is particularly hard for these new Australians to acquire basic English in the absence of literacy in their own languages, it is also difficult for them to acquire digital literacy in the absence of existing digital understanding.

Working in today’s workforce requires a degree of digital literacy – more so than ever before.

Therefore, during the early settlement stages, refugee and humanitarian entrant arrivals, over 70% of whom are under 30 years of age on arrival, must be offered necessary training and assistance in building a degree of digital literacy, hand in hand with the development of their English language literacy, making them more employable, and helping them feel more comfortable and included in workplaces.

As I suggested earlier, including digital literacy as a key settlement competency should be part of a national settlement framework.

Skilled migrants

A final group to consider are skilled migrants who generally adapt more rapidly to using digital services. They fall into two groups:

  1. those with high level English language skills and high digital literacy; and
  2. those with high digital literacy and medium level English language ability.

For those who are digitally literate but struggle with English proficiency mechanisms may be needed to ensure they can access key services with a strong online presence. These mechanisms may include ensuring that there are online, in-language options when it comes to key online services.  In my own practice we are now constantly looking at the use of weibo and wechat as the only genuinely effective means to get to increasingly large segments of the Australian Chinese community.

Links to relevant service websites should also be added to prominent community pages to facilitate easy access, as, often, in-language service pages are difficult to identify on mainstreams service pages, reducing their utility.

Some migrants may not be literate in their first language, so it is important that translated pages are not text intensive, to ensure inclusivity for all. This is also valid for older migrants and refugees.

Until we understand that members of the CALD groups identified have different abilities and needs, little can be done to improve their access to information – we need to understand the demographics and the needs before we start implementing solutions.

I recently undertook research on the media and information consumption habits of people from Indian backgrounds. The results were stunning:

Respondents were asked a series of questions around their social media use and the platforms on which they use it. The results were as follows:

  • 94% said they did use social media. This is a particularly high proportion of any language specific community and indicates a very high level of digital literacy and a very high level of social media use;
  • The leading platforms used included facebook (89%), instagram (40%), linkedin (37%) and twitter (32%); 
  • Most participants reported that they had logged into social media more than once a day (79%) or at least once a day (11%);
  • This result was consistent across genders with 86% of women and 84% of men logging on to their social media once or more times per day.
  • Participants frequently reported using their smartphone to access social media (81%), followed by their tablet (10%) and laptop (8%); 
  • Social media was largely reported as being used to keep in touch with friends (56%), staying up to date with news and events (24%) and discovering new things (17%).

This was a small-scale study in one community.  I believe that the results would be drastically different if I were to undertake this study with, for example, Italian born Australians.

Knowledge and Research Gaps

While I don’t want to make the ABS flogging scapegoat I do find it interesting that one of the questions we do not ask in the in the census is the level of either computer or internet use. The last time this question was asked was in 2006, yet the ABS has chosen to move to an online census platform without the necessary data to identify those communities who would need particular assistance.

I am also cognisant of the fact that there has been very little research into the area of the digital needs, and digital literacy, of CALD communities in Australia. While the mainstream environment is served by research instruments such as the Roy Morgan single source and other media consumption and behaviour monitors, CALD communities’ media and communications habits are not thoroughly researched.

The last significant piece of work looking at CALD media communications behaviour was over five years ago. This is not current and is a certainly less than an effective basis on which to undertake any significant action.

What I call for here is further and more in depth studies to be conducted in this area.

If we understand how digital technologies are isolating, or in the alternative, can better facilitate the inclusion of our CALD communities, we will be better able to utilise them to facilitate access and equity.


I conclude today by re-iterating my key proposition. - digital technologies can unite, but they can also divide.

In our community, we have a number of groups, including ageing CALD Australians, newly arrived refugees and skilled migrants with medium level English language literacy, all of whom are at risk of being excluded by new technologies that require either, high level English ability and high level digital literacy, or both.

It is our responsibility to ensure that we adequately provide in-language services, that we provide appropriate ready for work digital literacy training, that we ensure that key digital technologies are accessible to those on limited incomes, and that we ensure key service providers recognise that the needs of CALD Australians must be addressed in a considered manner.

It is our responsibility to use digital technologies to facilitate inclusion, and address barriers that create exclusion.

In order to do this, we need to be able to identify the specific access issues where and when they occur and through the active participation of CALD people, undertake the appropriate co-design approaches to ensure that we achieve functional innovation.

If responsibility were to be attributed to anyone I would certainly consider the DTO as the natural home to both consider these issues and undertake appropriate initiatives.

And remember, nothing about us, without us.