Cyberspace will be a safer place to venture into for thousands of Southlanders thanks to the Rotary Club of Invercargill East and one of New Zealand’s leading internet safety and security experts.
The “Cyber EQ-IQ Project”, run by Nelson-based John Parsons, kicked off in Southland last month with the first of numerous sessions that will total 60 days this year, plus 100 days annually for 2017 and 2018.
John is no stranger to the south – or Rotary; immediate-past district governor for 9980 Karen Purdue was instrumental in bringing him to Southland three years ago, after Rotary was approached by Invercargill social worker Nikki Burns.
“Nikki saw a great need in the community for education around cyber safety, and reached out to Rotary for help,” Karen says.
The concept was quite unique within New Zealand – no one had undertaken a regional project on anywhere near this scale. Rotary’s five Invercargill clubs stepped up with critical funding for a pilot programme, and also put their collective vocational training skills to good use, introducing Nikki to other major funders, as well as helping her establish the Poppycock Trust, which initially delivered the programme. 
By last year, the programme had reached more than 16,000 Southlanders through 25 primary schools, 10 high schools and 25 community organisations.
As well as the outstanding participation rates, what was also significant were the behavioural changes – and potential tragedies averted.
“Two young people were identified as being groomed online by a predator – this programme put a stop to that,” Karen says.
“Hundreds of students deleted strangers from their social network sites, dozens of parents reported changing the household rules around gaming and the internet, kids were taken out of inappropriate chatrooms, and hundreds of girls were able to share that they’d faced pressure to provide sexualised images.
“But it wasn’t just the victims who were reached and helped. Eight perpetrators of bullying came forward after attending the sessions.”
Such were John’s efforts and impact, he was awarded a Paul Harris Fellow for his services to cyber safety and security, a rare honour for a non-Rotarian.
Now, Karen says, the Rotary Club of Invercargill East, led by her husband, Fraser Purdue, has provided more funds to enable John and Rotary to continue their mission in the south to educate and empower school children, seniors, businesses and community organisations in the ever-changing digital era.
John, who delivers cyber safety and security training to the New Zealand Police, as well as other government departments, the health and education sectors, together with private enterprise, carefully tailors each presentation to the audience.
Topics include online grooming, “sexting”, cyber-bullying, managing online reputations, learning to repel and report unwanted online advances and online dating. For businesses, he looks at the key cyber issues facing companies and organisations today, encompassing learning how to identify and reduce risk, brand and reputation management, staff training, digital responsibility among employees and the importance of policies.
As part of the Cyber EQ-IQ Project, John also works with victims of cybercrime in Southland and their families, including those who have been cyber abused and victims of sexting. 
Karen says cyber safety is a topic that really resonates across the ages, and southerners are very grateful to have access to education and expertise of the calibre John provides.
“We’ve only just started the latest round of workshops, and we’re already getting in emails from participants calling it ‘inspirational’ and among the best professional development they’ve ever had.
Karen Purdue, Past District Governor District 9980
Karen Purdue, Past District Governor District 9980
“John really connects with his audience, whatever their age or background. Young kids are going home and raving about it to their families, and people are already asking to book another session.”
Fraser says his club’s decision to back the Cyber EQ-IQ Project was a no-brainer.
“With more and more of our life shifting online, it’s crucial that Southlanders are aware of strategies to protect themselves in the digital world,” he says.
Sessions are booking fast, Karen says, although there are still some dates available for this year. Registrations have also opened for next year. Because of Rotary’s backing, all sessions are free, but any donations are gratefully received.
Under the new framework, the Rotary Club of Invercargill East has taken over the running of the programme, with Karen contracted as project administrator.
“As a parent myself, I attended one of the cyber safety workshops at my daughter Georgia’s school, and I know I now feel I have far more knowledge and confidence to help keep my children – and my beautiful grandson – safe; and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”