In recent weeks, Nesta’s teams in Wales and Scotland have been hearing more and more about data poverty. Both from people who experience it and from partner organisations who support those people to deal with its consequences.
In this context, we don’t mean data about poverty. Instead, what we are focused on is the concept of households and individuals that are not able to access or afford the amount of internet data they need to function in society today; to connect with others, participate socially, work online and access digital services. Data poverty can relate both to individuals and their use of data on mobile devices via contract or pay as you go data packages as well as for households and the internet or broadband data packages they subscribe to collectively.
Across the UK, we hear a lot about the digital divide in our society. Mostly, this tends to relate either to matters of infrastructure connectivity, such as how many households and businesses have high speed broadband connections, or how many households have a laptop or tablet device. Or it relates to digital skills and how familiar or confident different social groups and demographics are in using online services. There are lots of reports, analysis and statistics in relation to these issues and there is great work going on across the UK to address them, the impressive Connecting Scotland initiative is particularly notable in this regard.
However, we don’t seem to know so much about data affordability and the concept of data poverty. In fact, we don’t think there’s even a working or agreed definition of what this means, or how it is defined and, as such, we don’t have a detailed understanding of how many people this issue affects or where they are located.
A phrase that brought the urgent reality of this issue home to us came from one of the organisations we work with in Wales when they described people they supported as having to choose between “data or dinner”. In addition, our recent research in Scotland into the views of the Scottish public about the technology shaping our lives highlighted significant concerns from the public about access to data, social justice and inequality. In addition, more and more public spaces are closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning many people have found themselves without regular access to free wifi or public internet services.
If you or your household cannot afford an adequate amount of data for your needs then you are increasingly excluded from opportunities. You will be excluded from participating in your community and engaging in wider societal issues, from accessing and fulfilling work online, from job hunting and from accessing vital local services and support, and excluded from the financial savings that can be gained from online access.
At Nesta, we also see this issue through the lens of social innovation and believe that individuals and households having access to a suitable amount of affordable data is both an enabler and driver of social innovation. Affordable data can help ensure equal access, engagement and use of technological innovations in relation to sustainable consumption, learning, skills development or personal health and wellbeing. We also know that great innovations can come from anywhere and ensuring all households and communities have the data they need to facilitate their connections and to help turn bold ideas into new solutions to existing challenges is more important than ever.
As the scale of the long-term disruption and economic change ushered in by the pandemic become clearer with every passing week, we believe that a better and more detailed understanding of data poverty and the innovations or policy changes that may be needed to help tackle it, is essential. This is particularly true in the context of the national elections in Scotland and Wales next year where there is an opportunity to help shape the national innovation eco-systems in each country as we seek to emerge from the acute public health crisis.
With this in mind, we are excited to be beginning a two-phase research project to better understand, define and map data poverty and its impact across Scotland, Wales and the rest of the UK. The first phase will cover a rapid discovery and analysis of existing work or research in this space with the aim of informing both a working definition of data poverty and our second phase of activity. This second phase will be a deep dive into these issues to better understand the scale and spread of data poverty across the UK. For this we will use persona development, national representative polling and structured engagement with those experiencing the consequences of data poverty. This will help inform and co-produce both a useful definition of what data poverty is and early thinking on solutions, innovations and policy interventions that could be made to help tackle it and alleviate its consequences in the UK.
We know there is great work going on locally and nationally across Scotland and Wales on this issue and we are keen not to duplicate or cut across any existing initiatives in this space. However, we also believe that the specific area of data poverty is currently under-researched and ill-defined. If you want to find out more or be involved in this work with us, or to make our project team aware of anything we may have missed on this issue, then please feel free to contact any member of the team detailed above.