If there is one digital exclusion issue that has been unprecedentedly spotlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is data poverty. And now that the light has been shed, there will be no looking away.

Data poverty was the topic of the second day of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit hosted by a cross-party coalition of All-Party Parliamentary Groups and MPs and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance. The relatively new APPG on Data Poverty, which hosted yesterday’s roundtable, is a direct response to the urgent realisation, as one speaker put it, that “the digital divide comes with exclusion from society more generally.” 

Last year’s national lockdowns saw schools, workplaces, and public spaces close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in a sharp disruption to everyday rhythms that suddenly revealed how many people were without the basic connectivity needed to continue life, let alone level up — online. According to Citizen’s Advice, 2.5 million people have fallen behind on broadband bills during the pandemic. Ofcom reports that approximately 9 percent of households with children lacked access to a laptop, desktop, or tablet. Around 17 percent did not have consistent access to a suitable device for their online home-learning, which increased to 27 percent of children from households classed as most financially vulnerable. The recent Nominet Digital Youth Index finds that a third of young people do not have broadband at home. Even among those with home broadband, 13 percent say their connection is not good enough for everyday tasks and 52 percent say there are things they can’t do online due to poor connectivity. A deluge of media coverage and personal stories powerfully illustrated how many British families have faced impossible choices between necessities during the pandemic: “pay the wifi or feed the children”. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty articulated (in 2019), in a pervasively digital world, the digital divide is a question of basic human rights.

But the roundtable speakers, who represented organisations including The Good Things Foundation, Jisc, BT, Glide, Vodafone, and Nominet, all said that this was a problem well known to them before the pandemic. The cost and accessibility of connectivity and devices is a determinant of digital poverty. According to Lloyds Bank, nearly a third of those offline said that cheaper costs would encourage them to use the internet. Ofcom finds that 10 percent of internet users go online with a smartphone only, rising to 18 percent among those in socio-economic group DE. These issues are closely linked; when people do not have or cannot afford a home broadband connection, and they rely on mobile internet instead, they are paying for more expensive data

The entangled nature of data poverty (how much is about access? affordability? devices?) makes it difficult to define. And the definition often hinges on what a minimally acceptable standard would look like. The Good Things Foundation says that means data that is cheap, handy (easy to access), enough (in terms of speed and quantity), safe (to ensure privacy and protect users from harms), suitable (appropriate for an individual’s life circumstances). Nesta identifies data poverty as an inability to engage fully in the online world due to barriers including low income, not being able to get a data contract, lack of privacy, and local infrastructure. 

But the roundtable discussion demonstrated that precise definitions are less important than understanding the vectors of the problem. Data poverty — like poverty more broadly — is a product and producer of both resource and social exclusion. It is contextual, embedded in individual circumstances. And it is relative, meaning that the benchmark of exclusion changes as the nature of digital technology changes. 

Uniting around the urgency of the issue is the imperative, as captured in the key takeaways from the session:

  • Government must take a leadership role

Eradicating digital poverty cannot be achieved in isolation, and it cannot be accomplished in siloes. Government needs to lead national efforts to tackle data poverty. Despite the rapid rollout of many innovative schemes to fill an emergency gap during the pandemic (see the next point), many speakers said that people often do not know about the schemes that are available. In part, this is due to the piecemeal and fragmented array of partnerships and programmes, which are necessarily led by industry and the third sector. When there is market failure, as there is in this case, the Government must step in. The other part is the user journey, with attendees noting that where there are low cost offers, these are often too complex or hard to find for the people they aim to support. This is reflected in low take-up numbers. 

One speaker remarked, “Sometimes it feels like the Government is just standing back and saying, ‘oh, thank you very much.’” Data poverty impacts society and citizenship, yet it is non-governmental sectors that are having to step in and bridge the gaps — out of sheer public need. Government can do more, and there are many people and organisations who want to help.

Some recommendations included zero-rating essential services and implementing a universal service levy on companies that reap the greatest reward for digital engagement, many of which have saved billions in cost due to digital transformation, which has not in turn been returned to their customers. The Government has saved, too, and these windfalls should be re-invested in digital equity and inclusion. Another recommendation is to impose a social tariff on all operators — an initiative BT has already undertaken. As community members of the Digital Poverty Alliance pointed out, at the very least the Government and big business can signpost to available affordability schemes, subsidise social broadband tariffs, impose regulation requiring minimum standards of connectivity, offer help with paying bills, and help to identify the people most in need through their existing channels.   

  • We need long-term solutions that are sustainable beyond the pandemic

Industry and the third sector stepped up to meet public need during the pandemic with stop-gap measures that helped hundreds of thousands of people. To name just a few: BT, Openreach, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk, O2, Vodafone, Three, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, and KCOM took measures to lift data allowance caps on their broadband services; DevicesDotNow and others distributed donated and refurbished devices to families in need; and the Department for Education partnered with telecom companies to provide free data to disadvantaged families through schools.

But there is a clear need to develop long-term solutions to data poverty that are sustainable beyond the crisis moment. For example, what happens to the group of children next year who enter school without home access, or to the family whose limited-time free offer of connectivity runs out so they must again choose between food and connectivity? According to the Association of Colleges, 36 percent of colleges in England do not have sufficient access available, even in school. If industry and the third sector are meant to continue support for disadvantaged families and individuals, there must be a long-term plan in place to fund these initiatives and to address the multiple factors that contribute to digital poverty, including access to adequate devices and consumer choice (the ability to choose among fairly priced competitive internet service providers).

  • Data poverty is poverty

A clear theme that emerged in the roundtable was the intersection between data poverty and socio-economic deprivation. Although data poverty is a relatively new concept, it is not distinct from poverty writ large. Rather, the digital divide is a determinant of poverty, just like the inability to afford heating or inadequate nutrition. People who lack digital skills also often pay more for utilities and earn less per year. In short, data poverty contributes to the poverty premium. And in the midst of our most profound modern health crisis, research increasingly shows that digital exclusion is a determinant of health outcomes.

For these reasons, it is important to consider data poverty in the same terms in which we consider other forms of deprivation. And we should ask: what is the minimum standard needed to survive in our digital world? Projects like the newly minted Minimum Digital Living Standard research network will aim to address this issue, recognising that poverty is often defined by context as much as by simple thresholds like the speed of a connection or the availability of a single device. When families need to share devices, for instance, a limited resource winds up spread thinly across individuals’ needs.

  • There is a need to more accurately identify need

Data poverty is two-fold: it is about getting people access to the data (internet service) they need, but on the delivery side, it is also about gathering better data to locate the need. 

While there is a clear willingness to deliver more affordable access and devices to people who need them, there is a distinct gap in evidence about who those people are and what mechanisms lead to digital poverty. Here, again, is a clear role for the Government, which has the ability to signpost to those with a registered disability, jobseekers, those on free school meals, those in poor health, carers, those on low income, and those in receipt of Universal Credit, for example. These have been key vulnerable groups identified during the pandemic; we need to ensure that the pipeline of information from government to service delivery stays open and that existing channels to these people are shared between government departments so that people’s entire needs are met.

  • Where people have access is as important as other factors

It is easy to overlook the important qualitative differences in access to data that contribute to “data poverty.” For example, public internet access points have long been part of strategies for digital inclusion. The Government’s 2017 Digital Strategy called libraries the “go-to providers” of digital inclusion, and public libraries are, in fact, vitally important access points for people living in data poverty. (My own research with colleagues at the University of Oxford showed that 29% of library computer users in Oxfordshire had neither computers nor internet access at home.)

But public access is not qualitatively the same as access at home, and public wifi cannot be considered an adequate solution for people to be digitally included. Not only do people who rely on public wifi have fewer opportunities to acquire and practise digital skills, but they can also be subjected to more surveillance and tracking on public networks. Certain tasks, like attending court hearings and online banking are more difficult and risky in public internet spaces — and it is often marginalised people who are forced to conduct their private (online) lives in public. Therefore, priority must be placed on at-home or mobile internet suitable to individuals’ needs.

I think at least one further point deserves attention in a discussion of digital poverty. This is the related, downstream impact of data poverty on further digital exclusion. In particular, this is the problem of people living in data poverty becoming “missing data.” One attendee mentioned in the Zoom chat that many people are unable to prove their identity to digital ID systems. (This was a criticism leveled by the National Audit Office on the Verify system for Universal Credit.) The issue of datafied invisibility is a nuanced aspect of data poverty: people become increasingly invisible to digital systems when they do not leave data trails, and they cannot leave data trails when they cannot access or afford the internet.

Avoiding these feedback loops in which the poor have inadequate access to the internet and are further penalised for their inadequate access — by high utility bills, targeted scams, and failed credit checks, etc. — should be of paramount concern to society, the business sector, and certainly to Government.

These and other issues related to digital poverty along with policy recommendations that have emerged from the #DPIS21 meetings will inform a forthcoming Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022 for the Digital Poverty Alliance. Read the interim report here.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG for Data Poverty, in collaboration with the APPG Digital Skills, APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance.