Understanding data poverty
At the most basic level, the root cause of data poverty is poverty. Impossible choices – between eating or heating, dinner or data – are impossible because you don’t have enough money to pay for the essentials you need for life in the UK. At some point during the pandemic, we reached a tipping point of public acceptance that having basic internet access at home had become essential for most (if not all) households. In August 2020, 61% of respondents said internet access should be recognised as an essential utility, like electricity; and 47% of adults said they would donate unused data to low income families.1 Calls are growing here and elsewhere for internet access to be seen as a human right. Having access to basic services, including ‘appropriate technology’ sits within the UN Sustainable Development Goal on ending poverty.1
Poverty is when resources are well below your minimum needs as an individual or household. Poverty is complex, shaped by systems, structures and individual agency. A raft of measures and approaches have developed to address poverty over centuries. In the UK, poverty is caused by the interplay of unemployment and low wages; high costs – compounded by additional costs (e.g. ‘poverty premium’, extra costs of disability); low levels of state benefits compared to household costs; inadequate services and support; and a complex range of other factors including experience of discrimination, trauma, and weak family or social relationships.
In ‘We can solve poverty in the UK’,2 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation set out an evidence-based strategy for ending UK poverty. JRF identified several levers for change, including these:
- Involving people with lived experience of poverty;
- Reframing how we talk about poverty in the UK;
- A more generous, effective social security system;
- Better paid and better quality work;
- Lower rents and better housing for those on low incomes;
- Addressing the ‘poverty premium’ in goods and services;
- Building public and political will for sustained action to address poverty.
Approaches to poverty have emerged over many decades (including Sen’s capabilities approach, social exclusion, intersectionality). For most people – poverty is simply about not having enough money for essentials. This simple framing helps to get traction in specific areas, such as: furniture poverty, fuel poverty, period poverty, food poverty. At the same time, all of these are embedded in wider systems with varying complexity (from home ownership and social security, to global capitalism and patriarchy). But the core narrative is the link between not having enough money to afford something, where ‘something’ is an everyday essential that people can’t imagine having to go without.
In similar vein, at the Data Poverty Lab, we’re using the definition of data poverty developed by Lucas and Robinson in their scoping work for Nesta on ‘What is data poverty?’ (2020)3, which centred on the ability to afford enough data for essential needs:
“those individuals, households or communities who cannot afford sufficient, private and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs.”
The challenging question is what constitutes ‘essential’, who decides, and how far ‘essential’ is different in an emergency like a pandemic. What is essential for children in a family household? Having enough data for a few hours of school work, or also for play, gaming and using social media to keep in touch? In a household where someone is living alone, is there a greater case for enough data to stream entertainment or make video calls – both of which are ‘data hungry’?(These are some of the questions being explored through the Minimum Digital Living Standards research)4.
Data Poverty is caused by poverty. It is also part of a more complex system
At an individual or household level, data poverty is shaped first and foremost by poverty – not having enough money to meet the costs of mobile or broadband data connectivity:
- Data poverty (similarly to poverty more generally) is also shaped by differences in capacity (digital skills, confidence, familiarity, motivation, literacy and numeracy);
- These capabilities are often shaped by poverty and wider factors, reflecting intersectionality with other forms of exclusion and discrimination, and life events;
- These intersectionalities can in turn shape not only how much people can afford but what they need (e.g. extra connectivity to support specialist accessibility apps);
- For a significant proportion of people, their experience of data poverty is intertwined with digital exclusion more generally, as well as with poverty.
At a community or local level, data poverty is also shaped by access to support and provision in addition to household income:
- Basic infrastructure – mobile and broadband coverage;
- Availability of free WiFi access in public and commercial spaces, from buses to schools to retail outlets;
- Policy decisions by place-shapers (from local authorities to social landlords) about provision of free or subsidised internet access to residents or tenants.
At a national level, data poverty is also shaped by the relationship between the telecoms industry, government and regulators, including:
- How well the market is functioning for consumers, including vulnerable consumers, shareholders and for innovation and improvement;
- Policy decisions about entitlements to income support, goods and services; about provision of government digital services and digital services for public good, e.g. in health and education; about ‘hard’ infrastructure (such as the switch of telephone networks to digital by 2025) and social infrastructure (such as digital inclusion);
- In turn, these are shaped by wider systems (and ideologies) around ownership and the balance of responsibility between state, market, society and individuals.
At a global level, data poverty is also shaped by the innovations, policies and business models of global technology and communications companies, and the acceleration and spread of digital and data technologies and products:
- Nearly 60% of the world’s population now has internet access, and also concern is rising about a lack of digital equity and intersectionality (e.g. gender, income, power);
- Data use and storage consume energy and resources; internet access and smart use of data also disrupt economic and social behaviours, and can generate behaviours with a lower cost to the planet.
And at all these levels, internet access and data shape our behaviours – consumption patterns, economic growth, social and political movements, exploitation and crime – situating data poverty within overarching economic, social, political, cultural and environmental systems.
1Goodthingsfoundation, ‘Towards solving data Poverty’, Dr Emma Stone, 2022
2Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘We can solve poverty in the UK’, 2016
3Nesta, ‘What is data poverty?’, P J Lucas, R Robinson & L Treacy, 2020
4Nuffiled Foundation, ‘Developing a minimum digital living standard for households with children’, P.S Yates & Professor A. Singleton, 2021 – 2023