Opening Statement at the 2022 National Digital Conference

Presented at the Digital Leaders 2022 National Digital Conference, Understanding the Evidence Panel

Thank you very much for having me here. Today I’m mostly going to speak from my experience writing the 2022 UK Digital Poverty Evidence Review for the Digital Poverty Alliance, which is launching next week.

For the review, I consulted more than 200 sources of evidence on the five determinants of digital poverty from academia, the third sector, industry, and Government. The five determinants, as outlined by the Digital Poverty Alliance are Devices and Connectivity, Access, Capabilities, Motivation, and Support and Participation. As you can probably imagine, these headings encompass quite a wide range of issues and supporting data and the reason comes down to this: digital poverty is at least as much a social issue as it is a technological issue. So, to tackle it, we need to know more about people – their day to day lives, their hardships, the inequalities they face – and we need to build technologies that take this diversity of experiences and forms of exclusion into account.  

By way of an opening statement, I’m going to highlight three things about where we need to be looking for the evidence to end digital poverty, based on the evidence review that’s coming out on Monday in full. These are top-level observations, and if you want to dig into them, obviously check out the report on Monday, and I’ll be making my entire list of source material – including things that aren’t cited in the report – available then, too.

First, we need to look beyond the longstanding absolute divide between digital haves and have-nots – the classic online/offline distinction – to focus instead on relative differences and divides. On the face of it, the UK is a highly connected country: Ofcom reports that 94% of households have internet access. But these aggregate statistics can obscure the ways that the digital divide is deepening for some people – especially people who are already disadvantaged. There are regional divides, with rural areas especially in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland the least able to access decent broadband. And divides based on income, with households in the lowest socio-economic grades being more than 15 points more likely to use only a smartphone to get online compared to the highest socio-economic grades. And there are divides based on education, with those lacking formal qualifications being 2.8 times more likely to say the internet is “not for them,” according to research Simeon, who is here on the panel with us, conducted for Good Things Foundation. There are divides based on disability, with disabled adults 18 points less likely to be recent internet users according to ONS. Factors like the reliability of your connection, the speed of your connection, and the privacy of the spaces you have at your disposal to connect also all affect your experience of the digital world. 

Second, digital inequality – and therefore digital poverty – is becoming a very complex issue in the digital world today because of what scholars call ‘datafication,’ meaning the collection of information about people and the processing of that data, which now underpins most digital services. 

It’s not just about whether someone has an internet connection or an internet-enabled device anymore. It’s also about whether enough or too little data about them is being collected and whether data-driven decisions are putting them at a greater disadvantage, for instance in risk-scoring for housing or insurance. So we need to look at the evidence around issues like algorithmic bias, digital tracking and surveillance, and the commercial sale of data to understand how people are benefitting or suffering from digitisation. And all these issues are also contributing to what people think about the digital world – their motivation. People care more and more about privacy, and this affects their trust in digital technologies. Lloyds Bank reports that over half of people offline say they’re worried about their privacy. And the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has found that people with low digital familiarity are the most likely to be worried about data security and risks. At the same time, people generally don’t understand how their data is collected and used, or how to identify risks to their data or their access to information. Again, CDEI reports that infrequent digital users mostly say they know little or nothing about how data about them is used or collected, but in the general population less than half of people say they know these things. These issues are all factors contributing to digital poverty.

Third, and this is related to the second point, we need to explore and address the double-edged sword of inclusion. What do I mean by that? Well, digital poverty doesn’t end when people finally get online or have access to a reasonable device. It’s not a switch that gets flipped from “off” to “on,” and now people will be able to experience the positive outcomes of digitisation. People may actually be exposed to more harms due to their digital disadvantage, so we need to include evidence about what those harms are, who is most likely to be affected, and how to mitigate them. This means building digital technologies and systems that are safe, accessible, and privacy-enhancing.

In summary, the evidence we need to take into account in order to tackle digital poverty goes beyond what we’ve traditionally relied on – statistics on digital connections and skills – and now needs to encompass all the complexities of a data-driven world and how these are embedded in people’s social contexts.