CHESS: Co-defining what counts as a ‘good’ solution to data poverty

Our Policy and Research Officer, Tom McGrath, presents our findings from the Data Poverty Lab about what makes a 'good' solution to data poverty.

Data poverty is a component of the digital divide. It is defined as: “Individuals, households or communities who cannot afford sufficient, private and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs” (Lucas et al., 2021). Through our Data Poverty Lab with Nominet, we’re seeking sustainable solutions to help eradicate data poverty.

Since October 2021, we’ve co-hosted a series of workshops with people with lived experience with APLE Collective and Friends, Families and Travellers. We did this to ground the Data Poverty Lab in people’s experiences and ideas; we believe understanding and acting upon these helps to design more effective, sustainable solutions. With APLE Collective, we identified five dimensions of what makes a ‘good’ solution, framed as a CHESS board to support discussions. The main insights from workshops, and some implications which follow, are below; the rest of the paper outlines the analysis and methods.

CHESS: Co-defined dimensions of a ‘good’ solution to data poverty

Cheap – is it genuinely affordable – not just at the start but over time?

Findings: Cost emerged as the single most important issue in the workshops – but what counts as ‘affordable’ was felt to vary widely. For some, a ‘social tariff’ (£10 – £20 per month) is still out of reach. Some were wary of offers linked to state benefits. Considering entry costs as well as costs over time and contracts is important.

Handy – is it easy to find out about? Is it easy to apply for and access?

Findings: Accessing the internet at home, away from home, and on the move matters more now, requiring a mix of mobile data, broadband, public wifi – and wifi on public transport and other settings. A ‘handy’ solution is inclusive by design – easy to use, jargon-free, with minimal bureaucracy to navigate, and addressing language barriers.

Enough – does it allow me to meet my essential online needs? Is it fast enough? Is there enough data?

Findings: People felt accessing online ‘essentials’ should be free – and also asked who decides what is ‘essential’ or a ‘luxury’ or ‘enough’. Ideas included ‘freemium’ models for internet access (drawing comparisons to accessing TV channels). People talked about the cost of data-hungry apps such as video calling – which have become widespread.

Safe – does it ensure my privacy is protected, and I’m not at greater risk of harm?

Findings: Online scams, privacy and security were frequently raised – with some people making a direct link between experiencing data poverty and their confidence to use the internet. While free public wifi was valued as part of a spectrum of solutions, public spaces were felt unsafe and unsuitable for some things, such as banking and health.

Suitable – is it suitable for my circumstances, and flexible if these change? Will I feel stigma or loss of pride?

Findings: Solutions need to be designed in ways which don’t feel stigmatising to apply for or use – many were critical of solutions tied to receiving state benefits. Solutions need to flex around changing circumstances, rather than require commitments with penalties. Some are locked out of affordable solutions due to personal housing circumstances.

Implications for solving data poverty

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some solutions (such as free public WiFi in community centres or libraries) will score well on some dimensions, and less well on others. A spectrum of solutions is likely to be needed. CHESS is a valuable check on the strengths and limitations of a policy, product or service, helping to identify where to improve or what else may be needed for the solution to work well for people facing data poverty.

Public wifi and free internet access in public spaces continue to have an important place in the spectrum of solutions to data poverty, but the accelerated shift to online services (such as health, banking, government services) have increased the need for secure connectivity and privacy, as well as the need for digital and online safety skills. Public wifi is ‘cheap’, sometimes ‘handy’, but not always ‘safe’, ‘suitable’ or ‘enough’.

The importance of reducing additional barriers – avoiding jargon, tackling stigma, information in community languages, designing a user journey that works for people with low digital skills, low literacy, disability-inclusive – sits alongside promoting support and encouraging take-up with dignity among target groups.

Ofcom estimates that only 1.2% of eligible customers have taken up social tariffs for fixed broadband. Insights suggest that very low take-up of social tariffs for fixed broadband may reflect a mix of factors in addition to those cited by Ofcom (low awareness and lack of promotion), for instance: wariness about solutions tied to DWP and receipt of benefits; stigma or loss of pride; and experiences of red-tape or delays.

The new National Databank was welcomed as a concept for providing free, safe mobile data connectivity, donated by three telecommunications providers, and not requiring proof of benefits, income status or residence; ‘handy’ is the main dimension to improve. Data gifting by individuals was suggested for further exploration.

A universal offer of free internet access for basic needs has appeal, but quickly raises hard questions about what is ‘enough’ or ‘essential’ and who decides. Research to establish a benchmark – a Minimum Digital Living Standard for the goods, services and capabilities households need in the UK today – will provide a benchmark, involving members of the public to reach consensus on an acceptable minimum.

Introduction

The Covid-19 pandemic shifted public services, education, and work online, accelerating a long-running trend. This shift exposed the issue of ‘data poverty’ – highlighting how many people and families were not able to afford sufficient internet access for their essential needs at home, and motivating emergency responses and action.

The Data Poverty Lab has been guided by the following definition of data poverty:

“Individuals, households or communities who cannot afford sufficient, private and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs.” (Lucas et al., 2021)

Data poverty is one part of the broader picture of digital poverty and digital exclusion. A person can be digitally excluded but not experience data poverty; a person who experiences data poverty cannot be considered to be digitally included in the full sense of this term.

From Ofcom data, we know two million households struggle to afford their internet bills; an estimated 500,000 households are offline primarily due to cost; 69% of households with access to ‘superfast’ broadband connections take up packages at these speeds; only 1.2% of eligible customers are using a social tariff for broadband. But we do not know how many people are online but rely on public or insecure connections. Nor how many households have internet connections which fall short of meeting their ‘essential needs.’

In 2021, the Data Poverty Lab was established by Good Things Foundation and Nominet. Since then, we have worked with APLE Collective – a campaigning organisation of people with lived experience of poverty – to co-design an approach to engage people with lived experience in exploring the issues and generating ideas. We also partnered with Friends, Families and Travellers – which supports and advocates for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Building on the definition of data poverty, we identified ten dimensions relevant to data poverty interventions: affordability; sufficiency; privacy; security; flexibility; necessity; also sustainability, availability, accessibility, and eligibility. Following discussions with APLE Collective and Nominet, we simplified the initial list of ten into five dimensions. CHESS emerged as a tool to explore and debate what ‘good’ looks like.

  • Cheap – is it genuinely affordable – not just at the start but over time?
  • Handy – is it easy to find out about? Is it easy to apply for and access?
  • Enough – does it allow me to meet my essential online needs? Is it fast enough? Is there enough data?
  • Safe – does it ensure my privacy is protected, and I’m not at greater risk of harm
  • Suitable – is it suitable for my circumstances, and flexible if these change? Will I feel stigma or loss of pride if I use it?

Ideally, a ‘good’ intervention meets and scores highly against all five dimensions. Each dimension is highly contestable, and there can be trade-offs between dimensions. CHESS encourages a more sophisticated approach to evaluating interventions – recognising that low cost is critical, but other factors can be equally (sometimes more) important in people’s lives. In this way, CHESS is a valuable check on the strengths and limitations of a policy, product or service, helping to identify where to improve or what complementary measures are needed.

To test these dimensions, we designed and held five workshops with APLE Collective and Friends, Families and Travellers. These took place between September 2021 and January 2022. Four were in-person; one was a hybrid of online and in-person. The number of people taking part in each ranged from five to thirteen people.

Each workshop was participatory, discursive, semi-structured and iterative – taking on board what worked and what did not in each session. People with lived experience were involved in leading and participating in workshops, which allowed for more open conversations. Initially, we used drawings of chess pieces and boards, but these were neither effective nor necessary.

People were invited to talk about how often they used the internet, if they had ever run out of data, and what they do to find deals on broadband or mobile phone contracts. Beyond this, there was no set list of questions; people shaped the discussions themselves, looking at each dimension. Workshops were recorded with informed consent, transcribed, and analysed. This analysis is presented below, with more information about the methodology in the appendix.

Workshop Analysis

Cheap

This dimension received the most focus in the workshops. Workshop participants noted how ‘cheap’ is relative to individual circumstances, such as location.

F: It’s relative to areas as well because cheap in London is f**king expensive.

F: 15% more expensive than y’know

M: Yeah even over in Leicester, a lad I don’t know comes from there and he thinks ten quid for a haircut is too dear, but don’t know what they’re paying down there but more like twenty quid.

F: Well like any city that you go to, they reckon it’s like 15% in costs, it’s 15% more than anywhere else.

Quote 1: Conversation between three participants – Stoke-on-Trent

‘Cheap’ doesn’t matter if it’s not sustainable, if it’s not safe. It should cover all basic needs.

Quote 2: Participant – hybrid online and Frimley Green

Participants discussed how ‘cheap’ interacts with dimensions such as ‘safe’. There was some wariness and mistrust towards free or low cost solutions.

It’s very difficult to get an affordable package if you don’t already have some money to spend on other things. [My children] are with [provider] currently, at the start of the package it was expensive. The longer you stay with them, the cheaper it gets. They don’t offer new customers that deal. They should have a separate package for those on lower incomes.

Quote 3: Participant – hybrid online and Frimley Green

Incentives that internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile network operators provide to existing customers impact our understanding of ‘cheap’ (Quote 3). People on low incomes may not be able to afford the ‘best’ deals if they are not able to sign-up to contracts or commit to regular, long-term spending. This can force people onto more costly pay-as-you-go plans. Contracts and credit checks can be a barrier, so ‘cheap’ needs to consider both costs of entry as well as longer-term costs and savings.

Conversations suggested limited awareness of interventions like social tariffs. Social tariffs are cheaper deals for customers in receipt of Universal Credit and some other benefits. Not all providers offer social tariffs. Ofcom (2022) reports low awareness and low promotion, citing these as reasons for very low take-up. Social tariffs are typically between £10-15 per month, so they may still be too expensive for some people on low incomes.

F: And how is the library run? If you have – are they quite good at…

M: Well, they throw you off after two hours, and – because it’s a –

M: You can get longer, but you have to pay for it.

F: So again, it’s not accessible for people that… haven’t really got that much money. Or do they get – can you, if you are on benefits, can you have it for free, or…

Quote 4: Conversation between three participants, minor edits for brevity – York

M: I don’t know what it’s like here, but I know, in some places, you have to pay to use library computers now.

F: That’s meant to be free and that’s like expensive.

F: And they’re restricted on what you can do on them. No online shopping.

F: Do you know what? It’s shocking really, isn’t it, because it’s meant to be that free access into libraries where you can take out a book for free, and like everything is going online.

Quote 5: Conversation between three participants, minor edits for brevity – Brighton

Conversations also revealed differences in experiences of access to free internet – for example, in public libraries – with variations in charging for internet access (Quote 4, Quote 5; Gov.uk 2022). This inconsistent approach to free internet provision may lead to higher levels of data poverty in those areas which charge for these services.

Well, I’ll go back to – if it’s essential, then that should at least be the – free at that point, to everyone.

Quote 6: Participant – York

I think that it should be either completely free, if that’s absolutely unachievable or just non-negotiable, it should be heavily subsidised, and it shouldn’t be linked in through any existing current statutory system, and it should be available for every single individual, no questions asked.

Quote 7: Participant – York

Many felt ‘essentials’ should be free for everyone (Quote 6, Quote 7). There were concerns about tying eligibility to free internet to state benefits (Quote 7). In part, this was about red-tape and delays. Workshop participants drew on their own negative experiences here, and some noted stigma associated with Universal Credit and benefits can stop people accessing support.

M: Applying for […] an estate agent to get a place, you – if you can’t fulfil certain criteria, you can have a guarantor. So why not that with data, as well? If someone could then guarantee […] they will pay his £5.00 a month if he does – can’t keep it up. Why can’t that be a thing? Why can’t someone else guarantee that? Why can’t that be on that contract somewhere? […]

F: So guarantors.

Quote 8: Conversation between two participants, minor edits for brevity – York

A ‘guarantor’ scheme was suggested, since contracts can be a barrier (Quote 8). Some felt this could be particularly beneficial for people seeking asylum and other migrants who lack settled status (see footnote 1). Where such schemes exist, ISPs and mobile network providers could publicise them to increase awareness and encourage take-up among people who could benefit most.

Conversations challenged the use of the word ‘cheap’ and highlighted how what is seen as ‘cheap’ will change over time given inflation, changes in technology and in data needs.

Handy

Discussions around ‘handy’ reflected changes in the economy, society and technology. Public services moving online has made access to the internet an essential need. One person felt “constant access” to affordable connections from their own home is a need, whilst having to “go out” is now a barrier; not everyone agreed (Quote 9).

M: When you were going on about free wifi, what were you meaning by that? Because we already get so much free wifi on the bus or in the [inaudible] in different places, you’ve got a lot of-,

F: Yeah but it’s not a constant access and you’ve got to go out to get it, haven’t you.

Quote 9: Conversation between two participants – Stoke-on-Trent

They do have computers [in the library] and you can just go in and use them… I used to have [the free maximum] two hours in the library, and then if I needed to do banking I’d go to the bank, and if I needed to do something with the job centre I’d go there… but then all of a sudden the world shut down.

Quote 10: Participant – York

Experiences during the pandemic have shaped people’s understanding of ‘handy’ (Quote 10). Lockdowns accelerated the digitisation of public services, leaving behind those who would ordinarily depend on face-to-face contact or internet access in public spaces. Though most of these spaces have re-opened, access issues remain in some important areas of people’s lives – such as health (e.g. GPs) and banking (e.g. branch closures, Shalchi & Booth, 2021).

F: But it’s always the frame of mind that there’s people that need it more than you do, do you know what I mean? So a lot of people won’t claim stuff that they should do-,

Moderator: There’s a lot of times where they done-,

F: -it’s just like that stigma attached as well isn’t it.

Moderator: -the red tape that we’ve got to go through to get it is too hard work.

M: You probably have to apply online.

Quote 11: Conversation between three participants, minor edits for brevit – Stoke-on-Trent

‘Handy’ generated debate on applying for support (Quote 11). Applications often take place online, disadvantaging people with low digital skills and limited internet access. Many people do not see themselves as needing support, even if they are eligible or have been targeted. Stigma surfaced as a barrier for offers associated with the Department for Work and Pensions.

M: And then actually sticking to it. Whereas, I think they’ve said, “Oh, your best deal is so-and-so.” And then you go away, and you come back, and, “No, I’m still going.” And then they say, “Well, actually, now the new best deal is so-and-so, we can give you.” And it’s, well, why didn’t you tell me that for the first time, because you’ve put me through a load of hassle?

F: Because it’s all about profits, isn’t it?

Quote 12: Conversation between two participants – York

‘Handy’ is also about ease of getting the most appropriate deal, and the “hassle” that can come with applying for mobile data and broadband (Quote 12). Practices of withholding the cheapest deals unless someone threatens to switch provider engendered mistrust.

Moderator: How easy do you find it to actually understand how much data something is going to use? Like, if you were doing a video call or something, do you know how much data that is going to use?

F: I know the word ‘data’, but I don’t know what it even bloody means.

Quote 13: Conversation between a participant and the moderator, minor edits for brevity – Brighton

Data is a familiar word, but not a concept which is easily described, understood or measured, and it has different uses (Quote 13). This can make choosing the best deal more difficult, particularly on a mobile data connection where data caps are more common. Increased data consumption in the pandemic may have exacerbated this for some (Ofcom, 2021b).

Enough

Exploring this raised questions about who gets to decide what is “enough” and what is a “luxury”.

M: Same as the apps, you get a limited version, I’ve got an artwork one for some photos… but I haven’t paid for them. But it’s got enough for what I need. Now should you have the money or you want the extended version, you’ve got to pay for it. But you can get something that you can use for free. And that’s, that was part of the model in selling stuff really on the internet, wasn’t it?

M: It’s like a TV. You pay for the BBC, but you don’t pay for Channel 4, ITV, because they get paid for by the adverts.

Quote 14: Conversation between two participants – Stoke-on-Trent

Every home needs enough data for basic needs – but who should decide ‘what is enough?’

Quote 15: Participant – hybrid online and Frimley Green

Most workshop participants seemed to support free access to essential public services, more nuanced views were expressed about how much data is ‘enough’ in general – asking ’who should decide what is enough?’ (Quote 14, Quote 15). Some drew on ‘freemium’ or ‘tiered’ app and TV-licence models (see footnote 2) to explain what they felt should be free to access on the internet (Quote 14).

Because if I go on – I have to be really careful. If I’m out and about, if I’m asked to go in on a Zoom meeting, it just gobbles and gobbles […] all of my data, and I’ve got to be really careful of trying to make sure that I’m sitting at home, so I can use my home internet.

Quote 16 – Participant, minor edits for brevity – York

Many participants noted how the pandemic had changed their data needs, particularly the rise of video calls which “gobble” up data, and the implications of this if data is limited (Quote 16).

In some workshops, people discussed new interventions such as data gifting by customers beyond family members, or corporate data donations – such as the new National Databank (Quote 17, Quote 18) and potential data poverty interventions, such as zero rating (Coldewey, 2017). At the time, the initial Databank offer was 6GB per month, which was felt not ‘enough’ and a “stop-gap” for short-term connectivity needs. Since then, providers have increased the value of data donations to 10GB and 15GB over a maximum of 12 months.

M: You know things like that, it’s like I say, six gig isn’t a lot, even if it was, it’s still just a stop-gap. It’s a sticking plaster for a long-term-,

M: What are they actually charging for though… I know they’ve got the initial infrastructure and investment and the maintenance, but what kind of profits are they making, because they must be massive?

Quote 17: Conversation between two participants, discussing the National Databank – Stoke-on-Trent

M: My second idea was donating data. I’ve got – it’s not much on my phone; it’s 2 gb or something […] But I don’t get anywhere near it, because I’m not a big out-and-about phone user […] So I usually have one and a big bit left over; why can’t I donate that to someone else?

F: Because you can with your own family… can’t you? […]

M: But I was thinking more to a sort of charity.

Quote 18: Conversation between three participants, minor edits for brevity – York

Despite concerns about the initial offer from the National Databank, the idea of ‘a databank’ and data gifting was enthusiastically received by some. One idea was to allow individual customers to donate their leftover data into a databank (extending the concept of gifting unused data to family members named on a contract). Some compared the idea to donating money or specific items at a checkout, similar to other charity or food-bank donations (see Choose Love (2021), a charity supporting refugees and asylum-seekers).

If you’re being forced into having to deal with [the] system, this way, via the internet, then somehow, that should be provided for you. And of course, it just seems like you shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to achieve the basics.

Quote 19: Participant – York

A broader question emerged around who should pay for data connectivity to use essential online government services (Quote 19). A minimum level of free internet access to these ‘basics’ was a popular theme throughout the workshops, alongside discussions of what is ‘essential’ and what is a ‘luxury’ (Quote 20).

M: It’s considered a luxury, isn’t it? YouTube.

F: It is. That’s really interesting – it’s considered a luxury, and what is considered a luxury for you might be different to what’s considered a luxury for me. But it feels a bit like […] a narrative when people are on benefits and if they get a takeaway or go to the pub and have a pint –

M: Stop smoking, stop drinking[…] whatever it may be, yeah.

F: […] I’m not saying this is everyone’s thinking, but it’s certainly a narrative that’s out there – you should only be accessing the basics, so if it’s not for food, it’s not for your children, it’s not – then, you know, anything above and beyond that should not be within your remit. And again, does it feel a bit like that, in terms of what is luxury to me […] are we further marginalising people with restrictions, i.e. you can only use it for what we deem essential.

Quote 20: Conversation between two participants, minor edits for brevity – York

One participant highlighted the differing views on essential and luxury items, flagging the dangers of falling into narratives that people on low-incomes often face – particularly asylum seekers, refugees and the unemployed (Quote 20).

You used to be able to [update phone operating systems] in McDonald’s. If it was an update of like, I don’t know, 8 gigs or less on an iPhone, you could do it in McDonald’s because it takes less than 50% of your charge. But any more than that, you need a minimum of 50% for your phone to keep going, and when it hits the 50%, then it won’t do it anymore, so you can’t do it in McDonald’s.

Quote 21: Participant – Brighton

Finally, ‘enough’ is not only about data connectivity – it is also about electricity and having enough charge for use and also for updates (Quote 21).

The workshop hosted by Friends, Families and Travellers explored how some people within the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities respond to data poverty. Not living in fixed, long-term accommodation necessitates alternative strategies for internet access; many highlighted how they used McDonald’s restaurants to access the internet. This was primarily because there is a McDonald’s in most towns and cities; and because the provision enabled larger downloads, particularly software and operating system updates.

Safe

While public spaces – such as libraries and fast-food restaurants – were valued as ‘handy’, they rated less well on ‘safe’ reflecting wider concerns about online safety, especially for internet activities requiring privacy and/or secure connections (Quotes 22 and 23).

The way they’re that clued up is all them things they have on the Facebook and that […] they’re asking… your son’s birthday… I’m just saying this is how they’re getting all the information. As you put these little feelers out and things like that, names of your first pet and that. Obviously that’s trying to beat somebody’s password so they can get whatever they need.

Quote 22: Participant – Stoke-on-Trent

I know if you have a wifi enabled phone you can access the wifi [at the library]. But it’s an unsecured network. But you couldn’t do anything, money or any online banking or anything like that.

Quote 23: Participant – York

Conversations around ‘safe’ generally looked at two issues: scams and privacy. They challenge those designing data poverty interventions to consider how effectiveness of interventions may be impacted by wider issues, such as concerns about internet security, confirming the relevance of ‘safe’ as a CHESS dimension (Quote 22, Quote 23). Free public internet provision was felt unsuitable for some essential activities – such as online banking or GP appointments.

It’s up to you to download protection, if providers do provide protection it’s minimal.

Quote 24: Participant – hybrid online and Frimley Green

Software, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), may be able to prevent others from accessing data on a personal device connected to public or community WiFi. However, these services can be expensive and sometimes require downloads, placing additional financial barriers to adequate public internet protection for people on low incomes (Quote 24). Some software protection can impact network providers’ ability to offer certain essential websites free of charge (known as zero-rating, see Coldewey 2017). Options for internet providers or others delivering data poverty interventions to address this could be explored further.

But for a lot of marginalised people, who either can’t afford to get the data, or can’t afford to do that […] just feel so unconfident of saying – like I do – I’m scared to click a button in case it wipes out everything that I’ve done. But if I don’t follow the procedure, because I don’t understand it, then I might be really messing stuff up. And I’m genuinely just pressing the wrong button, because I’m not digitally savvy.

Quote 25: Participant – York

‘Safe’ emerged as a dimension with strong overlaps to wider issues of digital exclusion, such as ability to use the internet confidently and safely (Quote 25). Take-up of support to reduce data (such as the National Databank or social tariffs) may be limited by a lack of digital confidence.

Suitable

The diversity of experiences among workshop participants highlighted that solutions to data poverty need to reflect different lifestyles and communities, so that everyone is able to get online if they need, and want, to do so.

Suitability and handiness [go together]. If English isn’t your first language it’s difficult. If packages aren’t available in other community languages, they are not suitable.

Quote 26: Participant – hybrid online and Frimley Green

‘Suitable’ was felt to overlap with ‘handy’; people need to be able to find out about available support and feel it is ‘for people like me’ (Quote 26). Workshop participants from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities highlighted low literacy as an additional barrier. These insights point to the value of working directly with communities to design and promote interventions.

I was lucky that I already had the contract at the time. But whether I would get one with the situation I was in at that time, I very much doubt it. Because I was in a homeless hostel. So I do not expect [mobile data provider] to give me a contract [laughs]. But because I’d had it for the five years before then, before everything like that happened, I already had it in place, and I’d been paying the bill, so I could continue it going.

Quote 27: Participant – York

Data poverty solutions need to be suitable to individual and community needs, and flexible when needs and circumstances change (Quote 27). Differences in housing circumstances (such as living in a homeless hostel and not having fixed accommodation) and fluctuations in income and data needs means that a range of suitable and affordable solutions is needed. Without this, a ‘poverty premium’ can arise if people are unable to access affordable options. For example, people without permanent accommodation may not have been able to sign a contract for an extended period of time, particularly for broadband.

F: Contracts, generally, in terms of people’s experiences with phone contracts are not necessarily things that have been – you’ve felt supported with or happy with or –

M: Never happy with it.

F: – general experience of contracts.

M: Never enjoying it at all. It’s not an enjoyable thing.

Quote 28: Participant – York

Dislike of contracts was a recurring theme in the workshops (Quote 28). People did not like being tied to monthly payments, as they may not always be able to afford the same amount every month. Some were frustrated about transparency of contract pricing and the process and constraints around getting ‘better deals’.

One thing as well, being roadside, what you’ve been able to do is basically park up near pubs, stay in the van and steal their Wi-Fi. You’d choose where to park where you could get close enough to somewhere to get Wi-Fi, basically.

Quote 29: Participant – Brighton

‘Suitable’ was felt to be an important dimension among workshop participants who were living roadside or at Traveller sites, where internet provision (fixed or mobile) was considered inadequate. Reliance on public wifi networks was felt to compromise other CHESS dimensions of ‘safe’, ‘handy’ and ‘enough’ as well as ‘suitable’.

F: It’s because of the stigma attached to it. Mind this has gone back from the warehouse days, you ask for help you get judged for, do you know what I mean?

F: Yeah but like what you said, you’re banging your head against a wall, trying to get it, then think what’s the point?

F: What I’m saying is there’s stigma from both sides. Because one side, you’re thinking, I’m not going to ask for help because they’ll think I’m lazy, and then the other side it’s you’re not getting help because you’re lazy.

Moderator: Yeah, it’s like I’m saying, I know people who if it came to a point where you had to say that you were in a situation where you needed to apply for a free wifi or a cheaper wifi, databank, they’d say I’m not that poor, I won’t do that when in reality they are in a position where they should really do it.

Quote 30: Conversation between two participants and the moderator (also with lived experience of poverty) – Stoke-on-Trent

Processes of applying for support – in particular, processes of verifying eligibility – compound feelings of frustration and stigma (Quote 30).

Stigma emerged as a cross-cutting theme throughout the workshops, relevant to all five CHESS dimensions (Quote 30). Conversations explored how some people may be reluctant to take up support, even when they are eligible. This may make means-tested or specific solutions less effective than universal offers.

Stigma was not experienced in the same way across all participants. For members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, stigma stemmed from discriminatory practices – systemic (such as delivery drivers refusing to deliver to Traveller sites) and systematic (see Kirkby, 2021). The ‘pride’ of not accessing support was identified as a more relevant factor than stigma, particularly amongst Romani.

Implications for interventions

Data poverty does not exist in a vacuum; “the root cause of data poverty is poverty” (Stone, 2022). The current cost-of-living crisis will have a significant impact on levels of data poverty throughout 2022/23. As other household bills rise and more families are forced to cut down on essentials, the number of households impacted by data poverty is likely to increase.

Pandemic pressures plus the long-term impacts of reductions in local government spending in the last decade have restricted local authorities’ ability to provide the level of public services required, such as free wifi and library provision. These same pressures have also necessitated a more significant shift to online public services. Local authority provision of free or subsidised internet access is uneven, yet the need has grown. Alongside, other trends, such as closures of bank and building society branches and use of online services for health, have also increased the need for consistent, secure internet access.

In this context, there is a clear and urgent need for effective interventions to address data poverty – interventions which reflect different circumstances and needs, and which can be easily accessed and taken up – without stigma or loss of pride – by people who need them. This underlines the importance of involving people with lived experience of data poverty in designing and evaluating interventions intended to meet their needs.

Insights from the five workshops suggest that CHESS is a helpful framework to assess the strengths and limitations of an intervention (policy, product or service), and identify where to improve or what else may be needed for the solution to work well for people facing data poverty. The workshop conversations also raised useful questions and ideas for policy makers, industry stakeholders, local authorities and others in the community, voluntary and public sector about where and how to take action on data poverty.

Free internet access in public spaces and provision of public wifi emerged as having an important place in the spectrum of solutions to data poverty. The accelerated shift to online public and commercial services (such as health care and banking) has increased the need for secure connectivity and privacy to access essential services, as well as ensuring people have the digital and online safety skills they need. Workshop conversations suggest that public wifi is seen as ‘cheap’, sometimes ‘handy’, but not always ‘safe’, ‘suitable’ or ‘enough’.

People in the workshops were interested in providing a certain level of internet access for free for everyone to meet their essential or basic needs, especially in the context of public services moving online. This sparked debate on who decides what is ‘enough’ and who decides what is essential. Research underway on defining a ‘Minimum Digital Living Standard’ for households with children in the UK, and for different household types in Wales, will explore this – involving members of the public to reach consensus about a minimum benchmark for households.

In the workshops, there was a clear sense that Government – in particular the Department for Work and Pensions – has a role to play in addressing data poverty. However, the wariness expressed by some people about solutions tied to benefits and associated with DWP points to the need to reduce red-tape, rethink eligibility, and identify other policy and practice solutions

Awareness about social tariffs seemed limited within workshops – suggesting a need for more effective promotion so they can be easy to find out about, apply for and access, with take-up encouraged among people who could benefit most. However, rapid rises in living costs more generally may mean that many people find even social tariffs too expensive.

In some workshops, there was interest in data gifting and data donations – from corporates and individuals. The new UK National Databank was welcomed as a concept but felt to fall below what’s needed for ‘enough’ for some (note: this has since been addressed with an increase to the amount of free mobile data per month, and extended duration of support).

Even where data poverty interventions meet all five CHESS dimensions, wider factors can limit take-up – such as rising pressures on other essential costs like food and energy; low digital confidence and skills; not knowing how to navigate the market or choose the best solution; and wider concerns about using the internet and online safety and security.

Ideas emerging from the workshops include: provision of universal free internet access for essential websites or online services; provision of anti-virus software or VPNs as part of data poverty interventions; promoting existing solutions more effectively in community languages and for people with low literacy; more effective referrals and signposting to support – including, but not limited to, signposting from Jobcentre Plus.

Next steps

Following this research, Good Things Foundation, Nominet and APLE Collective will continue to use CHESS to engage with people with lived experience, policymakers, industry partners, local authorities and other stakeholders about data poverty. This research, and the ideas generated through the workshops, will shape the next phase of the Data Poverty Lab.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on CHESS:

  • Would you be interested in using CHESS as a tool to explore data poverty?
  • Would CHESS be useful as a framework for evaluating data poverty interventions?
  • How could CHESS be used to advocate for action on data poverty?
  • Which CHESS dimensions do you think should be prioritised? What is missing?

We have also partnered with People Know How to produce a guide for community organisations about data poverty and available solutions. We will also be exploring some of the themes raised in this research with our new Data Poverty Lab fellows.

If you’d like to share feedback, please get in touch.

Email: Tom.McGrath@goodthingsfoundation.org

 


Footnotes

  1. This would mean they have ‘no recourse to public funds’ and thus are not eligible for benefits or, whilst they were available, Covid specific schemes like the furlough scheme. (Home Office, 2020)
  2. A freemium model offers users some services at no cost, but charges for access to service’s full feature set.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to the members and staff at APLE Collective and Friends, Families and Travellers, for co-producing this research with us; to Nominet for funding the Data Poverty Lab and for their feedback and guidance; and to the team at Good Things Foundation.

Author

  • Tom McGrath – Policy and Research Officer, Good Things Foundation

Editors

  • Dr. Emma Stone – Director of Evidence and Engagement, Good Things Foundation
  • Hannah Whelan – Advocacy Manager, Good Things Foundation
  • Jane Mackey – Senior Evaluation and Research Manager, Good Things Foundation
  • Dr. Katy Goldstraw – APLE Collective/Senior Lecturer, Staffordshire University

Tom McGrath

Policy and Research Officer

Tom monitors relevant policy areas for Good Things Foundation, helping to keep the organisation in touch with political developments. He also supports the organisation’s public affairs and advocacy efforts by working with parliamentarians to push Good Things Foundation’s vision up the political agenda.


Annex 1: Methodology

Workshop DateModeratorLocationParticipants
September 2021Good Things Foundation supported by APLE CollectiveHybrid: online & in-person, Frimley Green, SurreyPeople with lived experience of poverty
OctoberAPLE CollectiveStoke-on-Trent, StaffordshirePeople with lived experience of poverty
OctoberAPLE CollectiveYork, YorkshirePeople with lived experience of poverty and not in regular accommodation
NovemberAPLE CollectiveStockport, Greater ManchesterPeople with lived experience of poverty
January 2022Friends, Families and Travellers supported by Good Things FoundationBrighton, East SussexPeople with lived experience of poverty - members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

To test the proposed dimensions of a good data poverty intervention, the Data Poverty Lab designed a series of five workshops. Each workshop was participatory, discursive, semi-structured and iterative. Rather than sticking to a rigid structure, the workshop format was allowed to adapt, taking on board what worked and what did not work in each session. This iterative nature also applied to the scheduling and recruitment of workshops. Each workshop had 8-13 participants, with the exception of workshop four, which had five participants (some unable to attend due to Covid).

Prompts were purposefully kept to a minimum. Participants were asked initial introductory questions, before being asked about how often they used the internet, if they had ever run out of data, and what they do to find deals on broadband or mobile phone contracts. People with lived experience of data poverty both led the discussion and participated (with the exception of the first workshop which was led by Good Things Foundation). This allowed for more open conversations as participants could relate to the person leading the discussion.

In the first two workshops, participants were provided with drawings of chess pieces and chess boards both to immerse them in the proposed concept and to encourage participation in the workshops, however these were dropped from the third workshop due to limited engagement in the tools. Workshops were recorded with informed consent from all participants, transcribed and analysed around the CHESS themes. APLE Collective reviewed and commented on the analysis and findings.

Choose Love. 2021. ‘Choose Love: Gifts with Heart.’ Online. Accessed 23 December 2021.

Coldewey, D. 2017. ‘WTF is zero-rating?’ Online. Accessed 25 January 2022.

Department for Work and Pensions [DWP]. 2021. ‘Households below average income (HBAI) statistics.’ Online. Accessed 7 March 2022.

Kirkby, A. 2021. ‘Briefing on new police powers for encampments in Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: Part 4.’ Online. Accessed 14 March 2022. 

Goldstraw, K., Herrington, T., Croft, T., Murrinas, D., Gratton, N., and Skelton, D. (2021). Socially Distanced Activism. Voices of Lived Experience of Poverty During COVID-19. Bristol: Policy Press.

Gov.uk. 2022. ‘Book internet access in your library.’ Online. Accessed 2 February 2022.

Home Office. 2020. ‘No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).’ Online. Accessed 31 January 2022.

Lucas, P., Robinson, R. and Treacy, L. 2021. ‘Data Poverty in Scotland and Wales.’ Online. Accessed 8 November 2021.

Ofcom. 2021a. ‘Connected Nations 2021: UK report.’ Online. Accessed 15 March 2022.

Ofcom. 2021b. ‘Communications Market Report 2021.’ Online. Accessed 10 March 2022.

Ofcom. 2022. ‘Affordability of communications services: Summary of findings and update on availability and take-up of broadband social tariffs.’ Online. Accessed 7 March 2022.

Shalchi, A. and Booth, L. 2021. ‘Statistics on access to cash, bank branches and ATMs.’ Online. Accessed 15 March 2022.

Stone, E. 2022. ‘Towards solving data poverty.’ Online. Accessed 7 March 2022.

Yates, S. 2020. ‘Responding to COVID-19 in the Liverpool City Region. COVID-19 and Digital Exclusion: Insights and Implications for the Liverpool City Region.’ Online. Accessed 11 November 2021.

Our partners

Nominet

APLE Collective

Friends, Families & Travellers