Towards solving data poverty

In this long read, our Director of Evidence and Engagement, Dr. Emma Stone, sets out the thinking which has shaped our approach to the Data Poverty Lab.

In 2020, Good Things Foundation called on the UK Government to recognise internet access as an essential utility, like electricity, and to set up a commission – convening people with lived experience, design thinkers, digital inclusion and industry innovators to co-design solutions and explore ideas from social prescribing to data donating. In 2021, Nominet stepped up and responded to this call to action. Nominet and Good Things Foundation came together and set up the UK’s Data Poverty Lab as a way to collaborate, coordinate, amplify the voices of those experiencing it, and seek sustainable solutions to help end data poverty. 

The Data Poverty Lab is focused narrowly on the challenge of not being able to afford enough mobile and broadband data. Of course, this is only one part of the bigger challenge of digital exclusion – where digital exclusion is also about not having suitable devices, skills and the support you need to use the internet safely and confidently. Many people who experience digital exclusion will face barriers across all of these areas. But for a significant number, the main barrier they face will be poverty – and not being able to afford the costs of staying connected.

In this piece, I set out some of the thinking which has shaped our approach in the Data Poverty Lab – reflect on what we’ve achieved so far – and hopefully inspire you to support us and get involved.

61% of UK adults think internet access should be recognised as an essential utility (Good Things Foundation, 2020)

47% of adults said they would donate unused data to low income families (Good Things Foundation, 2020)

84% of benefits claimants are unaware of social tariffs (Ofcom, 2022)

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. 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. 

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’, 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), 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). 

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.

Applying ‘Doughnut Economics’ thinking to data poverty

Building on Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics framework for humanity and our planet, we can immediately see how internet access, data poverty and digital equity take their place in the doughnut:

  • Internet access alongside energy, water, food, housing as essentials for many; 
  • Internet access as inseparable from how we conceive of networks in a digital age;  
  • Internet access as vital for many people’s access to health, education, income & work;
  • Internet access as an enabler of gender equality, political voice, and peace & justice;
  • Digital equity alongside and as a growing part of what social equity means for many today.

Both the ‘ecological ceiling’ and the ‘regenerative and distributive economy’ depend on the balance between the impacts of generating and consuming data to support humanity’s digital behaviours, and the application of digital and data technologies and digital behaviours to generate a fairer, greener and more sustainable world for everyone. For each of us, at an individual level, this same balance plays out. The capabilities we have and opportunities we enjoy, shaped through a combination of structures and agency, affect the extent to which we can shape this balance to be more (or less) regenerative and distributive in our own lives. 

Taking this approach, we can see the interconnectedness between addressing data poverty – so that a household has basic internet access and sufficient mobile or broadband data to meet essential needs (which arguably should be enough for a minimum acceptable level across all ‘social foundation domains’ in the doughnut including for basic social and political participation), and addressing digital exclusion and also the wider impacts of negative digital and data systems behaviours, such as online harms, algorithmic bias, addictive online behaviours, social division arising from social media ‘echo chambers’ and the spread of misinformation and disinformation caused, at least in part, by the business models of some multinational corporations, and the exploitative use of digital technologies in ways which are damaging to health, wellbeing and human flourishing.

Applying ‘Three Horizons’ thinking to data poverty

The ‘three horizons’ model has been evolved by people like Bill Sharpe at the International Futures Forum as a tool for mapping possibilities for innovation and disruption relevant to social, economic and environmental change. Kate Raworth has done an excellent video introduction to ‘three horizons’ thinking. It starts with defining the present – business as usual; then defining the future; and finally, exploring the potential for disruptive innovation to shape the future. 

Narrowing the focus on the basics of internet access and sufficient data for essential needs, the following is a first attempt at applying ‘three horizons thinking’ to data poverty in the UK.

Horizon One

Horizon One reflects the current situation – business as usual, where data poverty and digital exclusion are still prevalent. This situation is what motivated our call for, and later creation of, the Data Poverty Lab.

  • Internet access not recognised as a human right
  • BT – Universal Service Obligation for broadband
  • Confusing, complex market for consumers
  • Onus on consumers to find the best deal
  • Other barriers to getting good deals: location, housing situation, low skills, locked phones
  • Ownership and geography => market constraints
  • Competitive market => brought costs down for consumers, resulting in cheaper mobile data
  • Competitive market => space for innovators and market challengers
  • Market challengers and innovators are often bought up by larger corporates
  • Vulnerable consumer protections – sub-optimal for people in data poverty / digital exclusion
  • PAYG – flexibility; ‘poverty premium’ where people can’t qualify for or commit to contracts 
  • Social tariffs – vary widely, voluntary, limited awareness, low take up (linked to eligibility)
  • Lack of support and understanding of data poverty & budgeting in public and VCSE sectors
  • Data budgeting – ‘poverty premium’ (the less you can afford, the more know-how you need)
  • Low digital skills and confidence can result in higher data usage and lower internet security
  • Some basic Apps (e.g. video calls) use a lot of data 
  • Competing, incompatible standards requiring access to and knowledge of various apps
  • Little consideration of data usage (and how to help people save data) in design
  • Ofcom – ad hoc research into affordability, requires further direction from government
  • No agreed benchmark of what level of data connectivity households need

Horizon Three

Horizon Three has been defined as a future where poverty may still exist, but enough has been done to provide a safety net of basic internet access and connectivity. It stops short of envisioning that Government provides a universal basic service of internet access and data connectivity for every person paid for through the public purse. This reflects an assumption that sustainable change is more likely if seen as a shared responsibility across industry, government, public and voluntary sectors, and individuals and households. 

  • Internet access is recognised as a human right
  • Internet access is recognised and regulated as an essential utility
  • Universal Service Obligation for mobile and broadband data provides a strong safety-net
  • Government policies, industry protections and innovation, and public sector and VCSE provision combine to prevent any household falling below an agreed benchmark:
    • A Minimum Digital Living Standard is accepted and established as a benchmark;
    • VCSE has capacity to meet internet access needs of highly marginalised groups; 
    • Additional entitlements for those needing more connectivity (e.g. disabled people);
    • National Databank and Device Distribution service supports digital equity.
  • Success in levelling up physical, social and community infrastructure for digital equity:
    • Free, secure public WiFi is widely available in public places and spaces.
  • Competitive, well-functioning market: 
    • Strong protections for vulnerable consumers;
    • Investment and innovation for a fairer, regenerative, low-carbon economy.
  • Marketplace for mobile and broadband deals:
    • Easier for people to use and switch;
    • Deals that work well for people on low or fluctuating incomes and with low skills; 
    • Minimal ‘poverty premium’ – better technologies mitigating higher provider costs;
    • Clear explainers of a ‘good’ internet connection (speed; stability; data limits).
  • Social tariffs across mobile and broadband services:
    • Efficient, quick processes reduce the administrative burden to users and providers;
    • Positive promotion offsets potential stigma linked to means-tested eligibility.
  • Apps and websites:
    • Better design enables easy data budgeting and saving;
    • Zero-rating of essential sites is supported by industry and Government;
    • Government and NHS commission digital services with low data use requirements;
    • Website Accessibility Guidelines set a clear standard for low data usage.
  • People on low incomes:
    • Have (or can get help with) internet access, basic digital skills and data budgeting;
    • Make informed choices about their personal data, confident these will be respected;
    • Are listened to in design of policies, goods and services around internet access.
  • Public and VCSE sectors understand data poverty and digital exclusion, and play their part:
    • Money guidance providers cover mobile & broadband bills and budgeting;
    • Housing associations provide free or subsidised internet access for tenants;
    • Charities, health and care providers ask people about internet access and skills.
  • Ofcom as the regulator:
    • Holds providers to account on take-up of social tariffs and affordability;
    • Makes it easy for public and VCSE sectors to provide guidance and support.

Horizon Two

Turning to the second horizon, what are the stepping stones – the emerging ideas, behaviours, disruptive innovations – which can help move towards a fairer future?

  • Raising awareness about the issues – impacts of data poverty on lives
  • Building public and political will for specific policies and use of public money 
  • Building public and political will to donate and support initiatives (like the National Databank)
  • Campaigning for internet access – e.g. APLE Collective, Operation WiFi, ClickZero
  • Building cross-party and cross-sector coalitions (e.g. APPG Data Poverty, PICTFOR)
  • Framing the issues and solutions in a way that secures support for change
  • Findings champions and influencers who can make the case for a fairer future
  • Researching data poverty – causes and consequences
  • Establishing a benchmark for essential needs (Minimum Digital Living Standard)
  • Evaluating emerging solutions to data poverty – championing a consistent approach
  • Thought leadership, including lessons from other sectors (e.g. energy) and countries
  • Stronger monitoring & reporting on internet access, affordability and consumer protections
  • Amplifying voices to raise awareness and sharing platforms
  • Supporting campaigns and media engagement 
  • Co-producing principles for inclusive design and more effective solutions
  • Reducing the stigma and barriers in accessing available support
  • National Databank – collaborative innovation between telecoms industry and third sector
  • Zero-rating of some national government and charity websites by operators
  • Provision of free WiFi in public and commercial spaces (considerable variation)
  • Place-based pioneers and demonstrators, e.g. free WiFi hotspots; Housing Associations providing free or subsidised access; Community Access Broadband, Jangala Big Boxes
  • Non-stigmatising marketing and promotion of available solutions for higher take-up
  • Better design of websites and Apps to promote & support data saving and budgeting
  • Setting standards for inclusive design that need less data (and lower digital skills)
  • Extending guidance to embed inclusive design (e.g. Website Accessibility Guidelines)
  • Innovation in technologies to reduce energy and environmental costs of connectivity
  • Providing free connectivity to grow market share or more profitable areas
  • Responding to pressure from shareholders or customers around ESG responsibilities
  • Passing on savings from innovations in efficiency to consumers on low incomes
  • Investing in technologies which support lower data usage and better data budgeting
  • Stronger regulation of internet access, affordability and consumer protections
  • Convening stakeholders across sectors to build shared understanding
  • Stimulating interest and action in other sectors or stakeholders (aligned to Horizon Three)
  • Making it easier for VCSE organisations to respond to local needs
  • Making it easier for individuals and households to get appropriate support and know-how

Data Poverty Lab: starting points

Nominet and Good Things Foundation want the Data Poverty Lab to focus on Horizon 2: creating the conditions for disruption and innovation which will shift systems, structures and agency towards a fairer future for everyone … a future where everyone has the internet access they need to live well and safely in a digital world. 

The Data Poverty Lab currently reflects the following beliefs:

  • In the UK, internet access is now essential for most if not all households. We don’t know for certain whether framing internet access as an essential utility or a human right (or something else) is the most effective way to secure the change needed, but we do know that the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated this need and created a window for change (H2);
  • The root cause of data poverty is poverty. Several million UK households are in poverty. Solving poverty is beyond the scope of the Data Poverty Lab, but we can seek ways to affect ‘business as usual’, and use the current window of opportunity to affect systems and improve the opportunities of people in poverty to meet their essential needs for internet access;
  • Data poverty is intertwined with digital exclusion as well as poverty, and located in much more complex systems functioning at all levels. Tackling these challenges are beyond the scope of the Data Poverty Lab, but can direct attention to solutions aligned to a more regenerative economy. For example, inclusive design principles which promote lower data consumption;
  • A value-based belief is that an emerging future should be shaped in a way that involves people with lived experience and community partners at the frontline of providing support. Otherwise there’s a risk that solutions won’t meet needs, achieve legitimacy and generate sustainable change. Finding appropriate ways to do this has been part of our discovery work;
  • Change is more likely if we see internet access as a shared responsibility – with solutions suited to specific needs, and roles for the market, government, businesses, innovators, public sector and VCSE providers, place leaders and shapers, and people themselves – as internet users, public tax payers, data donors and allies for a fairer future. (This needn’t rule out the possibility of a single solution such as universal basic service of mobile and broadband data);
  • While we have a window of opportunity, there’s more to be done to create the conditions for change. We believe this requires raising awareness of the issues and impacts, in order to build public – and political – will to take action (whether those actions are about policies, regulation, evidence, provision, education, empowerment, donating or campaigning). While awareness has risen, there’s a risk this will wane and momentum will be lost. 

The first phase of the Data Poverty Lab has supported discovery and set the foundations. Over the first nine months of the Data Poverty Lab, we have:

  • Helped shift the dial on data poverty with the UK’s first National Databank alongside leadership from telecoms provider Virgin Media O2 and building on successful campaigning by community organisers through Operation WiFi. The National Databank, delivered by Good Things Foundation, is a potentially powerful disruptive innovation (Horizon 2) with potential to lead to a fairer future system (H2+) or be subsumed into business as usual (H2-);
  • Partnered with APLE Collective (Addressing Poverty through Lived Experience) to develop ‘CHESS’ – a participatory tool to engage people with lived experience of poverty about what makes a good solution to data poverty. CHESS stands for: Cheap, Handy, Enough, Secure, Suitable – where ‘suitable’ recognises the need for solutions which are not experienced as stigmatising. Workshops have been held with and by APLE Collective members, and with Friends Families Travellers (working with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups);
  • Learned from evaluating the early stages of the national databank pilot. We’re building on this to develop an evaluation framework which for interventions to reduce data poverty. The evaluation has already resulted in improvements alongside awareness of limitations. As more providers join the National Databank (Three is the latest to join alongside Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone), the chances for success and sustainability rise significantly;
  • Advocated for action on data poverty and come together with others who share the same goal – who want to ensure everyone has the everyday internet access they need. At all levels of government and across sectors, leadership on data poverty is emerging. And we’re keen to see this leadership grow further.

Fellowships and beyond

In this next phase of the Data Poverty Lab, we’ll be supporting individuals who have great ideas, who get things done, who are innovators and idealists, who are champions of radical change. We want to help them to help us shift thinking, action and advocacy on data poverty in the UK. 

If this is something you want to be part of – we’d love to hear from you.

If you want to find out more about how you can support the Data Poverty Lab – including co-investing in future Fellowships or design challenges – we’d love to hear from you. Please contact tom.mcgrath@goodthingsfoundation.org.

If you want to keep in touch with our progress more generally, sign up to our stakeholder newsletter and we’ll keep you posted every couple of months.

And last but not least, if you are a community-based group or organisation and want to find out how you can access the National Databank to alleviate data poverty in your community, you can find more information on the National Databank page

A profile photo of Emma smiling

Dr. Emma Stone

Director of Evidence and Engagement

Emma leads a team of specialist experts - skilled in service design, user research, evaluation, data insights, marketing, communications, external affairs and advocacy. A social researcher by training, Emma has straddled research, policy and practice for two decades. Before joining Good Things Foundation in 2018, Emma worked at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation where she led the Policy and Research department, overseeing programmes on poverty, place, housing, ageing, disability, race equality, and communities. Emma draws on her wider understanding of social, economic and health inequalities to inform Good Things Foundation’s strategy and delivery.

Emma is deeply committed to social justice and tackling inequality. She brings energy and enthusiasm to every partnership, and a strong belief that change is possible. Especially when solutions are co-designed with community partners and people with lived experience.