Let’s end data poverty together

Our Group CEO Helen Milner and Nominet’s Head of Public Benefit, Chris Ashworth, reflect on what the Data Poverty Lab will mean for digital inclusion.

In all of our time working on digital inclusion, never has the issue really been ‘mainstream’ until the Covid-19 pandemic. But stories have hit home this year that everyone can truly relate to what in terms of what it means to be isolated because of a lack of technology or skills.  

Evenings spent in the library doing homework (if there was a machine available) because of no access in the house – a poverty premium – wasn’t a newsworthy story before the pandemic hit. This was all too often brushed off as a ‘first world problem’. And back in 2019, being unable to order a prescription online was considered an inconvenience, but by mid-2020 it was clearly understood to be the best way to avoid risking the health, and even the lives, of people, especially those who were older or shielding. All of these are examples of digital exclusion and show the quiet impact it has on people’s lives.

Those of us working in spaces where social issues and digital ones collide like this have often found ourselves raising our hands, and sometimes our voices, to try and get the world to see how much digital exclusion is in fact a form of serious social disadvantage. 

But to reflect on where we were pre-pandemic would be to lose energy and momentum for where we need to go next. What do we do with this newfound appreciation for the role of technology in the way it can either combat or accentuate isolation, address or suppress social mobility, grant or deny equality in education, democratise or remove access to essential services? 

One of the most resonant conversations we’ve had this year with interested communities has led us to dissect the themes of digital challenge into three key elements: support, devices and data. These three themes help us to put solutions into manageable activities. Without any of these three elements people are simply excluded. 

But it’s the one around data that has perhaps frustrated us the most. The pandemic led to a wide range of emergency plans around data being put into place, but now we need to build more sustainable solutions. 

There have been some fantastic ideas, from social tariffs to community WiFi, data vouchers to zero-rating. There isn’t one silver bullet, and there may never be, but what there is instead are true user-centred approaches to social issues. These will need to rely on a more complex set of solutions at a national level and draw on a portfolio of options best suited to the individual on a local level.  

What we’ve understood most from the pandemic is that connectivity data is perishable. Vouchers can support someone for three months or a year.  But then what?  Allowances can last forever if the people are visiting static websites, but just hours if video streaming is needed for schooling. And data poverty itself isn’t permanent. It can affect an individual or family one week and be less of a critical issue around pay day when choices are optimised.  

This all leads to the importance of the Data Poverty Lab that Nominet and Good Things Foundation have partnered to create.  We know there are no single solutions, and that quick fixes are often short lived.  But we’ve learned so much, and there are ways to build this patchwork quilt together. As technology evolves new opportunities, regulations and understanding will emerge. The lab provides the space to collaborate, innovate, pilot and truly address the one digital inclusion issue that has eluded us most: data. 

Helen Milner OBE

Group Chief Executive

Helen Milner OBE is the Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation. Founded as a staff-led mutual charity in the UK in 2011, Helen led the establishment of a subsidiary charity, opening an office in Sydney in August 2017, and running the Be Connected Network for the Australian Government.

Helen has over 30 years experience of working in and leading organisations creating and delivering education over and about the internet. She was awarded an OBE for services to digital inclusion in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

Chris Ashworth

Head of Public Benefit – Nominet

At Nominet, Chris leads on the organisation's commitment to public benefit and social impact. Through the design and implementation of a wide range of initiatives, philanthropic grants and partnerships addressing some of today's most pressing social issues where technology can make a significant positive change including www.rebootproject.uk www.thisishow.uk and #RESET mental health programme. Chris is currently championing a collective effort to make all essential online services free at www.clickzero.uk.