Eradicating data poverty in the UK by 2024 is the ambitious target for a new ‘data poverty lab’ set up by digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation. IT leaders are being urged to join the fight to help level up connectivity across the country and ensure everyone can access vital services and job opportunities.
The lab, which has the support of Nominet, the official registry for UK domain names, will look for sustainable solutions to the problem, which threatens to undermine the UK’s digital-led economy and risks leaving millions of people left out. Data poverty, the ability to afford internet connection to meet essential needs, is an important obstacle within digital equality affecting more than one million households in the UK. According to Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, 150,000 homes across the country fall below what is judged to be a “decent” level of internet coverage – a download speed of at least 10Mb/s and an upload speed of at least 1Mb/s – while nearly 250,000 more can access suitable upload speeds but not 10Mb/s download speeds.
For businesses looking for the next generation of talent to fill the digital skills gap, data poverty is severely restricting the pool of potential employees. A report from innovation foundation Nesta released in December points out that “job seekers typically have a high data need, because they need to go online to search and apply for jobs, but are unable to afford data when they are without paid employment.”
Home-workers are also impacted, with the report noting “families with children often struggle to meet the competing educational, employment and entertainment needs of all family members – especially when individuals’ access to the internet is via a shared device.” With more organisations moving to a hybrid working pattern in the wake of the pandemic, reliable and affordable connectivity at home is likely to become an even more crucial factor in the job market.
Ending data poverty by 2024: ambitious but achievable
Helen Milner, chief executive officer at Good Things Foundation, acknowledges that ending data poverty in the UK by 2024 is “a big job” but achievable with the right strategy.
“We don’t think that there’s going to be a single solution but it’s very much about working in partnership with industry and other charities and initiatives,” Milner told Tech Monitor. “Why we are being so ambitious on the timescale is because actually, we think that with the right partnership approach, we can all work together and tackle [data poverty] quickly.”
The two main fronts that the Data Poverty Lab will address are ensuring affordable internet for everybody and calling for data gifting. On the first, Milner and her team want to amplify the work of MP Darren Jones, who earlier this year called on the government to introduce a “social tariff” for broadband for low-income households. The government then asked internet services providers to introduce such a tariff, however, this is not yet compulsory.
“The other area we are looking at is around what we call “data gifting”, where people with mobile contracts could give any unused data at the end of the month to others through the Good Things Foundation or other charities,” says Milner.
“We need to have sustainable solutions. Lots of organisations have done really amazing work in an emergency way during the pandemic, but with the data poverty lab we want to bring people together to see if we can find sustainable solutions.”
What is the role of CIOs in ending digital poverty?
At the height of the pandemic, CIOs across the UK mobilised to fight the digital divide laid bare by Covid-19. One of the most vocal advocates is Freddie Quek, chief technology officer at Times Higher Education, who created the #JoiningTheDots initiative. The initiative’s mission is to coordinate all the different efforts taking place across the UK to fight digital poverty.
“Our first step is to signpost for IT professionals and others to know where and how to help, and we are glad that we have joined the dot with the Good Things Foundation and help spread the word about the piece of the jigsaw they are solving, and mobilise volunteers to other identified action areas,” says Quek.
Quek spent six weeks gathering information across tech communities in the UK that collectively represent 90,000 professionals. Although there are more than 70 initiatives for donating equipment, the lack of a holistic approach shows that there is still a lot to be done.
“Despite all these great initiatives, they are still not enough to address digital inclusion even for disadvantaged school children,” says Quek. “To truly solve this problem, and this is solvable, we have to take a more systemic approach to find sustainable, far-reaching and long-term solutions.”
#JoiningTheDots has identified six action areas that need addressing in digital exclusion, including equipment provisioning, technical support, digital skills training, identifying career opportunities in the tech sector, spreading the word, and implementing governance, risk management and compliance, specifically around online safety and cyber essentials. It is around these areas where CIOs can make a difference, Quek says. He believes “IT leaders and professionals have the know-how and connections to play a central role in all of this.”
He adds: “We are one year into Covid, the easing of the lockdown does not mean the problem has lessened. It is important we continue to address this issue urgently, one child, family, device, at a time. So if you are already doing something please continue.”