New research lifts the lid on community responses to data poverty

July 2021

Community groups stepped up to help people experiencing data poverty during the pandemic but are unlikely to be able to continue to plug the gap without support, a new report has found.

Published by Local Trust, Making connections: Community-led action on data poverty draws on first-hand accounts of how community groups made sure people in their neighbourhoods remained connected when they were unable to get online due to a lack of data or internet connection.

Whilst the issue of data poverty existed prior to the pandemic, the research shows how the issue was exacerbated due to the closure of public spaces providing free wifi, services and meetings moving online, and people experiencing financial difficulties due to uncertainty.

A community member who contributed to the research said:

“During lockdown, the only venues where [wifi] access was available, albeit limited, were closed down, for example, libraries and customer service centres”

Another community member said:

“[Before the pandemic] we always said that people had a lack of motivation to go on online because they didn’t think it was for them. But what I’ve seen over the last 12 months is that the big issue is a lack of sustained access due to the unaffordability of data.”

With stories from Bishop Auckland to Southampton, the research shows how locally led responses filled a gap using their existing relationships and knowledge, but argues that systemic change is needed to ensure community groups don’t have to sustain action with little to no support.

Supported by an advisory group including organisations such as Good Things Foundation, Community Organisers, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation*, and End Data Poverty, the report recognises that data poverty is a symptom of poverty more generally but does make recommendations for civil society, and government and industry to help alleviate the pressure on communities to respond.

For example, by:

  • supporting community groups to identify appropriate data options for their own needs
  • commissioning more research into the issue of data poverty
  • identifying options for data pooling/sharing.

The research was also supported by the #OperationWifi alliance, and includes its call for a national data bank to be established to collect data from people with excess data and give it to those most in need.

Georgie Burr, partnerships lead at Local Trust said:

“It’s clear that data poverty is an expression of poverty and needs to be tackled at a systemic level, but communities across the country are doing a brilliant job of responding to immediate needs in their neighbourhoods, drawing on local knowledge, connections and resource.

“However, this isn’t an issue that communities can overcome alone. With more services and opportunities moving online, it’s crucial that people aren’t left behind through a lack of data or internet access and we hope that this research is the first step in understanding what needs to happen next to make sure they’re not.”

Read the report

The full research advisory group includes: The All-Party Parliamentary Group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, End Data Poverty, APLE Collective, Frame CIC, Community Organisers, Good Things Foundation, KeyRing, Operation Wifi alliance, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Starting Point Community Learning.

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