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New report proposes six policy lessons to address digital inequality

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Empowering local initiatives and ensuring consistent and long-term investment are among the recommendations in a new report exploring how to tackle the rise of digital poverty, published by the British Academy and with contributions from Brunel University London experts.

Across the UK, there are huge disparities in digital access, digital skills, usage, and outcomes illustrated by the fact that ‘among people living on household incomes under £25,000, one in five never use the internet – rising to nearly a third of disabled people and nearly half of those aged 65 or over’.

To inform policy thinking around the crucial challenge of addressing inequality, the British Academy commissioned six projects that examined different aspects of digital poverty in the UK, with one of the contributing reports from Brunel’s Dr Rachel Stuart, Prof Ashley Braganza, Prof Meredith Jones and Dr Vassilis Charitsis, who conducted a study of digital inequality in the Kent town of Margate.

The British Academy’s report, Understanding Digital Poverty and Inequality in the UK, highlights these projects’ key findings and identifies six lessons to shape policy that effectively addresses digital poverty and inequality:

  1. Addressing digital poverty involves more than improving access – interventions must empower people and places to benefit from digital access.
  2. Local resources and intermediaries can be valuable assets in tackling place-based digital poverty, and the public sector has a crucial role to play in enabling them.
  3. Strategies to tackle digital poverty are important components of broader policies of tackling inequality.
  4. Policies should consider how and why intersecting inequalities are likely to exacerbate digital poverty and design interventions that can benefit those most at risk of digital poverty.
  5. People can move in and out of digital poverty over time.
  6. Consider policy interventions that can adapt to demographic and economic changes, through consistent and long-term investment.

The Understanding Digital Poverty and Inequality in the UK report sits alongside and feeds into an Academy project on Technology and Inequality. The Academy’s Technology and Inequality project was prompted by a request, in early 2022, by Sir Patrick Vallance and the Government Office for Science to conduct an independent project on the topic of technology and inequality. This work seeks to improve our understanding of how government can play a key role in supporting access to, uptake of, and investment in technologies that can be critical to delivering broad public objectives, in a way that ensures inequalities do not become entrenched. A new evidence hub will collate the Academy’s Technology and Inequality work.

“As a researcher living in Margate at the time this report was being collated, it was apparent that a lack of connection was hampering the regeneration Margate was experiencing,” said Brunel’s Dr Stuart, a criminology lecturer who specialises in the research of marginalised communities. “People with high levels of digital skills could not connect because of the lack of infrastructure. At the same time, members of one of the UK's most marginalised communities, Roma, were thwarted when attempting to improve their living circumstances by poor connectivity.

“The infrastructure that is required for digital resilience allows all members of communities to overcome issues of poverty. In Margate's case, an improved digital connection would allow disparate communities to benefit from the regeneration that the arts-based revival within the town is generating. It would also furnish the town with a digital resilience independent of tourism, which is likely to be impacted if the issues of pollution blighting our coastlines are not addressed. “

Prof Braganza – Deputy Dean of Brunel’s College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, and the Director of its Centre for Artificial Intelligence – added: “Digital technologies are pervasive in all aspects of peoples’ lives. The use of AI, for instance, influences our choices and decisions about the ways in which we live, work and relax.  They affect how we think about issues and respond to events.

“Our contribution to the study of digital poverty highlights the need to provide people with the skills not only to use the technologies but also to understand how they can use the technologies for social mobility. Our study of Margate provides insights into peoples’ resilience when faced with digital poverty and their struggles to overcome build-in inequalities due to past policies and ineffective service provision. We highlight the need for policy makers to reflect peoples’ lived experiences to reduce digital poverty and alleviate inequality.”

Professor Helen Margetts, Professor of Society and the Internet at the University of Oxford, said: “As digital technology has become increasingly integrated with modern life, it has become essential that people have access to broadband and appropriate digital devices. However, there are wide disparities in people's opportunities to use these technologies and engage digitally. This report highlights the profound impacts of digital inequality across the UK. It will provide policymakers with the evidence necessary to support those who are most marginalised and address wide-ranging inequalities.”

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