The events of the last year have forced almost all of us in one form or another to move online for a period. But while this was a solution for some, it quickly revealed the profound difference between those with connectivity and those without, putting the issue of digital poverty firmly on the map, writes Chris Ashworth.

People everywhere can now relate to what it means to be digitally excluded, whether it is because they do not own a digital device, do not have the digital skills to use a device or the internet, or lack connectivity or data. When someone cannot access the internet, they are excluded. This is what digital poverty is, and the effects of it can wreak havoc on people's lives and their mental and physical well-being. We cannot just sit and watch this happen, we must provide tangible solutions and sustainable answers.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that the issue is not limited to needing a device, it is also about being able to afford to use that device and connect it to the internet. Data from the Office for National Statistics published in 2019 highlights how 5.3 million adults in the UK, or 10% of the adult UK population, are non-internet users and do not have a connection to the internet, and recent data from Ofcom also shows 1.5 million households in the UK still have no internet access. With so much of our everyday lives now dependent on being part of the digital world, these statistics are a real concern. To really tackle this issue, people need access to both devices and data.

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Secondly, mobile data is perishable. Over the last year and a half, we have realised that whilst vouchers can support someone for 3 months or a year, this is not a permanent solution for long term connectivity. Allowances can last for a long time if an individual is visiting a static website but for just a few hours if that user is video streaming when, for example, that is necessary for education or training. Data poverty itself is not a fixed state. It can come in waves where it is a big problem for an individual or family one week but less of a critical issue around payday when there is money in the pot to make choices.

Whilst the pandemic has seen us implement many schemes to provide people with devices, the issue of connectivity has been harder to address. For this area, no 'grand' initiative has been borne out of the crisis but rather a patchwork quilt of ideas and options, sticking plasters that meet immediate needs. From social tariffs, zero-rating to vouchers via schools, there has not been one silver bullet providing a holistic and linked up solution, and the issue is so complex there may never be one. That is why, moving forward, we need to work together to put excluded families at the centre of our thinking.

Leaders within the digital space need to take an adaptable and holistic approach and start designing solutions to solve our digital poverty crisis on a longer-term scale. A great example of this is the Data Poverty Lab, where we are partnering with Good Things Foundation to address many of these concerns. The lab will bring together people, groups, and ideas from across the UK to end data poverty by 2024. It will build upon research and initiatives already in existence by connecting providers, politicians, and policymakers to create a tangible solution to close the digital divide with regards to connectivity, especially for those that live on the edges of the current efforts.

So, although there may be no single solution to solve our connectivity issue for every individual, and we can see that quick fixes are often short-lived, long term adaptability is the key to bringing people from the edges into the centre, and partnerships between organisations will be integral to enabling this.

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