We’re living in the information age, with ever increasing internet speeds, and data getting cheaper and cheaper all the time. We have access to information on a scale unimaginable at any other time in history. For those of us working in digital communications, with our unlimited broadband and abundant mobile data contracts, data is now so cheap that we rarely need to think about it.
However, not everyone is so lucky. There are many people around the world for whom data is prohibitively expensive or difficult to access, including many people in developed countries. As co-founder of a digital agency that believes in making the web accessible to all, this is something that I feel needs to be addressed. In this post, I’ll explain what data poverty is, some common causes and practical steps that we can take to alleviate it.
Defining data poverty
Poverty in a general sense means not having enough resources to meet one’s needs. This is usually quantified in monetary terms, with the World Bank currently defining absolute poverty as being an income of less than $1.90 per day.
Data poverty is often related to financial poverty, but not always, and it can’t be defined by simple metrics like internet speed or monthly data allowance. Data poverty is a relative concept that represents whether a person is able to access the web services that they need to function and participate in society.
What causes data poverty?
Data access can be limited by many factors, including the cost of data per megabyte, physical limits on access to data and low internet speeds, resulting in prohibitively high time required to obtain information and perform tasks online. The reasons can be highly individual, so the easiest way to illustrate the concept is to look at some examples.
Josie lives in rural Wales and doesn’t have the option of wired broadband, nor can she access 3G or 4G mobile data from where she lives. She subscribes to satellite internet to send emails and research information online for her business when working from home, but it’s slow and extremely expensive, so it has to be used frugally and it is never used for personal use. This means that the family cannot use any online services that are considered normal in the UK these days, including basic tasks such as keeping in touch with friends and family via email and practical tasks such as renewing car tax or submitting a tax return online. To do these things, Josie and her family have to drive 20 minutes to the nearest town and either use their mobile data from there, or use wifi in a cafe.
Molly is 13 and lives in a children’s care home in England. She doesn’t have a mobile phone and is permitted limited time each week to use the shared computer in the care home. This is restrictive and means that time online is highly valuable, limiting what Molly can explore online. What’s more, the use of the shared computer makes her feel self conscious about exploring things online that she needs or wants to know about, including her own rights as a child in care.
Djibril lives in a village in Burkina Faso. His income is $75 per month when he is in work but unemployment is high and work is unreliable. Mobile data costs 8 cents per megabyte and he is the only person in his family with a data connection. He has a basic, slow mobile phone that could be used to visit webpages, but doing so is prohibitively expensive, costing about 0.1% of his monthly income to visit a single web page. A small amount of online activity can therefore make a significant dent in his family’s limited budget.
If he could access the internet more readily on his phone, he could find information to help him set up his own business. What’s more, with limited access to education in his village, better access to data could allow his children to learn more and improve their education.
Bruce lives on a ranch in rural Georgia, US. He doesn’t have cable broadband and the mobile signal (when he can get it) is only 2G.
He’s not too bothered about limited access to the internet on a daily basis and is quite happy without it, but he wants to keep up to date with hurricane risks so that he can be prepared and keep his family safe. This is a major frustration because even when he can get a connection on his phone, it is so slow that most websites time out, making information inaccessible to him.
Living in London, Evelyn struggles to make ends meet on her small state pension and she doesn’t have a computer. She does have a basic mobile phone but it isn’t a smartphone and her basic pay as you go plan comes with a minimal data allowance.
When she needs to use the internet for official purposes such as accessing information about government services, she goes to the local library where they have public computers. When she needs to use the internet to access public services, it often requires more than one trip to the library to complete a job because she finds it a challenging process and often finds that she has not brought the required information with her on the first visit.
Aside from practicalities, she also wishes that she could use the internet more to keep in touch with her grandchildren.
Designing out data poverty
It’s fair to say that in many cases, the root cause of people’s limited access to data is systemic – either in the economic system, the telecoms networks, or both. Those of us working on digital projects generally have little opportunity to solve these systemic issues, and we therefore cannot always solve these problems. However, we do have the opportunity to develop web services that limit the impact of the systemic issues and help to minimise the impacts of data poverty.
Here are some examples of web projects designed to do just that.
The search engine DuckDuckGo has a low bandwidth version with an incredibly low page size of just 3.34kb, meaning that people can access a search engine even on very slow connections and using minimal data. Even the search results can be delivered quickly and with minimal data transfer, with a typical search results page coming in at under 50kb. What’s more, unlike most search engine results that list 10 results per page, DuckDuckGo light lists the top 30 results, minimising the need for the user to click through and load more results.
This is a particularly valuable service for people in data poverty as one of the biggest challenges can be to simply find the information needed.
In the days before Hurricane Irma hit the USA in 2017, CNN released a low bandwidth version of their website. With all of the advertising scripts, imagery and unnecessary code stripped out, the Lite version of the website can be loaded with about 97% less data than the standard website. It allows people with limited data connectivity to access important news, especially time critical news about natural disasters. It might look basic, but its utilitarian approach to helping people in need was extremely well received and CNN has kept it live since.
While DuckDuckGo Lite and CNN Lite are extremely stripped back in their presentation, it is also possible to create richer online experiences efficiently. Right4Children is a website that provides children living in institutional care with information about their rights, that they otherwise have little or no way of knowing.
The design recognised that many of these children have limited time online and may have slow connections and/or limited data allowances. Efficiency was therefore of high importance, but the website also needed to be engaging for children in order to encourage them to learn more about their own rights. Our team created a website that uses system fonts, SVG icons, CSS styles and CSS animations to create a visually engaging experience with minimal bandwidth and minimal processing power required. The full homepage comes in at just 227kb, less than an eighth of the average web page size.
The above examples all assume that the user has some access to the internet via a data connection and web browser. WeFarm is a great example of a web service designed to address users who do not have even the basic tools required to access the internet.
WeFarm is an SMS based crowdsourcing service to help farmers find the information they need to deal with challenges. Farmers can send an SMS to the WeFarm number, which sends the message to WeFarm’s service. Using machine learning, the WeFarm system interprets the questions and forwards it on to relevant farmers who may know the answer to the question. The replies are then returned by SMS to the farmer who asked the question. The system allows farmers to access information quickly, without an internet connection and for only the cost of a standard SMS.
A more inclusive and resilient web
In 2018 I wrote about how all websites should be designed to work on the train. I am increasingly aware that we need to think beyond our day to day experience of the web with high speed fiber broadband and mobile data, and think more about the users who do not have the same privilege in their access to the internet.
These users are more common than we like to believe, and at various times even include those of us working in digital jobs in developed countries. We must think about the importance of the services that we are creating, understand the needs of the least privileged users and use our ingenuity to design solutions that can meet their needs. By doing so, we’ll create a web that is more resilient, more environmentally friendly and that empowers everyone – from those of us who are ‘data rich’ to the most vulnerable – ensuring information is accessible to those who need it most.