UP North blog: Levelling up living standards in a digital age


Ahead of the latest UP North event, Dr Emma Stone of the Good Things Foundation and Prof. Simeon Yates, University of Liverpool explore how we can level up digital access and skills to close the digital divide and the tools we need to achieve this

There are multiple long-standing challenges of digital inequalities in the UK covering all aspects of life from work and education to leisure, health and wellbeing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Liverpool City Region COVID SMART testing programme discovered that digital exclusion is one of the main reasons that people did not engage in testing. 

In education, the University’s previous research found that 23% of 5 to 15 year olds in the poorest households don’t have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet and broadband. This equates to 524,871 UK children, of whom, 74,225 are likely to be studying for their GCSEs. 

The University of Liverpool’s recent research on Citizen Data Literacies, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, identified people with low digital skills are at greater risk of online harm and are more likely to be exposed to and accept misinformation. As a result, the nature and consequences of digital exclusion has become a renewed focus for policy-makers. 

If we want to level up living standards in a digital age, we need a shared understanding of what ‘good’ looks like. That’s exactly what members of the public have established in the Minimum Digital Living Standard. 


What is the Minimum Digital Living Standard?

The Minimum Digital Living Standard (MDLS) is a ground-breaking, collaborative research project. It has worked with members of the public to define what a minimum but acceptable level of ‘digital inclusion’ looks like, and then reach consensus on what is needed to achieve the standard.   

Definition: A minimum digital standard of living includes, but is more than having accessible internet, adequate equipment, and the skills, knowledge and support people need. It is about being able to communicate, connect and engage with opportunities safely and with confidence.

What is the ‘basket’ of digital goods and services you need for a minimum acceptable level? What are the skills needed to be digitally included today? 

Starting with households with children as the proof-of-concept, the list of ‘contents’ required to achieve the MDLS reflects a key truth. It is only the combination of digital goods, services, and skills which enables families to feel they meet a minimum level.  

The MDLS research starts with households with children as the proof-of-concept, with scope to extend to other households types of working age and pension age. Welsh Government has already commissioned the MDLS team to develop a Welsh Minimum Digital Living Standard as a key plank in the Digital Strategy for Wales. Appetite to understand and use the MDLS is increasing in Scotland and several English regions, and across different stakeholder groups. 


What MDLS research tells us about data poverty 

The holistic approach (goods, services, and skills), rooted in what members of the public agreed is an acceptable minimum level for a household, is what makes the MDLS both practical and relevant. It reflects real lives today.  

Within this, internet connectivity services are critical to meeting the standard – and simultaneously only one of the ‘rooms’ in the MDLS ‘house’. So, what does the MDLS research tell us about data poverty?  

To reach an acceptable standard of internet connectivity, members of the public – both parents and young people – identified the need for a minimum combination of both mobile data and home broadband. Ensuring a minimum level of cultural and social engagement also requires a mix of services, such as basic tv and gaming subscriptions. Members of the public emphasised that services, including health, banking, and school, are now increasingly online. Parents and young people alike highlighted how contact with schools is now far more digitised. More than ever, families needed to use digital technologies to participate in everyday life and society, and this requires quality connectivity.  

“You could have whatever laptop you want but making sure the internet quality is good…has got to be key…to be able to hold conversations on the internet is key.” (Parents Task Group, Bristol) 

In reaching consensus on how much connectivity is needed, members of the public did not describe a minimum level in upload or download speeds, partly as many described how you don’t always get the speeds you pay for. They expressed a minimum level in terms of the outcomes needed; what the connectivity needs to enable families with children to do in their homes. 

Reflecting this, the ‘contents’ (a detailed list of goods, services, and skills developed through the research) includes the following services for connectivity: 

  • Broadband: Home broadband with sufficient speed to support all family members to access the internet at the same time 
  • Mobile data: 5GB data per month for each parent and for each secondary school age child, with an extra 3GB of data per month if they have a child of pre-school or primary school age 

Both home broadband and mobile data connectivity were felt necessary to reach the MDLS; and if a household were unable to have home broadband, for whatever reason, then the level of mobile data required would need to increase accordingly.  

As importantly, when deliberating on the skills needed in a household to reach the minimum acceptable level of digital inclusion, members of the public cut to the core of what makes data poverty so unfair – and why it is so important to tackle it. 

On the second ‘floor’ of the house are the practical and functional skills required for everyday tasks. Within the skills identified by members of the public are skills for managing and maintaining digital devices and data usage.  

To reach a minimum acceptable level of digital inclusion – especially if affordability is a barrier and you do not have the means to pay for unlimited, fast connectivity – then the more skilled you are expected to be. You may need to know:  

  • What services or tasks consume most data or requires faster speeds 
  • What level of data consumption your family needs 
  • How to find and select the best deal to meet your needs – depending also on where you live, choice of providers, nature of contracts 
  • How to boost signals to deliver to every part of the house 
  • How to make mobile data last as long as possible 
  • How to use public wifi as safely as possible (if you have limited data). 

Imagine if we had to do this with water, and work out in advance what we expect our family to use, how fast we need water to run out of the tap, how many taps we might need to turn on, and whether we can have a shower, flush the toilet, and run the dishwasher at the same time. 


How can MDLS inform action to address data poverty?

For families on low incomes, being worried about not having sufficient fast, reliable broadband for family needs are one factor behind low uptake of social tariffs, alongside low awareness, cost, and stigma. In the MDLS research, parents talked about the horrible feeling of being worried they or their children will run out of data.  

If we want to end data poverty, we need to design internet connectivity services which lighten the load – both cognitive and financial – on families already struggling. We have heard how this is even more important for families living with disability or caring responsibilities, in rural or remote areas, or in temporary accommodation.  

Removing VAT from retail social tariffs and the wholesale broadband used to provide them, ensuring savings are passed to low income households, and developing alternative voucher and discount schemes are all recommendations proposed by the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee. Now that the trigger for the Secretary of State to review the Universal Service Obligation (Broadband) appears to have been reached, this is surely the moment to use the MDLS – what members of the public say is a minimum acceptable level – to set a north star for digital inclusion as part of the credible strategy we urgently need. 

For more information about the MDLS team, funders, and publications, please visit the MDLS project website.


To register for the UP North event on 9th October, please visit: Levelling up Living Standards – how do we bridge the digital divide?


A version of this article was recently published in the second annual State of the Nation report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Data Poverty which is available online at: https://www.datapovertyappg.co.uk/news/the-data-poverty-appgs-second-state-of-the-nation-report