The Geography of Digital Inequality

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oxford Internet Institute


The Internet is an increasingly important part of British society and economy. Britain has the largest Internet economy in the industrial world, measured as a percent of GDP. Social life is increasingly mediated and influenced by online interactions that take place through email or social media. Contemporary economic growth and social change are driven increasingly by the Internet.

Despite major research efforts there remains a major area about which little is known: the geography of Internet use and online participation. This is true both for both policy-makers and scholars. Although the Office of National Statistics produces regular reports on the British population and economy, it produces nothing about the Internet that is more detailed than reports on the 10 official regions. Even Ofcom produces little beyond broadband penetration reports. Similarly, scholarly work is mostly at the level of the UK as a whole.

Geographical data is crucially important because there is evidence of major geographic inequalities in access and use (e.g. Internet use in Scotland is 20 percentage points below the East Midlands). Government support for organisations like Race Online 2012 signals that it understands the importance of mitigating digital inequalities in order to promote growth and employment. But policy currently can do little about local-scale geographic inequality because there are almost no data on the geography of the Internet. Currently no one knows how Internet use differs between Edinburgh, Manchester, London, or Cardiff. Outside of Ofcom reports about broadband penetration (an important, but limited topic), no government, private or scholarly entity has local-level geographic data on the Internet.

We will combine data from existing datasets to produce the first dataset with detailed estimates of Internet use. Specifically we will combine the Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) with the census and several special-purpose datasets on important metrics of Internet use and participation (e.g. tweets, Wikipedia articles, photo uploads). This will give us a rich dataset with hundreds of measures of Internet use that we can analyze at any desired geographic level, including wards, counties (or Welsh and Scottish Councils, or Unitary Authorities) or cities.

More specifically we intend to investigate the geography of several types of use. First is simple use or non-use of the Internet. However, we recognise that there are many ways of interacting with, using, and communicating through the Internet. We will also examine online buying and selling, social networking, banking and finance, information and entertainment seeking, politics and communication. Multiple uses suggest greater intensity of use, which we can investigate by looking at the amount of time spend online. The Internet is a unique medium in that it allows ordinary users to create and distribute content. We will thus explore online content production in the form of blogs, personal websites, uploading music or videos, and others.

Our research will begin with descriptive statistics and maps of the geographic distribution of uses. We will take advantage of the skills developed by the OII's visualisation project ( to make these results accessible. We will move beyond descriptive work to multivariate, inferential studies that predict the geographic inequalities in digital Britain. Using spatial statistical analyses we can show the relative importance of issues like broadband use, technology attitudes, trust in e-commerce, or Internet experience as predictors of geographic stratification.

The Oxford Internet Institute, an interdisciplinary department of the University of Oxford, is the largest organization of Internet researchers in the world. Datasets collected will be placed in public repositories. The research carried out by this project will help us understand social trends and ensure that the UK stays in the forefront of Internet research.

Planned Impact

The proposed research will have extensive benefits outside the academic community:

-- Government policy-makers who often need more detailed knowledge about the geography of online inequality because this is fundamental to understanding issues such as social inequalities, political participation or future economic growth. The specific benefits of the proposed project will develop new understandings the geographic distribution of inequality which researchers and practitioners alike can apply and implement as techniques for data collection and models for analysis.

-- The Internet has been a disruptive innovation. It has changed the way that information flows and created dynamic new growth areas. Growth in the British economy is increasingly dependent on the ability effectively to exploit the opportunities offered by the Internet. To the extent that the Internet is crucial for economic development, then mapping inequalities in Internet access will reveal communities and regions which will participate in the new digital economy and those which will lag behind. The project will show which areas benefit and where digital divides are being created. This is important for future economic growth and for jobs.

-- The project's results will be disseminated to researchers from government, business and other sectors. The workshops and the project website will provide new information to help understand the full impact of the Internet on the geography of British economic, social and political life.

--The project website will be maintained by OII IT staff beyond the end of the project so that interested researchers and officials can view webcasts, download presentation slides, working papers and data, read blog entries and otherwise benefit from the project. Through the website the impact of the project will continue for years after the end of the funding.

-- The Internet has produced completely new business models for the music and newspaper industries, but these are only two examples of the much larger picture of the disruption caused by the Internet. For politicians, it offers new ways to reach voters and new ways to campaign and for government agencies it establishes new models for reaching their constituencies. The proposed project will help businesses as well as local and national government to identify who benefits and where digital divides are being created. Maps supply tools and data to analyze relationships between local areas and they improve our understanding of how information and knowledge are obtained and shared - all these will benefit a wider public and knowledge professionals alike.


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Blank, G (2017) Local Geography of Digital Inequality in Social Science Computer Review

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Blank, G (2015) Britain in 2015

Description We discovered that Internet use in Britain has a distinctive geographic pattern. Some places where conventional wisdom suggests should have low levels of Internet use like Cornwall and Scotland, are not unusually low. Despite its reputation, Cornwall is actually above the UK average for Internet use. The lowest levels of Internet use are in the Northeast region. Cities typically have higher levels of Internet use than the surrounding countryside, but this is not true in the Northeast. Central Wales also shows low levels of Internet use. The highest levels of Internet use are in London; no surprise there. But Internet use in London varies widely from borough to borough. Some boroughs show Internet use that is 10-15 percentage points higher than others. This shows that geography plays a major role in Internet use, a fact that was not previously known.
Exploitation Route We have created a dataset containing estimates of Internet use at the level of the Census Output Area. This can be aggregated up to any higher level of administrative geography. It could be used by London Boroughs, or Metropolitan Districts in Glasgow to assess their level of Internet use, in comparison to neighboring areas. Since high levels of Internet use are closely tied to the availability of well-paying jobs and economic growth, this would give administrators insight into the economic prospects for their area.

Findings from this study are being used for segmentation purposes by Government Digital Services to support the government's Digital Inclusion agenda.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description --Ofcom has used our findings to inform its research into digital media literacy. --Ofcom has also used our data to inform its policy on broadband regulation. --Government Digital Services has used out findings to inform its work on the government's Digital Inclusion Strategy --Government Digital Services has used our findings to inform its work on measurement of digital inclusion. --As a result of this work I have been asked to chair a working group on digital inclusion measurement and evaluation by Government Digital Services. --The Department for Communities and Local Government has used our work to inform local authorities about issues of digital inclusion at the local level. --Go ON UK has used this research to help them target Local Authorities where they needed to focus their efforts to increase the use of the Internet. They have also used it as a model for their own digital inclusion heat map. --The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has used our work to inform its work on digital inclusion in Local Authorities.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Digital Inclusion Delivery Board
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact This is a group of 53 organsations called together to recommend ways to implement the government's Digital Inclusion Strategy and the UK Digital Inclusion Charter. I am providing geographical information based on the research I have conducted under this grant. It will result in an increase in digital inclusion in the UK. Digital Inclusion leads to many desirable outcomes, including better access to health information, saving money, easier search for employment, access to educational opportunities, and better access to government services. [This grant has not concluded so this report is incomplete.]
Description Digital Inclusion Research and Evaluation Working Group
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in advisory committee
Impact This organisation will establish a standard measurement for digital inclusion in the UK. This will provide a more sophisticated measure of digital inclusion than currently provided by ONS. The new measure will create a common language to discuss digital inclusion in the UK. The new measure will provide a standard of best practice, thereby raising the overall level of sophistication in measuring digital inclusion. I am participating because measuring geographic segmentation is an important component. I am using the research funded by this grant. Better measurement will make it easier for the government to see what it is doing well and where it could improve. The result will be an increase in digital inclusion in the UK. Digital Inclusion leads to many desirable outcomes, including better access to health information, saving money, easier search for employment, access to educational opportunities, and better access to government services. [This grant has not concluded so this report is incomplete.]
Description Ofcom broadband
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Impact Ofcom will use our estimates of Internet use in different geographic areas combined with their broadband availability and speed data in the same geographic areas to assess the impact of broadband on Internet takeup. This could change the way that Ofcom regulates broadband, resulting in greater availability or lower cost to consumers or both. [This grant has not concluded so this report is incomplete.]
Title internet use database 
Description By combining Census 2011 data and the 2013 wave of the Oxford Internet Survey we created estimates of Internet use for each Output Area in Britain. The Output Areas can be aggregated upward to any higher administrative unit, like counties, cities, or London boroughs. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact It has been used for additional research relating to the geography of Internet use and inequality. The dataset has been deposited in the UK Data Archive for use by other researchers. 
Description Government Digital Services 
Organisation Government Digital Service
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We showed our finding concerning the geography of Internet use to the Digital Inclusion team at Government Digital Services. We also talked about measurement of digital inclusion and related topics (like digital skills).
Collaborator Contribution They provided feedback about how they would be able to use our findings and measurements as part of the government's digital inclusion strategy and the Digital By Default effort. This was valuable in helping us see the policy implications of our work. It also encouraged us to provide estimates of other Internet-related variables for small areas in Britain.
Impact The collaboration is still ongoing so the outputs have not formally emerged. Our measurements and findings will be included in the report of the Digital Inclusion Delivery Board. When this report is approved they will be included in the Digital Inclusion Dashboard that will be set up in the next year.
Start Year 2014
Description Ofcom broadband 
Organisation Ofcom
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution I supplied the estimated Internet use data. We are doing spatial correlations and regressions based on these data and the data supplied by Ofcom
Collaborator Contribution Ofcom gave me their broadband data, including availability and maximum speeds, at the postcode level
Impact We do not yet have published results. Disciplines include sociology, geography, communications, and economics. [This grant has not concluded so this report is incomplete.]
Start Year 2014
Description University of Liverpool 
Organisation University of Liverpool
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Received several databases that they had created.
Collaborator Contribution We sent them copies of the current Oxford Internet Survey, which is not publicly available.
Impact We are collaborating on scholarly papers.
Start Year 2013
Description British Internet use 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Provided information about geographical inequalities in internet use in Britain

Received multiple requests for further information, copies of papers and copies of maps.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014