Without data justice, digital government reform puts homeless at risk

2 July 2019
Homeless populations depend on mobile internet for personal safety and to access support services
Homeless people become increasingly smartphone dependent as government services go digital, replacing shopfronts with online self-management portals. Digital reform needs to address data affordability for a fair and inclusive welfare system.

Australian consumers have an insatiable appetite for data: within 12 months data consumption increased by 43 percent according to 2017 statistics. While a bulk of personal consumption is linked to streaming and entertainment, an analysis of government service changes has revealed that people who are homeless are consuming mobile data to obtain support in a digital service environment.

Without addressing affordability of mobile access, the most vulnerable groups in our society are at risk of being cut off from support services as they cannot cover the expense of connecting with them. This could have adverse effects on health and may even perpetuate homelessness.

Dr Justine Humphry from the Department of Media and Communications surveyed 95 homeless adults, families and young people in Sydney and Melbourne in a 2014 study of personal mobile phone and internet use for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN). Her recent analysis of the impacts of Australia’s whole-of-government digital transformation reveals some disturbing patterns of exclusion emerging as a result of the cost burden for those ‘mobile-only’ users, who access the internet solely through a mobile connection.

Key to survival

Humphry’s original study found that mobiles phones, particularly smartphones, have become an essential tool for survival for people experiencing homelessness. 95 percent of participants owned a mobile phone; 77 percent of those were smartphones. The mobile phone was identified as the primary communication channel to contact family, friends and support services.

Homeless people are more likely to find themselves in situations of heightened physical risk. As such, 23 percent of participants recognised the mobile’s importance for personal safety and 20 percent for contacting emergency services. For women escaping family violence, mobile phones provided a way to screen calls and maintain anonymity. 70 percent of participants use mobile internet to access information and 35 percent to support education with several studying at the time.

Digital Government

As part of the wider shift to a data driven society, internet access is increasingly needed to connect to government and community support services. The Digital Transformation Agency, the Australian government’s dedicated unit for implementing its digital agenda, developed its Digital First roadmap for shifting all government services into a digital environment by 2018, now updated with its recently published Vision 2025.

Those on government support payments also require smartphones to fulfil administrative formalities required by the welfare system, many of which take place online through web portals and apps such as MyGov, including reporting on job seeking, providing income and health information, and contesting a decision made about a service or benefit. People who are homeless, and others who interact more with government services, are at the forefront of what Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has called an experiment in the digital welfare state.

Dr Humphry observed these demands and the need for online access to fulfil them ultimately results in another financial burden for people who are homeless because of the high cost of mobile data and timed calls. Smartphone dependency can also lead to risky behaviour when homeless. This could include spending hours at public WiFi hot spots, signing unsuitable telco contracts, and even resorting to theft and meal sacrificing.

“Without a fixed address and stable communication, people who are homeless can become uncontactable once their prepaid phone credit expires, and they may miss out on repayments which could further escalate their financial hardship,” says Dr Humphry.

Data pricing and affordability

Mobile data remains more expensive per gigabyte than fixed broadband and more for mobile timed calls than for calls from landlines. Moreover, while mobile prepaid options are the preference for people who are homeless because they enable users to control costs, they lack sufficient data volume, text and call minutes and have less value per service and per dollar compared to post-paid plans. Combined with extra fees for top-ups and going above data quotas, people who are homeless pay more for their access through mobiles in the face of fewer or no alternatives. As one young woman in Humphry’s 2014 study said, “They’re expensive but you like depend on them.”

The financial costs and pressures caused by digital reform are an onerous burden for people that are homeless and others who rely exclusively on mobiles for access. The 2018 Australian Digital Inclusion Index shows that mobile-only users are 24.6 points below the national average for affordability and are likely to be in the lowest income quintiles, with less education and unemployed. They found that social disadvantage leads to digital disadvantage with a prevalence of mobile-only use among Indigenous Australians, people with a disability and single parents.

As technology advances, it becomes more data driven yet because of the higher pricing of mobile broadband there are insufficient affordable solutions, particularly for those for whom a fixed household connection is not an option. Data costs aside, the smartphone is not an adequate medium for carrying out many of the tasks that services require of their customers not to mention that mobile handsets in possession by the homeless are on the whole older, with less features, and in poorer condition.


Government services have embraced digital reform by developing mobile apps and online portals to improve efficiencies and to engage with hard-to-reach populations. However, Dr Humphry cautions policy makers to address affordability in their Digital Transformation Strategy, otherwise they risk excluding the very people they try to serve.

Preserving conventional service delivery channels such as shopfronts, while it may maintain access to vulnerable and marginalised groups, could result in a two-tiered welfare system which provides differential treatment for people who cannot afford data driven access.

“This is not the way to ensure that digital services are delivered for the benefit of all Australians,” she says, “access should not come at a higher cost for those who need it most.”

Dr Humphry believes the Federal Government should provide long term subsidies or concessions for home and mobile broadband to people in the lowest income brackets who can select the most suitable concession type, extending ACCAN’s proposal for a home broadband concession to households on government financial support. Findings of Dr Humphry’s 2014 study were submitted in a report to ACCAN with recommendations to mobile service providers and government agencies. Since then the industry made calls to 1800 numbers mostly free of charge when called from a mobile device but this does not go far enough to solve the low affordability of mobile connectivity.

Dr Humphry’s study has been published in a special issue on Digital Inequalities and Inclusion for the Journal of Communication, Research & Practice. Leading academics will further discuss digital access and social inclusion at the upcoming Australian and New Zealand Communication Association Conference held from 3 to 5 July in Canberra.