Headlines: August 17th, 2005

The emergence of neighbourhood information websites providing detailed area data could widen the gap between rich and poor and create a wider digital divide. The new systems with details of the best schools or lowest crime figures could lead to a more segregated society and help house buyers to choose areas with the kind of existing residents they would most want as neighbours. The warning comes from a report ‘Neighbourhoods on the Net’ commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.In the United States neighbourhood websites enable users to search for neighbourhoods that match their prioritised criteria, using extensive, zip-coded data sets compiled by market research companies. Equivalent websites in the UK do not yet offer neighbourhood searches by ranked characteristics, but a number of commercial sites feature information collected by postcode; while the Government’s own Neighbourhood Statistics website provides statistical, demographic and environmental information on neighbourhoods.

Professor Roger Burrows, who led the research team from the Universities of York and Durham, said: “We already have a ‘digital divide’ in Britain between those whose internet access makes them information-rich and those whose inability to afford computers or fast web connections makes them information-poor. But it seems only a matter of time before the kind of powerful neighbourhood search sites available in the United States start to reinforce the divide between the more and less prosperous locations in the UK.”

Roger Burrows added that: “At a minimum it would be sensible to insist that neighbourhood websites specify their sources and make it clear how their information was compiled. We also recommend that local people are given opportunities to challenge the way their neighbourhoods are being portrayed, if necessary.”