Greg Wright: Let's sift the big data to help those living in poverty

WE all dread the day when we suddenly struggle to cope with the cost of living.

The use of data could help to reduce the number of people living in poverty, says Greg Wright

Even if our finances appear to be in rude health today, there is no guarantee that illness, tragedy or unemployment will always pass us by. If we did find ourselves in a vulnerable position, we would all like to hope that those in authority would lend a sympathetic ear to our plight.

This optimism may be misplaced. I’ve been flicking through a National Audit Office report which makes sobering reading.

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It must make everyone working in business pause and re-consider how they treat their most vulnerable customers.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, found mounting evidence that many vulnerable consumers are particularly susceptible to bad experiences at the hands of regulated services such as energy, water, communications and financial services. This can lead to them facing soaring bills and mounting debts.

The NAO report found that consumers spend around £136 billion annually on energy, water, telecommunications and retail financial services.

The Money Advice Service found in 2015 that 32 per cent of UK adults would be unable to pay an unexpected £300 bill without cutting back on essentials.

This rose to 50 per cent or more for those who were unemployed, receiving benefits or living in social housing.

It’s hard to believe that this situation has improved over the last three years. Just look at the numbers of people who rely on food banks.

The NAO study found that the number of vulnerable consumers is likely to keep growing due, in part, to the ageing population.

The number of people with dementia, for example, is expected to rise from 900,000 to two million by 2050.

All of these people will need somebody to look after them and manage their financial affairs.

Dementia sufferers who have no relatives and live alone will be particularly vulnerable to cold callers and conmen.

As the NAO observes, the impact on any consumer of suddenly finding themselves in a vulnerable position can be significant.

For example, around three million disabled people have been denied insurance or charged extra because of their condition.

An estimated 310,000 households may be using illegal money lenders because they have limited or no access to legal credit. The NAO found that the responsibilities of regulators and Government remain unclear.

To quote the NAO: “Regulators’ duties to protect vulnerable consumers can conflict with other measures designed to benefit consumers in general, and regulatory interventions alone can be insufficient to protect all vulnerable consumer groups.

“For example, intervening to prevent large price differences between deals might adversely affect competition, but many vulnerable groups are substantially less likely to switch to cheaper deals.”

The NAO also found that industry-wide regulatory interventions are often “limited and inconsistent in reach and impact”.

And what’s the reason for this?

According to the NAO it is at least partly because there is no comprehensive data resource stored by companies, regulators or complaints bodies about the experiences of vulnerable customers.

If this data was stored in one place, and subjected to rigorous analysis, it just might provide a solution that would ensure fewer people suffer hardship.

Here is a project that is screaming out for the attention of any company that is skilled in dealing with “Big Data” – information that is so vast and complex it cannot be processed in a traditional way.

With Yorkshire establishing itself as a powerhouse in the technology sector, surely there must be an organisation in the region that can help to 
prune through the colossal pile of data to provide clarity for policymakers?

A co-ordinated approach might just lead to fewer people living in poverty.

That might sound like a Utopian vision, but it’s one we must never stop pursuing.