A consortium of researchers including experts from Cranfield University has launched a world-leading study to determine the impact of digitalised services on minority ethnic (ME) groups.

The £3.3 million project is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Strategic Priority Fund as part of the Protecting Citizens Online programme, initiated in response to the 2020 Online Harms White Paper. The project is administered by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research council (EPSRC) on behalf of UKRI.

Pandemic accelerated move to online public services

The Protecting Minority Ethnic Communities Online (PRIME) project was initiated after a range of key public services moved online, a process accelerated by the pandemic. Services including those in the areas of health, housing and energy are now increasingly delivered online.

The PRIME project will identify the distinctive online harms that ME communities experience because of this digitalisation and draw upon a range of academic expertise to develop innovative and ground-breaking policy guidance and tools for tackling deeply entrenched and persistent racial inequalities in the UK.

Nazmiye Ozkan, Reader in EnergyEconomics and Head of Centre for Energy Systems and Strategy at Cranfield University said:  “This project will create a step-change in the characterisation and management of risks minority ethnic communities face in accessing digitalised services across energy, housing and health domains. Our collaboration with the wide range of organisations and Energy Systems Catapult will ensure that our findings inform industry and policy practices going forward".

With a lack of research, policy and practical initiatives in this area and no solid evidence base to draw upon, the experience of ME communities when using online services requires significant investigation. Assessing the adequacy of existing harm-mitigation structures is also difficult.

However, there is wide concern that digitalisation could lead to inequalities being reproduced or exacerbated online, or to new discriminatory processes being created. It is also known that ME communities and individuals are disproportionately impacted by harms like cyberbullying. The PRIME project will enable providers to demonstrate accountability and transparency in service delivery.

Interdisciplinary project

The project’s approach and research methods draw on knowledge and skills from social science, applied linguistics, cyber security and privacy, data mining and machine learning; human computer interaction and educational technology.

The team will establish a Citizen-led Race Equity Living Lab (CREL), playing a critical role in countering discriminatory processes in digitalised services, enabling organisations to address ethnic inequalities in service provision and ensure more equitable service outcomes.

Dr Gina Netto from The Urban Institute at Heriot-Watt University is leading the research. She is reader in international and forced migration and an expert on migrant integration and race equality issues. Dr Netto said: “Our multi-disciplinary team has worked collaboratively to engage with a wide range of organisations to design rigorous social and technical methods to deepen understanding of the nature of online harm experienced by minority ethnic communities. 

“Together with our partner organisations, PRIME will play an important role in tackling racial inequality and improving service provision for the UK’s increasingly diverse citizens. It will also serve as an international exemplar of the critical role that research can play in not only increasing knowledge but in the redesigning and embedding of processes within institutional systems to advance racial equality.”

The PRIME consortium includes researchers from Heriot-Watt University, Cranfield University, The Open University and the University of Glasgow and University of York, will also work closely with the National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence online (REPHRAIN).

Colin Lee, Chief Executive of the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations (CEMVO) Scotland, the national intermediary organisation and strategic partner of the Scottish Government Equality Unit, commented: “We are delighted to be working with Heriot-Watt University and other partners on this important research project. The digital world that we live in today is very much open to online racial abuse and racial inequalities, which is something that needs to be deeply explored.”

Partner organisations include CEMVO Scotland, Muslim Council of Britain, BRAP, The Mental Health Foundation, Public Health Scotland, the NHS Race and Health Observatory, The Scottish Government Digital Directorate, Energy Systems Catapult, The Scottish Convention of Local Authorities, The UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence and The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations.