Online behaviour in the UK: an individual and contextual analysis

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How much do we know about the online behaviour of individuals in the UK? What are the intensity and the types of online activities that people in the UK undertake including online shopping and what are the underpinning mechanisms which shape this behaviour? And, importantly, does geography play a role in how people utilise the internet? In other words, is the internet a mechanism which can partially alleviate peripherality, is it a place-neutral process or are elements of the internet usage more intensively linked with central, urban locations? These are the key research questions that our new research project, which is funded by the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC) and ESRC through the CDRC Innovation Fund, is going to answer using a variety of data sources and methods.

Answering questions like the ones above can support the UK economy’s ‘digital’ objectives. Specifically, by gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms which underpin the online behaviour and attitude of individuals we can improve our understanding of how individuals engage with the digital economy in the UK. This is essential for the UK digital sectors in order to remain world-leading (HM Government, 2017) and for UK firms to fully develop their digital potential, something which can add 2.5% of GDP to the economy (Oxford Economics, 2015). The questions that this research project raises are well-aligned with one of the key ESRC priorities, which aims to better comprehend the Ways of Being in a Digital Age, as well as with CDRC’s priority around Big Data and Retail.

This project will utilise the representative nature of the British Population Survey (BPS – see also CDRC’s page) to explain the determinants of individual internet usage and online shopping patterns. Using the (anonymised) responder characteristics included in the BPS we will expose the individual mechanisms which shape our online behaviour. In addition, using the broad locational information included in the BPS we will link these data with secondary data from ONS in order to understand the contextual and neighbourhood characteristics which might also affect the way individuals engage with online activities. Finally, we will link the BPS data with a novel source of big data from the UK Web Archive, which is curated by The British Library, in order to build longitudinal measures about the availability and richness of the local internet content at the level of the BPS responders. By doing this we will be able to test whether the availability of rich online content of local interest can affect individual online behaviour. The literature suggests that internet content of local interest has, among other socio-economic factors, the capacity to stimulate internet adoption, at least at a country scale (Viard & Economides, 2014). Bekkerman and Gilpin (2013) argue that internet access actually increases the value of local content and that larger markets have more local online content. Nevertheless, the literature has not yet tested whether the availability of local internet content can influence individuals to engage more with the internet and this is a research question that this project aims to answer.

In order to reveal the individual and contextual – including both neighbourhood characteristics and local online content – determinants of internet usage and online shopping in the UK, we will employ multilevel modelling. Such statistical models control for the clustering of individual observations within the same contextual (i.e. geographic) unit. Such an approach reflects economic reality as individuals are hardly ever isolated from their direct environment, but they are nested within complex economic and institutional contexts (Hundt & Sternberg, 2016).

Specifically, this project will achieve the following research objectives:

  • Explain the individual characteristics, which influence internet usage and online activities and how these change over time.
  • Reveal the contextual effects which stimulate internet usage and online activities of individuals. Such features might be socio-economic (e.g. deprivation) and location-related (e.g. urban/rural, broadband availability/speed) neighbourhood effects, but also digital neighbourhood effects, which refer to the availability of local internet content.
  • Identify the individual and contextual effects, including the digital neighbourhood effects and accessibility to retail centres, which can affect online shopping.

The project will contribute to the digital geographies literature by (i) revealing the individual and contextual mechanisms which influence the engagement with the digital economy; and (ii) understanding the role of local internet content in affecting online behaviour, something which has not been studied before. This will also be the first time, to our knowledge, that unstructured big data from the Internet Archive will be utilised in such geographical research. Revealing location-related effects will also be particularly compelling for economic geography as they will expose if and how participation in the digital economy is shaped by spatial structure. This project will also speak to retail literature by exposing the individual and contextual mechanisms – including the availability of local internet content – which influences online shopping patterns.

The project team includes Dr Emmanouil Tranos (PI), Dr Zhaoya Gong (Co-I), Mr Christoph Stich (PDRA) and Dr Max Nathan (Advisor).


Bekkerman, A., & Gilpin, G. (2013). High-speed Internet growth and the demand for locally accessible information content. Journal of Urban Economics, 77, 1-10.

HM Government. (2017). UK Digital Strategy. London: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

Hundt, C., & Sternberg, R. (2016). Explaining new firm creation in Europe from a spatial and time perspective: A multilevel analysis based upon data of individuals, regions and countries. Papers in Regional Science, 95, 223-257.

Oxford Economics. (2015). The UK’s £92 billion digital opportunity: Virgin Media Business.

Viard, V. B., & Economides, N. (2014). The effect of content on global internet adoption and the global “Digital divide”. Management science, 61, 665-687.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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