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Dec 19, 2018 | by Dr Luke Burns

Mapping loneliness at the hyper-local level (and new research on young people and loneliness)

Since the launch of the government’s Loneliness Strategy and our Review on Loneliness in October, and ahead of our own soon-to-be published guidance on measuring loneliness, this week’s guest blog is from Dr Luke Burns, a Lecturer in Quantitative Human Geography in the School of Geography and Deputy Director of the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, both at the University of Leeds. He explains his research to try and quantify the ‘risk’ of loneliness at the local level.

Defining and measuring loneliness isn’t an easy task, primarily because it’s subjective in nature. This research used an index to measure loneliness among older people in by small areas within one London borough, Southwark (the technical term for the areas measured is Lower-layer Super Output Areas). Southwark was selected as a testbed for the methodology. We needed to have confidence that the results were viable and the methodology fit for purpose, but it is by no means perfect or complete.

Selecting the determinants of loneliness

In order to measure loneliness it was important to understand what components need to come together for the average person to feel lonely.  We reviewed academic, medical and policy literature and developed a list of five ‘open data’ determinants (or risk factors). These were as follows:

  • People over the age of 65 living in single occupancy households
  • People over the age of 65 with self-reported ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ health
  • People over the age of 65 with no qualifications
  • Public Transport Accessibility Level
  • Index of Multiple Deprivation
Using open data

The key to the selection of determinants in this list was the open nature of the data and hence these are obtainable by anybody wanting to replicate or critique the loneliness measure. Of course, this list of risk factors is very much up for debate, not least making use of a pre-existing composite measure of deprivation.

Creating an index

These five components were then combined in order to generate an index of loneliness. An index in this context is a means of combining multiple variables, often weighed for importance, to generate a single area score.  In this research, the score provided a means to understand loneliness risk in an area and hence support the planning of any intervention strategies.

The resulting map of loneliness risk in Southwark is shown below.

The map highlights clear pockets of high (Box A) and low (Box B) loneliness and wider explorations of these results, including discussions with Age UK, comparisons to existing loneliness measures and dialogue with local population groups suggests that the results are broadly accurate and hence the methods are producing results that may reliably inform policy.

This work is by no means complete and iterations and improvements to the methods are being sought. We are committed to making the approach replicable to the wider public: this means no overly complicated methods, inaccessible data, and so on.

What next?

If you would like to contribute to any subsequent development of this work or simply discuss further then please do not hesitate to get in touch on l.p.burns@leeds.ac.uk.  Full details of the research discussed in this blog can be found in the freely accessible academic paper.

Young people more likely to be distant from family – new research

Young people today are feeling more distant from their family members and also from their close friends, according to a new Index of Wellbeing from the Intergenerational Foundation.

The Index, which analysed 24 British Household Panel Survey indicators over three points in time – 1995, 2005 and 2015 – found a number of disturbing trends emerging around young people’s wellbeing, a measure used to quantify standards of living.

The deterioration in the quality of family relationships – by more than 50% between 2005 and 2015 – revealed that twentysomethings were a great deal less likely to say that one of their three closest friends was also a relative in 2015 than they had been in either 2005 or 1995. Close friendships also deteriorated between 2005 and 2015, falling 6% during the period

How do young people experience loneliness?

Responding to an identified gap, the ONS, in partnership with the Children’s Society, has published research that explores how children and young people experience loneliness.

This gives us a much better insight into what shapes children’s and young people’s experiences of loneliness and what might help to reduce it. This is something that has not been well understood previously.


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