By Marcus Coetzee, 12 July 2023.
The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) is an excellent tool for getting a sense of a community or town in Scotland and its levels of deprivation and poverty. Other countries would benefit from creating their own versions of it.
The SIMD is used a lot by charities, foundations and policymakers. It is a combination of several poverty-related indicators drawn from official statistics. It is also a common language for discussing the levels of deprivation in an area. I regularly use the SIMD in my work with Community Enterprise in Scotland which involves helping charities, social enterprises and community groups to improve their strategies and understand their beneficiaries.
This article introduces the SIMD, explains how it works and what I think of it.
Above is a screenshot of the SIMD map for the area around Glasgow and Paisley which is where I live. It contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
Deprivation versus poverty
There are some subtle differences between multiple deprivation and poverty.
Deprivation refers to a lack of access to resources. A household or community can suffer from multiple deprivations where they lack access to different types of resources such as money, healthcare, transport, safety and education.
While the term poverty is often used to describe multiple deprivations, some organisations such as the World Bank use the term to solely refer to levels of personal or household income – the poverty threshold is $2.15/day (September 2022). In contrast, I see poverty as a complex adaptive system or wicked problem which is difficult to correct and in which people can easily become trapped. Therefore poverty includes multiple deprivations rather than being a subset of it.
The concept of deprivation also represents a philosophy of poverty – that one can reduce it by increasing access to resources. This is different from other approaches to poverty and social development. For example, the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach understands poverty as the lack of capabilities and assets that enable people to make a living and recover from shocks and stresses in their lives.
The foundations of the SIMD
The SIMD (2020) is the sixth edition since 2004. It tends to be updated every three or four years which enables one to track levels of deprivation over time to determine the impact of corrective interventions and other forces. The SIMD was developed by the Social Disadvantage Research Centre at Oxford University.
Scotland is divided into 6,976 data zones – a geographical grouping of between 500 to 1,000 household residents which is the smallest subdivision that is used to report on official statistics.
The SIMD looks at 33 deprivation indicators for each data zone with the data coming from the Census and other official statistics. These indicators are relevant to rural, urban and metropolitan areas. The results for each indicator are combined and weighted using an algorithm into seven sub-indexes to represent seven domains. These are the income domain, employment domain, health domain, education/skills domain, housing domain, geographic access domain and crime domain. These seven indexes were also combined into a single overall index. This process creates a multi-dimensional model of poverty – as opposed to only looking at a measure such as household income.
The 6,976 data zones are ranked according to the scores that they achieve for each of these domains so that the areas that have the most deprivation are at the bottom and those with the least are at the top.
This ranking is then divided into deciles – which are blocks of 10%. In other words, decile 1 contains the areas with the most deprivation (the lowest 10% on the ranking) and decile 10 contains the areas with the least deprivation (the highest 10% on the ranking).
The SIMD provides a relative model of poverty in Scotland – it measures the level of poverty in a geographical area relative to elsewhere in Scotland. This is different from measures of absolute poverty like the aforementioned $2.15/day.
The model accepts that differing levels of deprivation can exist within a single datazone – datazones are not necessarily homogenous.
Discussions about SIMD results tend to focus on how many datazones within the targeted communities fall within the 10% or 20% most deprived areas in Scotland and the types of deprivations that exist within these areas. These discussions are much easier because the SIMD is easy to understand and a useful common language.
The SIMD website
The SIMD results can be accessed through any web browser but tends to work better on a desktop or laptop computer rather than a mobile device. The website displays a map of Scotland overlayed with ten different colours, one for each decile.
Dark red areas represent decile 1 have high levels of deprivation while dark blue areas represent decile 10 and tend to have much less and be relatively well-resourced. There is a range of colour gradients between dark red and dark blue.
If you select an area then it should pop up a menu on the right with different domains such as income, employment, health, access to services etc. and show the decile and colours of each.
There are several menus that enable you to search by postcode or datazone, go directly to one of the listed areas, or view areas within one of the lower deciles. The map also enables one to view the SIMD results for 2012, 2016 and 2020.
There are equivalents to the SIMD elsewhere in the UK, though there are some variations in the domains and the quality of the online platforms. For example, here is a private platform by James Trimble to explore the Index of Deprivation in England. There is also an official government platform.
Reflecting on the SIMD
I view the SIMD from the perspective of a management consultant who used to live in South Africa and worked in several African countries before moving to Scotland.
The most deprived communities in Scotland which are highlighted in dark red on the SIMD platform tend to suffer minimal deprivation relative to South Africa and elsewhere in Africa. I currently live in a 6th decile area in Paisley nearby Glasgow and it is services and safety are much better than what I experienced in Cape Town.
It was much easier to make generalisations about an area in South Africa because of Apartheid-style city planning which focused on separating people into different groups. Therefore South African suburbs tend fairly homogenous in terms of levels of deprivation.
In contrast, there is much more variance on a street-by-street basis in Scotland. Towns or suburbs that are considered to be wealthy have streets where households are very deprived. Conversely, poor towns and villages have streets where minimal deprivation exists. I often hear people saying things like, “That’s a really nice street” or “I would avoid that street if I were you.” This is indicative of the varying levels of deprivation within Scottish communities and the problems with making generalisations about them.
The SIMD is a useful and well-known planning and communication tool. It enables people from different organisations to have conversations about deprivation using a common language. One doesn’t have to be a specialist to be able to use the SIMD. For example, it is used by the Scottish government and local authorities to assess progress and plan policy and programmes. It is also used by community groups to describe their target communities to potential funders.
While datasets for the census and official statistics do exist in other countries, they are not integrated into a single index like the SIMD. The closest equivalent that I’m aware of would be the Lived Poverty Index that Afrobarometer uses in Africa. Furthermore, official statistics tend to be inaccessible and certainly not usable and visualisable like the SIMD – users tend to be full-time researchers and statisticians who have paid to access them.
My main frustration with using the SIMD platform is that it lacks many of the area boundaries that are common to something like Google Maps. It can be difficult to find a specific community if you aren’t already familiar with it. I have often looked up the datazones for an area using the Atlas from the Scottish Government’s statistics website and then located these on the SIMD. I have spent several hours trying to reconcile datazones with administrative or community boundaries. I wish that the reporting functionality was improved so that I could export a PDF of the datazones I selected and key population statistics on a single page.
My South African readers will be surprised to discover that indices of multiple deprivations were also developed for South Africa in 2001, 2007 and 2011 though not with the same level of resolution. Sadly, I’ve never heard of the South African Index of Multiple Deprivation (SAIMD). This initiative has most probably lapsed due to a lack of funding or government buy-in. This is a lost opportunity for the country.
The SIMD is a useful tool to get an overview of deprivation and poverty in Scotland and to gain a sense of the demographics of a particular town, village or community.
The SIMD lacks some of the granularity or resolution of the datasets and specialised tools that I have access to through my work. However, it fits nicely within a broader toolkit to help organisations understand their communities and design strategies.
There are also a few frustrations I have encountered with trying to find areas, reconcile the SIMD with administrative boundaries, and extract reports.
But despite these frustrations, the SIMD is a useful and accessible tool underpinned by a common language. The ability to easily communicate the SIMD results is incredibly powerful and valuable for those organisations trying to assess and alleviate poverty.
Other countries should develop tools such as the SIMD if they don’t already exist.
The academic paper, “The Scottish Indices of Multiple Deprivation (2003)”, by the Social Disadvantage Research Centre explains the reasoning and statistical methods used to construct this index. Here is the link to this paper on Research Gate.