Postcode searches of crime and school stats can lead to "virtual segregation"The proliferation of websites providing house buyers with information on good and bad neighbourhoods could widen the divide between the richest and poorest places in the UK, according to new research.
The report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warns that internet-based neighbourhood information systems (Ibnis) could lead to "online marginalisation" and "virtual segregation" of deprived areas of the country.
House hunters are currently able to use a number of commercial websites that feature information on schools and crime figures by postcode, while the government's own Neighbourhood Statistics site contains statistical, demographic and environmental information on neighbourhoods.
The report also warns that joke websites listing "crap" and "chav" towns create a negative image of the social characteristics of different areas.
Professor Roger Burrows, who led the research team from York and Durham universities, said he fears that US-style Ibnis websites, which allow users to search for neighbourhoods that match their prioritised criteria, will lead to virtual redlining of communities.
"It seems only a matter of time before the kind of powerful neighbourhood search sites available in the US start to reinforce the divide between the more and less prosperous locations in the UK," he said in the research.
Burrows said the situation is made more worrying because of the so-called "digital divide".
"Given what we know about the benefits of mixed-income communities in promoting social cohesion, it is important that greater public access to the 'social sorting' technology used by market research does not pull in the opposite direction and lead to even greater segregation between communities," he said.
The report advises that Ibnis websites should be made to specify their sources and state how the information was compiled, and that local people should be given the opportunity to challenge the way their neighbourhoods are being portrayed.