It finally feels like Spring is in the air, and you know it’s been a busy start to the year when we’re rolling the first two months into one set of monthnotes – in the middle of March!
So, what have we been up to?
Well – we’ve been adding datasets to and testing our alpha version of the Local Intelligence Hub tool that we built with The Climate Coalition. Feedback has been really good and this feels like something that’s really going to level up the ability of UK climate organisations to share data and coordinate their actions, at both a local and national level. We hope to share more about this project in the coming months, once it’s been made available to TCC members.
We submitted talks to a couple of conferences/events – and lo and behold, we’ll be in Sheffield (and online) for the Festival of Debate on May 24, with a panel of exceptional guests. Our topic? “What if you could reshape democracy for the better — and you had 20 years to do so?” Climate is sure to be part of the answer. Fancy joining us? Book here.
Between all this we’ve been working hard with our friends at Climate Emergency UK on the next round of the Council Climate Scorecards. Their draft methodology was released in November 2022, and the first round of marking started in January 2023. Part of our support has included building a Django application to store the marking data – and this has already dramatically improved the experience for Climate Emergency UK’s volunteers.
Climate Emergency UK are also working with mySociety’s Transparency team, using WhatDoTheyKnow Projects (a WhatDoTheyKnow Pro beta feature that helps researchers crowdsource data out of batch FOI requests) to gather some of the data for the scoring. All their FOI requests will be published on WhatDoTheyKnow later this year.
Our IICT grants are coming to an end soon – we’ve put out a blog post about Lynsted Community Kitchen Garden and the data they’re collecting with the weather station we funded. They have a public event on March 25 if anyone lives near Lynsted and wants to visit to check it out! Updates from Possible and Better Futures should be coming soon.
On the research side, we launched our report on unlocking the value of fragmented public data, which is part of our work into the data ecosystem around climate data. Our plan over the next few months is to support a few research commissions which link in to this report and help to show use of climate data.
We’ve confirmed a partnership with Dark Matter Labs – we’ll be moving forward with them and our Neighbourhood Warmth prototype, exploring how we could encourage neighbours to come together to take their first retrofit action, such as getting a house survey. We’ll be building a working prototype over the next few weeks, then testing it out with communities in three pilot areas around the UK, to ensure that what we’re building makes sense to the people we’re aiming to serve.
And finally, we met up in person! We had a team meeting in early February which was a wonderful chance for us all to take stock of the last year, and discuss the future. We’ve been making some plans for year 3 of the Climate programme and after widening our scope through prototyping, now we’re going to be focusing back in again on building and proving the impact of the services we’re running.
That’s a very whistlestop tour of our first months of 2023!
Image: Daniel James
We’re now six days into September. We’re feeling a strong ‘back to school’ vibe after the long summer in which many of the team were away on annual leave at one point or another.
Prototyping is behind us and we’re shifting our focus to what we want to achieve in the last six months of the (project) year. Let’s take a quick look back at August and see what we achieved.
Innovations in Climate Tech event
We’ve been working flat out on finalising our agenda and speakers for our showcase event on 21st September. The lineup of speakers is shaping up to be really exciting, and they’ll be introducing key themes such as equity, diversity & inclusion, spatial planning, adaptation and engagement – all of which should spark some interesting new inspiration for councils.
Don’t forget, if you’re a local council working on climate change, and you spot a project in the event that you might like to trial, there’s the chance to bid for one of three £5,000 grants to help make it happen.
We’ve also been inviting people to the event and spreading the word. We’re running it as an affiliate event in Code for All’s amazing week-long Summit, packed full of other compelling climate presentations. So don’t just stop at our event, take a look at the full schedule and sign up for any that interest you – they’re all free, and it’s a great opportunity to learn more about what the global civic tech community is up to, in topics from climate and democracy to countering fake news and mass surveillance!
August was a light week for development, as Struan, our developer, enjoyed a well-earned break in Italy. (Travelling there by train, of course, and earning time back as part of our Climate Perks policy!)
He’s back now, and just in time to welcome our newest developer, Alexander, to the team. Together they’ve picked up work on the next stages of our prototype around the transparency of council procurement, Contract Countdown. Once the more developed prototype is live with real data in it, we’ll put a call out for journalists to help us test our assumptions, as part of a first focus group.
And finally we ran a stakeholder meeting around the Neighbourhood Warmth prototype – this was interesting and helped us start to shape our thoughts on where we could go next. We’ll be solidifying those over the next few months and hopefully forming a couple of strong partnerships which will help drive our thinking forward. Development on the next stage of this will start in January 2023.
Final prototyping week
We ran our final prototyping week in partnership with The Climate Coalition in early August, looking at how better data about local climate action, citizens, and MPs could help organisations campaign for better climate outcomes. We had a massive amount of input from a wide range of national organisations and local community groups – thank you to everyone who took part! The outcomes of the week were really exciting and we’ll be publishing a short write-up in September.
Now that our services have really bedded in and people are discovering how useful they can be, we’re able to produce a steady stream of case studies. The hope is that these inspire other folk to use CAPE and the Scorecards site for their own organisations.
This month we’ve spoken to a professor using both services in her research on healthcare and climate; and a charity dedicated to making school dinners more sustainable. There are still more varied and interesting case studies coming soon.
A whole episode of Delib’s Practical Democracy podcast was dedicated to Myf and Siôn as together they explained our work – do have a listen if you like a chatty approach when taking things in!
And our climate newsletter is now a regular monthly fixture – you can sign up from that link (top left of your browser) if you’d like to receive these in your email inbox.
Image: Pascal Debrunner
It’s the end of June already and we’re now over half way through the year, the solstice has passed and the days are starting to get shorter! Since the start of April the Climate team have been in a whirl of prototyping weeks which has made time feel like it’s speeding past at a high rate.
So what have we done this month?
Trialing Github projects
Being an open source technical organisation, mySociety does a lot of its development work in GitHub, but on the Climate team we were using a mixture of Trello, spreadsheets and documents to track our priorities and progress. Having everything spread across so many places was causing the team confusion when it came to updating on progress and figuring out which tasks were the next most important.
So, at the start of June we switched to trialling GitHub’s Projects feature. This seems to answer a lot of our needs right now – everything is in one place, we can use status labels to track the progress on the project and add custom ones which relate to project milestones. It has the bonus effect that we’re not doubling up work by having the same tickets in GitHub and Trello. We’re only two sprints in so far, so still early days but we’re hopeful this might be a simpler way of working.
There’s only been one prototyping week in June: A fair transition. This was a tough week as it was such a broad subject and it was difficult to work out what exactly would be most useful for us to work on. This is what we came up with.
We’ve also been planning for Week 5 – Energy efficiency for rental homes which takes place from 5 -11 July. There’s still time to apply if you’re interested in joining us on this one!
It’s been a busy month for Communications – we’ve put together a pitch for MG OMD, the global marketing agency that will be volunteering their time for us through the Weston Communicating Climate training programme that Myf, our Communications Manager, has been following. It gives us the opportunity to have a big agency input into our plans and maybe give us ideas for new ways of reaching people.
Myf has also been working on some case studies – one from Sustain and one from Green Finance Institute. They’ll really help to highlight why the climate action plan data we have is so important to making positive change on reducing local climate emissions.
Alex has been working hard on our data ecosystem and we now have the local authority data up in a better format. You can find it here: https://mysociety.github.io/uk_local_authority_names_and_codes/
Finally we’ve been working on events. We have our first Prototyping Show and Tell on Friday 1 July from 2pm – 3:30pm BST: do drop us a line to be added to the event if you want to come along and hear all about how prototyping works and what we’ve found.
We’ve also started looking at our September event, Innovations in Climate Change, which will be held on September 21 2022 on Zoom. We’re super excited about this and our aim is to bring together local councils, international actors and technology people to share their tech based climate change projects and hopefully inspire some new work to reduce local climate emissions. If any of that sounds like you, sign up to present or keep your eyes peeled for an Eventbrite page to register your attendance.
Image: Natosha Benning
Call for speakers
Are you using digital technology or data to tackle the climate emergency at a local level?
Could local councils or other organisations benefit from trialling or implementing your tech?
If so, come and help spark inspiration by showcasing your project on September 21, via Zoom. Spark inspiration, and maybe find partners to implement your project.
At mySociety, we’ve been making our own services, bringing our expertise of data and civic tech together to create online tools that empower citizens and councils to act on climate. We’re focusing on climate action at the local government level, because we believe this is the area where effective change can most easily be made — see more on our Climate page.
Now we want to share what we’ve made, and hear about your work too. In the spirit of open data and collaboration, we want to help create ideas, inspiration and even partnerships that will amplify the effect of all our work in this area.
What we’re looking for
- Are you working on an emissions reduction project using digital technology?
- Perhaps you’re a data journalist, bringing change by writing stories that interrogate the data around climate change.
- Or you might be working for a campaigning organisation that uses tech like crowdsourcing or location-based digital services to accelerate climate action.
If your ideas are new, innovative or outside the box, so much the better!
We’re currently looking for people to showcase, discuss and potentially spark collaborations in hour-long afternoon sessions, with civic tech practitioners, council staff and others working around climate. Tell us about what you’ve been working on and chat with others about how they could adopt and build on your ideas.
Sounds good? Sign up here before August 5 and we’ll get back to you by August 26 to let you know if you’ve been selected.
Subscribe to mySociety’s newsletter for a monthly update on all our climate-related events and activities.
Image: CJ Dayrit
Are you investigating, researching or gathering large quantities of data through Freedom of Information requests? Perhaps you’re a journalist, academic or NGO. We’re looking people based in the UK who’d like to try out our new ‘Projects’ feature for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.
Projects allows you to crowdsource the extraction of data from multiple (or batch) FOI requests made to multiple authorities. You can set up a project with a brief description of what it is and what you are hoping to achieve, and some tasks that volunteers can complete to help you with this aim (like categorising responses, or answering questions about the data released).
Once that’s done, you can set it up to invite volunteers, who can help you to extract all the information you need from the released responses.
You’ll be able to download your volunteers’ input as a spreadsheet, meaning analysis of the data is much quicker and easier — so you can get on with the task of forming conclusions and writing up your findings.
What we’ll need from you
Projects is still in its nascent stage, so we need feedback from our testers. This will help us improve the service and tailor it to users’ needs, based on real life use cases.
Right now, we handle the setup and importing of the requests you want to work on manually (that is, our developers have to do it) — but we’re working on improving this aspect, and your feedback will be crucial in shaping the direction our development takes. We’re also looking for general comments, once you’ve used the service, on what’s useful and what’s missing; what you tried to do but couldn’t, and what made things easier for you.
If this sounds interesting, please get in touch at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you!
Image: Jessica Lee
We have the opportunity to help one organisation in Europe set up and run their own Freedom of Information website. Could you be that organisation?
Thanks to ongoing funding from Adessium, we’ve been working with a number of partners right across Europe to set up new Alaveteli websites, and upgrade existing ones with the Pro functionality. The ultimate aim is to increase the quality, quantity and simplicity of European and cross-border Freedom of Information based investigations.
So far we’ve helped organisations in France and Netherlands to launch their own sites, and we’ve added Pro to AskTheEU, Belgium, Sweden and Czechia.
Now we have space to provide technical help and support for one more organisation who would like to launch their own brand new Alaveteli site.
What would that involve?
Running an Alaveteli website is no light undertaking, we’ll be the first to admit it. While we can help you with all the technicalities of getting the site up and launched, there is an ongoing commitment for the recipient organisation, who will need to factor in significant time to administer it, moderate content and help users.
On the plus side, we have masses of experience that will get you set off on the right footing; we’ll do most of the technical stuff for you; and there’s a global community of other people running Alaveteli sites who are always quick to offer friendly advice when you need it.
OK, sounds good – can we apply?
There’s just one important detail: we’re looking for organisations in European countries or jurisdictions where there isn’t already an existing Alaveteli site. Take a quick look at our deployments page to see whether your country is already on the list.
That’s the main requirement — but there are also a few details that the ideal organisation would fulfil.
- So that you understand the service you’d be offering to citizens, you’d already have transparency or freedom of information as a remit or strand of your work
- You might include some people with at least some basic technical or coding skills amongst your workforce;
- You’ll have a source of income (or plans for how to secure one) that will allow you to keep running the site after we’ve got you all set up.
We’re looking to start work in April, with a probable build phase that would take us to December 2021. All work is conducted remotely, and we’d have regular check-ins with you via video call to keep you updated.
We’d then give you all the support you needed in the first few months after your site’s launch, then from March 2022, you’d be all set to take the training wheels off — although, as we say, we and the rest of the Alaveteli community would be around to offer help and advice on an ongoing basis.
Right, that’s everything — so it only remains to say that if you’re still interested, please get in touch to have an initial chat. Or, if you know any organisations that might be a good fit for this opportunity, please send them the link to this post.
Banner image: Gia Oris
That’s ARG as in ‘Anti-Racism Group’ — not exactly a backronym, but we definitely didn’t object to having this internal mySociety committee named after a cry of exasperation and frustration. The subject matter certainly warrants it.
Like many other organisations, we were inspired to make changes in response to the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for action this summer, sparked by the death of George Floyd. In mid-July we stated mySociety’s commitment to anti-racism and formed a working group, open to all employees to attend.
In many respects this has operated in the same way as our less snappily-titled Climate Action Group: fortnightly meetings in which members discuss and prioritise issues, educating ourselves and formulating policy to share with the organisation as a whole.
There’s plenty to tackle, from staff culture to HR and employment practices, the demographics who use our services and the research that still needs to be done. In all of these the question is the same: how can we do better to support other lives and experiences, especially Black experiences?
It’s a long journey and we’re not pretending that an hour a month is going to bring down systemic racism. But in the spirit that small actions add up to make a difference over time, here’s what we’ve done thus far:
- We’ve added a ‘Supporting diversity’ section to the Culture page of our website. People visit this page when they’re thinking about applying for a job here, so this small change could punch above its weight in the area of recruitment.
- Since we’ve had job vacancies recently, we’ve been able to put in practice plans to place job adverts strategically so that a wider diversity of candidates will see them.
- All line managers will have taken ACAS training on Equality and Diversity by the end of the year.
- New methods in our product development, like ‘consequence scanning‘, should help us to foresee any biases or unforeseen results of service features before we launch them.
- We’ve created a staff ‘anti racism and diversity’ reading list, purchased digital copies that any staff member can access, and suggested which books people might like to begin with.
- We ran a workshop on power and privilege at our last team meeting.
- We have plans to amend the terms and conditions on WriteToThem and other mySociety services to better prevent their use for hate speech and other abuse.
- We’ve researched best practice in terms of style and vocabulary, and added them to our inhouse style guide.
Over the next few months, we’ll be kicking off a research programme to dig more deeply into the question: what types of services are useful to marginalised groups? This will inform us in future development, and we’ll also be able to share the findings so that others can learn from them too.
This may be the trigger for an annual piece of research in which we examine who’s using our services, what for, and the impact they’re having.
We also want to understand how we can best provide support to groups who want to use our services to campaign around race, racism and structural inequalities in the UK.
That’s how far we’ve come in the first three months. To some extent, we’re feeling our way, as we’re not experts in this field.
This work involves many difficult conversations, but they are the conversations that need to be had, and we know that they will slowly result in a better organisation for everyone. We appreciate that, for some, this work is coming late and seems like little. And to you we want to say, we’re trying to do better, and we will keep on trying.
Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
You may remember our post back in September, on the research we were carrying out into how a digital tool might help residents of tower blocks.
At that stage, with invaluable input from residents, lawyers, health and safety professionals and especially the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation, we’d just finished the discovery phase and published a report on our research and prototyping.
We’ve now had the great news that the Legal Education Foundation are funding us to build a beta version of the tool we’d prototyped. It’ll be a simple way for residents of tower blocks to get the information they need to fix a range of problems in their accommodation, from structural and maintenance issues to legal ones.
As we start development, we’ll again be working with Tower Blocks UK, tireless champions of tower block residents and very much experts in this field.
We’ll make sure to keep updating as we progress. The hope is to formally launch the new tool in September next year — so watch this space for further news.
Image: Nirmal Rajendharkumar
An estimated 100,000 people in the UK live in tower blocks. If you’re one of them, mySociety’s current project will be of particular interest — and please read on to the end of the post, where you’ll find out how you might get involved.
mySociety has been working with the campaign group Tower Blocks UK to explore how residents across the country could have more input into the management of their buildings.
Back in June 2017, when the news of the Grenfell disaster broke, we expressed our desire to help. This partnership with Tower Blocks UK provides a tangible way for us to do just that, empowering tower block residents to understand their rights, and leverage those rights to increase the safety of their own homes.
Since Grenfell, fire has, understandably, been at the top of the nation’s consciousness. It’s not the only risk in tower blocks, however: by their nature, they’re subject to a range of distinct safety and maintenance issues which, if not identified and dealt with properly and at an early stage, can be at best a nuisance and at worst, life-threatening.
We were approached by Tower Blocks UK to provide a digital tool that would help address these issues. Beyond that, we didn’t want to make any assumptions about what was needed, so we began with a completely blank canvas.
Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. We had a few ideas about what sort of service we might build. A kind of ‘FixMyStreet for buildings’ was was talked about, but we know that it’s never a great idea to simply start creating the service you assume will be useful, without speaking to the people who would actually be using the finished thing.
So, we agreed our aim in fairly loose terms: to research and develop a pilot service that demonstrates the potential for tower block residents in a few select areas to have a greater say over the safety and maintenance of their blocks.
If judged successful, the service could be scaled up and made available for residents in tower blocks all across the UK.
Where we are now
At the time of writing, we’ve completed the discovery phase. We’ve asked residents how they currently report and track safety issues in their buildings; and with the additional help of sector experts, we’ve examined how legal pathways and housing provider case management processes affect the outcomes.
We wrote this stage up in a report which you can read here, identifying four key areas where we feel we have the opportunity to make a difference to how safe and happy residents feel in their homes.
Once we’d gathered and processed this knowledge, we were able to start building some simple digital prototypes and test our theories with residents in user design workshops. Here we’re thankful to Phil Murphy and Stuart Hodkinson, the London Tenants Federation, and especially the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation, for helping us reach a selection of tenants with different background and experiences.
Resident feedback at these sessions has helped us uncover real needs in this space, including the desire to make maintenance reports that have real impact, the value of tried and tested “next steps” during the complaints process, and a need amongst tenant organisers to see the bigger picture across multiple blocks in their area.
Our prototypes so far have included: a tool that helps tenants report problems in their flat by giving prompts and generating a letter of complaint based on best legal practice; a personal case log to aid with follow-up complaints and potential escalations to the housing ombudsman or the courts; and a reporting dashboard for tenant organisers to spot patterns and help their fellow residents make effective reports.
Over the next few weeks, we’re hoping to test the prototypes further, including through a simple, online survey.
If you’re a resident of a tower block in the UK and can spare us ten minutes to use a website and answer some questions about your experience, we’d be more than grateful. Get in touch with Jen or Zarino on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top image: Jimmy Chang
WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, mySociety’s subscription service offering extra tools for journalists and other professional users of FOI, has been running in the UK for just about two years.
During that time we’ve launched, worked closely with users to refine the service, and — happily — watched it play a vital part in the making of several important data-driven news stories, on topics as diverse as Brexit campaign funding and the results of austerity cuts on councils. Journalists, in particular, have appreciated tools such as the ability to send and manage bulk requests to multiple authorities; and the embargo tool that keeps requests and responses hidden until the story has been published.
Now, thanks to support from Adessium Foundation, we are able to bring the same benefits to countries across Europe, and — we hope — some additional synergies that will be borne of organisations working across boundaries. The same functionality that extends WhatDoTheyKnow into the Pro version will be available to FOI sites run on the Alaveteli platform, under the name Alaveteli Pro.
The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.
We’ll be focusing on three areas in order to achieve this aim:
- We’ll give selected existing Alaveteli sites in Europe the technical help they need to upgrade to the Pro version;
- We’ll be helping organisations in three new European jurisdictions to launch brand new Alaveteli sites, making access to information easier for citizens in these countries. The first site will be launched by VVOJ from the Netherlands.
- We’ll encourage cross-border collaborations between journalists and organisations using the sites (both the existing ones and the new ones) to investigate stories that span more than one EU country.
So watch this space: we’ll be sure to keep you posted as the work progresses. The planned start date is next month, and the project is set to run for three years.
We’re looking forward to sharing stories resulting from this initiative once they start rolling out, and supporting the incredible work that journalists do in putting them together.
Image: Emiliano Vittoriosi