1. Council climate action plans: try our first service

    Last week, I wrote about our project collecting council climate action plans, and making them easier for anyone to explore in a public, open database. 

    Today, I’m happy to say that the first version of this service is now at https://data.climateemergency.uk.

    You can enter your postcode to quickly see if your council has an action plan, browse and compare different councils’ plans, and search over the text of all the plans. We’ve also added some headline emissions data for each council’s area, to start to put the plans in context.

    There’s a lot more that could be done here, and we’ve got some ideas we’re really excited about, but given the urgency of the need to act, we want to make this service available right now, so that people can start using it, and so that we can learn from feedback, and have more informed conversations about where to take it next. 

    We’ll also be demoing the service at 2pm today at the Climate and Ecological Emergency: Taking Action Together online conference – at 2pm in Room 3 (Action Plans). You can sign up for the session here.

    So please do join us there or go and take a look at the service yourself and let us know what you think by emailing us at climate-councils@mysociety.org.

    Additionally, do join us at our upcoming TICTeC seminar where we’ll be discussing what civic tech’s role in mitigating the climate crisis should be.

    Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

  2. Making it easier to explore council climate action plans

    Next Friday (13 November), two years after the first climate emergency declaration by a UK council, we’ll be demoing a new online service to help people find and understand councils’ climate action plans at the Climate Emergency: Taking Action Together online conference. 

    The conference will explore how councils, other public organisations, businesses, charities and communities can all work together to develop radical action plans to deliver on their climate commitments. 

    Back in March, we kicked off a small crowdsourcing project gathering councils’ climate action plans in an open spreadsheet. A lot has changed since then, but the urgency of responding to climate change becomes ever more acute. With the pandemic providing proof that we can change our behaviour in extraordinary ways, and now that many of us have, of necessity, narrowed our focus to the world on our doorstep, this work seems more important, more challenging, and yet more possible than ever. 

    Three guiding principles

    In September, Climate Assembly UK, the citizens’ assembly commissioned by the UK parliament to answer the question of how should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, produced its final recommendations. We were proud to be part of the team working on the assembly, and particularly happy to be able to make the comprehensive report available in readable, navigable, accessible and mobile-friendly HTML online

    The randomly selected people from all walks of life and all across the UK who made up the assembly chose and agreed a set of principles to guide their work. The top three were: 

    • Informing and educating everyone (the public, industry, individuals and government) 
    • Fairness within the UK, including for the most vulnerable (affordability, jobs, UK regions, incentives and rewards) in actions, not just words 
    • Leadership from government that is clear, proactive, accountable and consistent 

    We’re committed to a climate response that follows these principles, and believe that local government and local communities – individuals, institutions, and businesses – have a key and difficult role to play together.

    As the recent Institute for Government report on getting to Net Zero noted, 

    “The local level has become a key outlet for public enthusiasm to address climate change. This is one reason why it is important to address the co-ordination and capability problems that are holding back local efforts – or else this enthusiasm will turn to disillusionment as aspirations cannot be achieved.”

    This is a huge challenge, and getting the right information is part of it. We’re hoping to use our data and service design skills to play a part in helping councils learn from each other’s ideas and successes, and in helping citizens find and engage with their councils’ climate plans. 

    An open dataset of action plans

    With your help, and working with ClimateEmergency.uk, we’ve created a first basic dataset of all the council climate action plans that are publicly available. The headline is that 269 out of 414 councils we researched (around 65%)  have a current public plan outlining their response to the climate emergency. 

    In the last few months of this year, we’re doing research to better understand the challenges of producing and improving these plans, and of understanding, discussing and scrutinising them. 

    Helpful for councils  — and citizens

    We know that people working inside councils to produce plans are looking for inspiration – “What’s worked in other places like ours? How do you do it on a budget? How do I persuade my colleagues that it can be done? How do I talk to residents about the options?” 

    Citizens who want to have a say in their council’s plan may struggle to find it in the first place, or to understand what the council can and can’t do, how to influence them, or how their plan compares to others. 

    We’ve also been working on a minimal viable digital service that will meet some of the basic needs that people have around these challenges – one that supports quickly finding plans and starts to put them in context. 

    How to find out more

    So if you can, join us at the Climate Emergency UK: Taking Action Together online conference next week on Friday 13th November. We’ll be giving the first public demo of that service, which will allow anyone to quickly and easily find out if their council has a plan, and to filter and search within all these action plans. 

    We think that will be useful in itself and we’re really excited to be putting it out into the world – but we’re also going to be developing our ideas on how to sustain and expand the service. This is still an early stage project for us, but we think it’s one where we believe our skills can play a part in catalysing action and enabling people to come together to make these plans reality.

    Image: Master Wen

  3. Can you help us collect councils’ climate action plans?

    If you’re looking for a quick and simple thing you can do from home to support meaningful action on climate change, help us make a list of councils’ Climate Action plans

    In the past 18 months, there’s been a spate of climate emergency declarations from local councils, in which they recognise the seriousness of the climate situation and commit to taking action. 65% of District, County, Unitary & Metropolitan Councils and eight Combined Authorities/City Regions have now declared a climate emergency. Many of these declarations commit to a date for getting to net zero, ranging from 2025 to 2050. 

    These declarations, and the commitment from central government to reach net zero by 2050, represent much needed progress.  Commitments are good. But what we really need to address the climate emergency, both at a national and local level, are concrete plans.

    As councils develop their plans for addressing the crisis, many individuals and groups need to be able to easily access, discuss and contribute to them to make sure they’re ambitious and high quality. 

    Councils can also learn and draw encouragement from each other’s efforts. At the moment, we think that’s harder than it should be. 

    Lots of people who want to take action on the climate locally are having to do the same work of finding their council’s plan, or finding out where they are in developing it, or finding other plans to compare it to. There’s no central place to find all the Climate Action plans that have been developed, or to track the process of developing them (or not!)

    The climateemergency.uk site has been collecting those climate action plans they can find, but we think we can help them get a fuller picture, and create a resource that will help us all — and we’d like your help! 

    In the spirit of ‘start where you are’, we’ve made an open spreadsheet for collecting council climate action plans, and kicked it off with the ones from climateemergency.uk, to see if we can help improve what’s available. At the very least we’ll maintain this as a simple open resource, and share it wherever we think it might be useful. If you have thoughts about people who ought to know it exists, to use it or contribute to it, please do share them in the comments or drop us an email

    The key piece of information we want to collect at this point for each council is the URL where their Climate Action Plan can be found. But we’ve added some extra columns for anyone who wants to start looking at the details.

    So, if you have five minutes, please have a look for a council’s Climate Action Plan and add it to the sheet

    If this works out well and seems useful, we’ve got some ideas about how to extend it and start to turn it into a more detailed and useful dataset or service. For example, tracking how the plans develop over time, how councils make progress against them, or breaking them down into a more detailed and comparative dataset  — there seem to be key questions that would be useful to answer, for example around things like whether the plans only address emissions under councils’ direct control, or whether they’re focused on the area as a whole. So if you’d like to partner with us or support us to turn these ideas into reality, we’d love to hear from you! Email us at climate-councils@mysociety.org.

  4. Alaveteli Professional – learning more about journalistic use of Freedom of Information

    In the last few weeks, we’ve started conducting background research interviews for our new project, Alaveteli Professional. Alaveteli Professional will be a companion service to Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform – initially it will be aimed specifically at journalists, but it should be of interest to anyone who uses Freedom of Information in their work.

    Why are we doing this project?

    Alaveteli Professional is an unusual project for mySociety. Our mission is to create digital tools that empower citizens in their interactions with the state, and people in power. Usually that means that we create tools which we intend to be used by as broad a range of people as possible – we think a lot about how to design and build for people in their role as citizens, which is a role we all experience. But with Alaveteli Professional, we’re focusing on journalists, a specific professional group. Why is that?

    Citizen empowerment doesn’t always happen by direct interaction with institutions. Feeling empowered and capable of affecting what happens in your community requires knowing what’s going on in your community. Although models of journalism are changing, whether you’re getting your news from The Times, or from Buzzfeed, whether it’s funded by a paywall or by crowdsourcing, it’s hard to imagine a future in which ordinary people can be well-informed, without specialists doggedly asking questions of power, putting information from different sources together, and helping make sense of what’s going on.

    Alaveteli-powered sites like WhatDoTheyKnow have been successful in giving ordinary people a simple way to ask questions of government and to share the responses with everyone automatically online. But we know that the way the sites work doesn’t always match the needs of someone who’s working on assembling a bigger story that they may want to break elsewhere. We’d love to see the work put into Alaveteli so far also go to serve the goal of informing people through high quality public interest stories in media platforms with a long reach.

    That’s why we were delighted to get funding for the project from the Google Digital News Initiative, which aims ‘to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation’.

    What we’re doing

    The initial research for the project has been an interesting and exciting process, and not just because it has meant actually ‘leaving for work’ in the morning, rather than spending the day entirely in the virtual world of remote working. For me, one of the real joys of working on digital tools is the opportunity to spend some time in different domains of life and think about how they work.

    We’ve been talking to media professionals who use Freedom of Information requests in their jobs, trying to understand what parts of the process are painful or unnecessarily time consuming. We’re also talking to FOI officers, and other people who’ve thought deeply about journalistic use of FOI, in an effort to understand the ecosystem of people and motivations – and answer questions of who is doing what and why. It’s been a real pleasure to explore these questions with people who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and ideas.

    The process of making a Freedom of Information request can sometimes seem quite similar to an adversarial legal system – with the requester pitted against an institution that’s reluctant to release information, and FOI law defining the obligations, exemptions, and public interest tests that set the landscape in which the two sides are in conflict. But as with any other domain, the more you dig into it, the more interesting complexity you find in both sides, and in the interaction between the two.

    There are freelance journalists working against the clock to turn around a story they can sell, but also data journalism groups in larger institutions making frequent requests as part of ‘business as usual’, and pushing out stories to their regional colleagues. As you would expect, there’s competition between journalists and media institutions, but also surprising opportunities for collaboration and shared resources. There’s a significant amount of collaboration between requesters and authorities – in some cases producing nuanced national public-interest data sets that neither could generate alone. There’s a lot of diversity in the authorities that are subject to Freedom of Information law – from tiny schools and parish councils to huge central government departments, police and health authorities. There’s also still variation in how different authorities store similar data and how they respond to FOI requests.

    What’s next?

    At this point, we’re trying to get the best sense we can of both the details and the big picture. We’re also starting to ask where we could reduce friction, encourage responsible practices, save time in such a way that it benefits the system as a whole, and increase the chance of ordinary people becoming better informed about what is being done with their money and in their name by institutions. It’s an exciting part of the project, as we start to discard some of the preconceptions we had about what might be useful, and get more confident in the value of others. I’m looking forward to starting to put those ideas into practice in the form of simple prototypes that we can put back in front of people.

    Image: Dean Hochman (CC by 2.0)

  5. Alaveteli Release 0.23

    Earlier this week, we released Alaveteli 0.23, the latest version of our Freedom of Information software for usage anywhere in the world.

    This is another big release with lots of general improvements.

    Design

    Martin Wright, one of our enterprising designers, has been hard at work giving Alaveteli a new default homepage which explains how the site works. He’s also been improving the HTML to make the site easier to customise without needing to be a CSS guru.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.07.41

    Bugfixes

    Liz Conlan has joined the Alaveteli team, and we have been hazing welcoming her by getting her to tackle some of the annoying little bugs that have been around for a long time – so the site should now be smoother to use and more of a joy for admins to run. Petter Reinholdtsen also chipped in here with better handling of the graphs that show how much new installs are being used.

    Code Quality

    We’ve continued to refactor the code for simplicity, clarity and extensibility. We plan for Alaveteli to be around for many years to come – that means it needs to be easy for new developers to understand what it does, and why (nerd alert, our Code Climate score continues to inch its way up and test coverage is now over 90%). This isn’t glamorous work, but it is an important investment in the future of the code that mySociety developers are lucky enough to be in a position to consider. Its not just us though – Caleb Tutty and James McKinney both contributed substantial code refactorings to this release.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.14.43

    Localisation

    We’ve also been working to improve the process of translating Alaveteli into a new language – standardising the way phrases for translation appear to translators, and, thanks to Gareth Rees introducing support for language-specific sorting, ensuring that “Åfjord Municipality” will now appear after “Ytre Helgeland District Psychiatric Centre” in Mimesbronn, the Norweigian Alaveteli site, as it should.

    Security

    We’ve dipped our toes into the water of two-factor authentication to keep accounts secure. As Alaveteli runs all over the world, on all kinds of devices, we’ve kept it simple without introducing the need for apps or other technologies. Users now have the option of activating an extra one time passcode that they’ll need to supply if they ever want to change their password in the future.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.18.25

    Spam spam spam spam

    We continue to fight the good fight against spam – in this release we introduce a configuration parameter that allows site admins to adjust the period in which requests remain open to responses – closing the window in which spammers can target them. We’ve also extended our use of reCAPTCHA to keep spambots at bay.

    Alaveteli, don’t phone home

    Thanks to Ian Chard, Alaveteli now uses a local GeoIP database by default to find the country for HTTP requests (and tell users if there is an Alaveteli in their country), rather than the mySociety Gaze service. This should improve performance and reliability.

    The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

    Image: Steve Smith (CC)

  6. Alaveteli release 0.21

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.21!

    The highlights

    Smoother

    One of the most important things Alaveteli does is to make filing a new Freedom of Information request less daunting for members of the general public. So we’ve taken another look at the process of making a request in Alaveteli, and knocked off a few of the rough edges in the user interface. Hopefully it’s now even easier than before.

    Safer

    We’ve also improved security in a few places, making sure that actions taken on the site are secure against cross-site request forgery, adding sensible security headers and enforcing an expiry time on session cookies.

    More accurate

    There’s a new interface for administrators that lets them easily add public holidays to the database for the place where the Alaveteli site is running. This is really important in calculating correctly when requests are due for a response, according to the law.

    Less spammable

    Finally, in the eternal fight against spam, we’ve removed the ability of banned users to update their “About me” text. So no more spammy profiles.

    You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed (we now have code from nearly 40 different people!)

  7. Release 0.20

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.20!

    The highlights

    This release includes several additions and improvements to the admin interface for Alaveteli.

    Here’s a summary of the highlights:

    • We’ve added an admin user interface for managing the categories and headings that are used to distinguish different types of authority. Updates are now a lot easier.
    • An admin can now close an authority change request without sending an email to the person who requested it. Good for handling spammy requests!
    • CSV Import fields for authorities are now configurable. This is useful for themes that add additional attributes to authorities.

    As for general improvements, there are plenty of those, too. For example:

    • We added a fix to ensure attachments are rendered for emails sent with Apple Mail
    • We removed a confusing authority preview from the process of choosing who to write to. Clicking an authority now goes straight to the authority page.
    • We added filtering by request status to the requests displayed on the user profile page.
    • There’s now a Health Check page, so you can tell if everything seems to be running smoothly.
    • Sensible default values have been added to some configuration parameters.

    You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

  8. Release 0.19

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.19!

    The highlights

    This release we’ve been working on making Alaveteli easier to install.

    We’ve also made some great improvements to the framework.

    • Added responsive stylesheets! We’ve made this the default, but you can configure whether they’re used or not in config/general.yml.
    • Support for the Portuguese locale.
    • Improved search term highlighting.
    • The Public Body Stats page can now be made available to your users.
    • Added a Rake task for cleaning up holding pen events (rake cleanup:holding_pen).
    • Added searching of bodies by their short name.

    You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.

    Thanks to everyone who’s contributed!

  9. Fixing public transport one email address at a time

    Ever got a problem fixed by reporting it on FixMyStreet? Written to your representative via WriteToThem? Here’s an opportunity to pay the favour forward to someone stranded on a wet Wednesday by the non-arrival of the number seven bus.

    We’ve reached the point in FixMyTransport development where we can start asking for your help. We need to fill in the information we’ll use to report people’s transport problems to the companies that run bus and train routes. If you have five minutes to spare, please spend them adding a contact email address or two for your local bus companies to this spreadsheet:

    http://bit.ly/aVZzlb

    …then you can bask in the glory of a karmic balance restored*.

    * Will also work if you accidentally ran over a kitten on your way to work this morning.

  10. WriteToThem all at once

    I’m happy to say that with a lot of help from Francis and Matthew I’ve just rolled out a long-requested addition to WriteToThem. You can now use the site to write one message and send it to all your representatives in a multi-member constituency – so, for example, you can send a message to all your MEPs at once. A nice side project along the way has been getting the test suite for WriteToThem running happily on a mySociety server, and adding a few more tests. Run, tests, run! Good tests.