As of this year, mySociety has been working for a better democracy for 20 years.
mySociety was formed in 2003 to explore the ways in which the internet could help people to discover, discuss and participate directly in politics, and whether it could empower them to make changes in society and to the political process itself.
Over the last 20 years, this amazing community of designers, coders, volunteers, partners and funders has created and run digital services that have served millions people each year in the UK and around the world; campaigned for transparent, responsive institutions fit for the 21st century; and supported the incredible persistence, dedication and commitment of people who want to understand and participate in decisions that affect their lives and communities.
Through the power of open source software, mySociety’s technical work has gone on to deliver services around the world, and our international outreach and TICTeC programme has brought together a community of people dedicated to the principled use of technology to improve civic life.
The ideas that the organisation was founded on have spread too: mySociety’s principles and approach inspired a culture of user centred design in the use of the web to deliver government services, with the creation of the Government Digital Service and the Parliamentary Digital Service — input that is still benefitting millions of people as they get something done or find information on government websites every day.
A lot has changed since 2003, but some things haven’t changed. Let’s start with our conviction that the quality of our democratic and political life matters deeply, and that digital services can and should be used to improve it.
In an era of misinformation and mistrust, extending the reach of clear and impartial information about the workings of our democracy is vital. As we face the climate crisis, the decisions we have to make as societies need to be open to participation from all kinds of people, not just the well-connected and well-resourced. Our institutions need to evolve to meet the demands of the moment, find new ways of listening to those they represent, and show that they’re worthy of the trust we place in them.
The big questions of how we will live together through the transitions of the next decades, the questions that politics and democracy ultimately decide, are those that deserve the very best tools and data – made with the people who need them to be beautifully simple, tested and improved, and run responsibly.
The other thing that hasn’t changed is that it takes a lot of commitment to build services that help people at scale – from hugely dedicated and expert staff and volunteers who have given up a significant portion of their lives to making mySociety work, to the thousands of people who’ve responded to one of our calls to do a small task, like gathering a single piece of information.
Throughout the year, we’ll be inviting you to join us in recognising those contributions, reflecting on what’s worked, what’s changed, and looking to the future, and what we’ll need to do to rise to the challenges ahead. Please stay with us as we go through what promises to be a fascinating process.
We're committed to this work — but your support is also much needed as we start to shape our future. Please consider contributing, if you can.Donate now
A year into our Climate programme, with two digital services targeted at local climate action under our belts, I’ve been taking the opportunity to reflect on the reasons we started the programme, and how it connects to our mission as an organisation. The Climate programme’s anniversary also coincides with the point at which I’m picking up the role of Chief Executive, with more responsibility to explore—with our team and trustees—where we can best contribute in future.
Is mySociety pivoting to climate now?
When we developed the programme, we had a lot of conversations about whether this represented a pivot for us as an organisation, away from our core practice areas of Democracy, Transparency and Community.
To me, the answer is clear. We aren’t pivoting towards climate change; we’re recognising that, in the words of Paddy Loughman, climate is no longer the story, but the setting in which all stories take place. And that includes the story of democracy which has at its heart the question “how can we live together?”.
The climate crisis puts into sharp focus all the questions we already face about how democracy can work at the scale, speed and complexity we need it to in the modern world. It is no coincidence that climate has been the topic that has brought democratic innovations like citizens assemblies and place-based commissions to the UK. With the wicked problem of a changing climate as the setting, all organisations should be considering what role they can play through their work.
In terms of our work, “no longer the story but the setting in which stories happen” is also a way of thinking of the transformative effect the internet has had on all our lives. We don’t talk so much about digital democracy as we did in the era when mySociety was founded, partly because the digital part now goes without saying for so many people.
mySociety began its life as an exploration of the ways in which digital technology could allow democratic participation to flourish. Our history has been one of experimentation, of using digital services to ask ‘what if?’ TheyWorkForYou is a response to the question ‘What if there were better ways for people to get information about the decisions that are being made on their behalf?’ WhatDoTheyKnow is a response to the question ‘What if asking questions of those in power were completely normalised?’ Millions of people’s lives are improved by these engines of democratic access each year.
As the climate crisis brings urgent new challenges for the ways we make decisions, we think our unique contribution to the response to that crisis is in exploring the beneficial role digital services can play at the intersection of climate and democracy. That is the heart of our climate programme.
So what are we doing?
There are many threads to pull on here, and we’ve started with local democratic response. Partly because a third of the UK’s emissions are under the influence of local government and the communities they serve, but also because literally starting where you are is a reasonable response both to the complexity of what we do about climate as individuals and how we might engage as citizens in a modern democracy. Climate action is a local problem – it’s just a local problem everywhere.
When individual change and systemic change need to feed upon each other, there are many needs that digital services can play a part in responding to, such as:
- better information about the scale of the problem and what government and institutions are and could be doing
- better information about local communities and the complexity and difference of modern lives as we make the huge transition ahead
- opportunities for people to come together to act and to make fair decisions for current and future generations
- faster feedback loops between these elements, so that many different organisations and individuals can coordinate
It’s especially exciting for me to be reflecting on these opportunities at a point where we’re starting a series of experiments we’re calling ‘prototyping weeks’, working in the open and with others, to continue to ask ‘what if?’ and see where digital services might help bridge the gaps. We’ll be talking more about this over the next few months, and I look forward to seeing where it takes us.
This blog post inspired in part by the essays in Addressing the Climate Crisis – Local action in theory and practice, edited by Candice Howarth, Matthew Lane and Amanda Slevin
Image: Sheffield at Sunset by Benjamin Elliot
In June, I wrote about planning using the horizons of two weeks, six weeks , three months and a year as we build up our climate programme. At the end of July, we reached the end of our second chunk of six weeks of work.
During this six week ‘cycle’ of work, Alex and Zarino completed their goal of setting up tracking on who’s using the site and how – we now have an automatically generated report to look at each time we plan our next two weeks of work that shows us how many local authorities have climate action plans, who is using the Climate Action Plans Explorer and what they’re looking for – it’s early days for this, but it’s already given us some ideas for little improvements.
Zarino’s been hard at work making the site itself a bit more self-explanatory, so that Myf can start sharing it with groups who might make use of it and we can get some more feedback on the most useful next steps.
Mid-month, the National Audit Office released their report on Local Government and Net Zero in England. We were very happy to have been able to share an early version of our climate action plans dataset with them to cross check against their own research, and in turn now benefit from their analysis, which has prompted a call for evidence from the Environmental Audit Committee who commissioned the NAO’s report. This feels like a small validation of the idea that open data on local climate action is going to help inform better policy.
We also recruited for a new role in the programme – an Outreach and Networks Coordinator – to ensure that other organisations learn about and can get the maximum benefit from our work, and that we scope projects that complement and support them. More on that next time.
Meanwhile we’ve been supporting our colleagues at Climate Emergency UK with some technical help as they train their first cohort of learners in local climate policy, who will be helping their communities and other people around the UK understand how well councils are tackling the climate crisis by analysing action plans. It’s been really inspiring to see this work come together, and we’re excited about the potential of the national picture of climate action that we hope will emerge.
Finally, Alex has been working on an early experiment in applying some data science to the challenge of identifying which communities in the UK have similar challenges around climate change, so that people inside and outside local government in those communities can compare climate action across other relevant communities across the country. We think that in the longer term this might offer a good complement to case studies, which are quite common as a way of sharing knowledge, and we’re keen to get any early feedback on this approach. I’ll hand over to Alex for a more in-depth post on where he’s got to so far.
Image: Austin D
This past month, we’ve been laying some more of the groundwork for our climate work, and getting stuck into some finer details. The recent recruitment drive is starting to pay off — we’ve had four new members of staff join mySociety this week, and in the climate team we’re delighted to be joined by Emily Kippax.
As Delivery Manager on the programme, Emily’s going to be working with us on getting the right balance between planning and acting — and making sure that we align the work to play to our different skillsets and roles.
Researcher Alex and designer Zarino have been figuring out the best ways to learn more about how and why people are using the Climate Action Plans explorer site. This should help us understand how to improve it, particularly as we start to share it with more people.
First of all, we’re thinking about a pop-up asking visitors to click a few buttons and let us know who they are — what sectors they work in, what they’re trying to find, et cetera. Zarino is working on the hunch that if we add our friendly faces to this request, showing the real people behind the project, it might get a better take-up. I’m looking forward to finding out whether he’s right.
Meanwhile Alex has been doing some work on the other end of that request. He’s seeing how to make it easy for the team to understand the inputs and use them to measure our progress.
He also took a quick diversion into non-contiguous cartograms (courtesy of the templates produced by the House of Commons library), to map the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.
Mid-month, we co-hosted a webinar along with Friends of the Earth and Climate Emergency UK: ‘How can local councillors help to meet UK climate targets?’.
This was particularly aimed at newly-elected councillors wanting to understand what they can do around the climate emergency, and what resources are available to help them (a video of the session is available). It was really exciting that the session was so well attended, with an audience of more than 200.
Finally, our colleagues Grace McMeekin, Isaac Beevor and Suzanna Dart over at Climate Emergency UK have produced a set of questions to ask about climate emergency action plans that will illustrate what the differences are between them. This builds on previous work with Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth to produce a checklist for the plans.
We’re really keen to see if we can work together to turn what can be quite dry documents into something a bit more accessible and comparable that we can share openly, with other councils, citizens, action groups…anyone who wants to see it.
As the team embarks on the hard work it takes to make simple services, it reminded me of what the journalist Zoe Williams wrote about civic technology a few years ago:
“Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions […] collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”
Image: Tim Rickhuss
It’s been a busy couple of months for our climate work. We’ve been setting up our programme in earnest, recruiting for some exciting new roles, and getting new team members up to speed with the work we’ve done so far.
One of the things we always try to do across all our projects is work in the open. That feels particularly important here, where we know there are so many other organisations doing work to support communities in local climate action that we can learn from, and that we want to support. So one of the things we’re going to try as a way of letting people know what we’re doing is writing a blog post like this each month, on what we’ve been doing, and what we’re thinking and talking about.
Two weeks, three months, a year
For an organisation that has a lot of well-known and long running services, it’s scary and exciting to be at the beginning of a big piece of work that’s new and relatively undefined. We know what we want to achieve, and at a high level, how we want to do that, but there’s lots to figure out in terms of how we get there, and who we should be working with.
One question, when you’re starting a piece of work, is how much to plan. As Gareth, our Transparency Lead, has written about in more detail, we want to build to learn at this point, and that means being open to changing our ideas of what to do next, based on what we find out. We’re also working closely across different areas: service development, data, research, events planning, and communications, so we need to be able to map out some options for what we could do in each area, in order to knit together work across those different disciplines as we go along. To that end, it feels useful to have a set of time horizons in mind, with the details of what you want to accomplish looser as the horizon gets further away. At the moment we’re actively thinking and talking about plans for the next two weeks, six weeks, three months, and a year at different levels of resolution.
At the beginning of April, we finished writing up the initial discovery and prototyping work around climate action plans we did last autumn, and Zarino’s been picking up the early service development work and thinking about what we can do over the next three months to smooth out some of the rough edges to make it clear what the service is and to learn more about who’s using it so far, and what they’re using it for. Myf’s been thinking about how we’ll share it with people who could find it useful.
Meanwhile, at Climate Emergency UK, our partners on the climate action plans service, Chloe Lawson has been meticulously going through the database behind the service, updating it with new climate action plans and excitingly, adding some progress reports from councils who are moving forward!
Image: Nik Shuliahin
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 firstname.lastname@example.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
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
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 email@example.com.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Liz Conlan has joined the Alaveteli team, and we have been
hazingwelcoming 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)