Thank you for joining us to celebrate mySociety’s 20th anniversary. It’s brilliant to be able to toast 20 years of using data and digital tools to empower people.
One of my favourite descriptions of our work was written a few years ago by the journalist Zoe Williams. She said “Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions – whether Democracy Club or mySociety – 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.”
I think magic is a really appropriate metaphor here, maybe stage magic, where something seemingly impossible happens. Sometimes, as in mySociety, there are clever technical tricks, but mostly, what makes it seem magical is that no-one can imagine that someone would spend so many hours practising to make the trick work.
To build a thing that sustains for 20 years, is hard. I’m going to try to tell a bit of the story of the services and projects, but there’s another story, which is a story of people. People who care and go above and beyond, sometimes above and beyond what is reasonable, to make mySociety what it is. That is what makes the impossible possible.
With all the people and photos from different times in the life of the organisation, it feels a bit like the mySociety ‘eras’ tour.
So I thought maybe I would sketch out the different eras of the organisation and how they led us to this point.
Era 1: the early days
mySociety was launched in 2003, 12 years after the launch of the ‘web’ itself. I came across it three years later in January 2006 when I used a site PledgeBank.com to sign an online pledge, a novelty at that point. The pledge was to “pay £10 into a fund that aims to fill a public advertising space with something thought-provoking” if 350 other people would do the same things. According to my emails, in the same minute, I volunteered to write some code to screen scrape official information about the Northern Ireland Assembly, and later that evening joined two of the mailing lists.
I must have been excited. Lots of people were – mySociety represented a unique opportunity to use technical skills to do something good.
When I first worked for mySociety later that year, I think I was employee no 5, joining Tom Steinberg and the first three developers – Chris Lightfoot, Matthew Somerville and Francis Irving, and a group of dedicated volunteers. They were in the middle of an exceptionally creative period, having already launched three public facing services – including WriteToThem (which was born as FaxYourRepresentative). They had also taken on TheyWorkForYou, the parliamentary monitoring site, which had been developed by a group of volunteers.
That era of creativity continued, with brilliant new services:
In 2007 FixMyStreet was launched, a simple way for people to report local issues.
It was followed in 2008 by WhatDoTheyKnow – a service for making FOI requests, created as a result of multiple suggestions in an open call for proposals.
Oh, and also the first ever Downing Street e-petitions site.
So, an era of productivity, but also, like many new organisations, one of huge financial instability.
At mySociety’s 5th birthday party, Tom said: “We know from the continued influence of newspapers, some born in the 19th century, that political media needs longevity to gain the reach and legitimacy required to transform whole systems and to challenge the expectations of whole populations. mySociety needs to work out how to be here not just in 6 months, but in 20 years.”
So that first era defined two grand challenges – how can the web be used “to tip the relationship between people and government, in favour of the people”, and how can you embed that mission inside an organisation that can survive long enough to make it stick.
Era 2: International community and reuse
I think the second era of mySociety is the era of international reuse. Our code had always been open source, and there had been a couple of new sites built with it by this time.
But now we extracted and built customisable software in collaboration with partners around the world, and fostered an international community to accelerate reuse and impact. Alaveteli was the first product of that era, a framework extracted from WhatDoTheyKnow to power new FOI sites. AlaveteliCon in 2012 was our first significant international event, and was accompanied by an install lab where people could bring laptops and work together to get new FOI sites running.
This era brought efficiencies of reuse, but in the same way that the most powerful thing about civic tech can be the idea that someone, somewhere has built this tool because they expect you to want to ask a question of those in power, or check what your representative’s been doing, sometimes the most powerful part of international work is not the reuse of the code itself, but the encouragement that comes from a set of friends and colleagues around the world that don’t think that what you’re doing is crazy.
As the field grew and matured enough to settle on a name – ‘civic tech’ – mySociety also took a more structured approach to understanding impact. This work stepped up a gear in 2015 with the first TICTeC – the Impacts of Civic Tech conference. TICTeC has run in person or online every year since then, convening thousands of researchers, funders and practitioners to share their knowledge and experience.
In all there have been 87 projects based on our code, with 48 still running today, including at least a dozen sites like AskTheEU across Europe, InfoProVsechny in Czechia, KiMitTud in Hungary, Mzalendo in Kenya, and QueSabes in Uruguay that have now passed their own 10th anniversaries. We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and not every project has lasted. But when reuse works, it’s a huge force multiplier. Alaveteli has been one of the real successes in this respect and it’s been very exciting to see new features, such as the tools we subsequently built for journalists, have immediate impact not just in the UK but across the world.
I’m very happy that we’re continuing to learn and share internationally through TICTeC and our Access to Information network where along with partners we’re sharing approaches around the technology, but also how it works with other modes of action – journalism, campaigning, and strategic litigation and legislative change.
So the first of many thanks this evening go to Transparency programme lead, Gareth Rees, who has juggled the many, often conflicting demands of running a large UK platform, a successful international open source project, a pan-european learning network and several other projects with fortitude and meticulous planning, ably supported by Graeme Porteous and Jen Bramley.
They also go to Gemma Moulder, our incredible Events Manager, who has been the heart of the TICTeC community. And please mark your calendars, now that she’s organised the hell out of this anniversary party, she’s going to be turning her attention to TICTeC 2024 next spring.
Era 3: Real products
So the first era of mySociety defined two problems to make progress against, with perhaps the more challenging one being how to run services for long enough to have impact at scale. In 2015 Mark Cridge joined as Chief Executive faced with two big tasks – to be mySociety’s first non-founder chief executive, a transition point at which many organisations fail, and to develop the commercial side of the organisation into a sustainable business.
mySociety Ltd had always taken on commercial work, but in 2016 we made a decision to focus on a product in order to scale revenue and generate profit to actually contribute significantly to the parent charity. That product became FixMyStreet Pro, designed to help councils handle fault reporting. And in time mySociety Ltd became SocietyWorks. As of today, SocietyWorks has 28 clients for FixMyStreet Pro, and 6 for our second significant product, WasteWorks. In that time FixMyStreet has gone from 850k problem reports to now 4.4 million.
This is a huge achievement, and whilst the success of FixMyStreet, like so many things at mySociety, would never have happened without Matthew, our resident non-evil genius, the transformation into a profitable business has taken a huge team effort – to research, build, price, market, sell, contract, manage and deliver a product that works for citizens and for councils. So, along with Matthew, I want to say thank you to the whole SocietyWorks team – Dave Arter, Sally Bracegirdle, Chris Mytton, Moray Jones, Lizetta Lyster, Bekki Leaver, Jacqueline Lau, Victoria Mihell-Hale, Amelia Nicholas, Nicolle Whitehead, Nik Gupta, Sally Reader and Chris Edwards.
And two special thanks – first to Sam Pearson and to Pete Stevens and co at Mythic Beasts for the seamless work behind the scenes to provide stable infrastructure to support both an unusual digital charity and a growing software as a service business. There’s tons more I could say about this but I will limit myself to this – we’ve come a long way since the days of a fax server in a cupboard.
And second to Angela Dixon – for throwing absolutely everything into SocietyWorks and mySociety and leading the team as Managing Director with the exact combination of thoughtfulness, decisiveness and boundless positive energy that we needed.
Era 4: Citizen empowerment at scale and with nuance
This brings us more or less to the present era. I quoted Tom earlier, saying that political media needed longevity in order to get reach and legitimacy. We’re starting to see the results of some longevity.
Some representative polling in 2021 showed that one in three UK adults have heard of TheyWorkForYou, and one in five have used it. In the last 10 years WhatDoTheyKnow has gone from 100k public FOI requests to close to a million, and informed countless news stories and campaigns.
So how do we use that longevity and reach most effectively? We have some ideas.
Between them, our services span the practical issues that introduce people to civic life – dog mess, housing issues and bin collection, through the many facets of the tens of thousands of public institutions covered by the FOI act, to the fundamental building blocks of our democracy – voting and representation in the UK’s parliaments.
People want to participate in civic life but only if they have a reason to believe it makes a difference. One thing that has become clearer over time is that the real core of our mission with respect to government is not to get it to do better at digital, but to use digital to get it to do better at democracy – to show the kind of transparency, responsiveness and interest in people’s lives that makes participation meaningful. The scale and openness of our platforms gives us a unique perspective on the challenges people hit when they try to engage with democratic institutions. The fact that the platforms sit outside those institutions gives us a point of leverage.
We’ll be using what we’ve learned from our services, and support from the communities that use them, to bring about changes in policy and practice that are directly targeted at those challenges. That way, we’re not just helping people work around obstacles, but removing those obstacles for good.
Alex Parsons has given us hugely valuable insights into how our services are being used, and a credible voice on Access to Information, democratic participation and yes, potholes and dog poo too. Thank you Alex, for being an incredible fount of ideas on where we can go from here.
Reach more and more kinds of people
There are also responsibilities that come with scale, and one is to make sure that our services do more than empower the already empowered. We want to reach more and more kinds of people, with a focus on those who are being democratically underserved, and who are underrepresented amongst our service users.
We recognise that this is an area where we need to learn from others and we’re taking multiple approaches – conducting outreach and research on how we can better support people from marginalised and under-served communities using our core services, and developing partnership work that gives us opportunities to learn, such as the FixMyBlock project with TowerBlocks UK – helping tower block residents understand and exercise their rights, or the Stop and Search Data dashboard we’ve developed with Black Thrive.
Respond on climate
We also need to recognise the era we are entering. This is one in which climate change is no longer the story, but the setting in which all stories take place. In the next decades we have to rapidly make changes across our society – in how we travel, what we eat, how we heat our homes. In order to do that fairly, the decisions we are faced with need participation from all kinds of people: to reduce the harms and share the benefits of this enormous transition. It’s a huge democratic challenge. We’re going to need to continue to learn and experiment, not least in getting people in all kinds of roles the information they need to act together. We’ve been working on a suite of services in our Climate programme to help people track, challenge, coordinate and collaborate. I want to share a couple of examples of that work.
In the Climate Action Scorecards, a project led by Climate Emergency UK scoring local authority plans and action on climate, we see several interesting elements come together – the use of WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to rapidly create datasets from batches of FOI requests, along with research and policy work, so that we can present simple headlines on local climate action that anyone can understand, and at the same time, make an evidenced case to policymakers for better publication of the underlying data. Come to our webinar together with the Centre for Public Data on fragmented data on the 28th of this month to hear more about that.
In the Local Intelligence Hub, we’re working with the Climate Coalition, a coalition with more than 100 member organisations, representing 22 million people across the UK, exploring how a digital service can help them share data to work better as a coalition to have effective conversations about climate action with politicians, and to better understand local areas, and their own movement.
Finally our latest service, Neighbourhood Warmth will bring back a little of the ‘I will if you will’ spirit of Pledgebank to the challenge of home energy across the UK, encouraging neighbours to take action to explore energy efficiency improvements together.
Zarino Zappia leads the climate team – Struan Donald, Alexander Griffen, Emily Kippax, Siôn Williams and Julia Cushion. Thank you to you all for inventing and realising a new generation of mySociety services. And thanks to Zarino for being a collaborative and multi-talented leader, and for quietly rolling his sleeves up and improving everything he touches, across the organisation.
I hope I’ve given you a flavour of how we’ve evolved as an organisation, and how I think we can have the greatest impact in our next era. I’m excited, because I think we are starting to see the shape of what mySociety could be for the long term – a stable and effective institution working with citizens, civil society and digital technologies in the service of a democracy capable of meeting the challenges we now face.
Which makes this a good point to talk about the role of our trustees and directors – a truly inspirational set of people who give up their time and expertise on a voluntary basis to advise, challenge, and connect us, and to help us be the organisation that we aspire to be.
A huge thank you to Ade Adewunmi, Cam Ross, Devin O’Shaugnessy, Jen Thornton, Onyeka Onyekwelu, Rachel Rank, Steve Skelton and Tony Burton, and Gen Maitland Hudson as our Chair of Trustees, and Mandy Merron as the Chair of the SocietyWorks board, as well as all their predecessors, for being sound advisors, and making board meetings something to look forward to.
I also want to take a moment to mark the very sad recent loss of Francis Mainoo, a hugely valued member of both boards, and a kind and generous leader. Like early staff members Chris Lightfoot and Angie Ahl, Francis’ many contributions here and elsewhere will long be remembered.
mySociety simply would not have got to this milestone without the dedication and selflessness of the many people who have supported the organisation in volunteer roles.
Along with our trustees, that is particularly true of the people who have volunteered around WhatDoTheyKnow, where scale brings challenges as well as impact. Running a service like WhatDoTheyKnow responsibly takes a significant amount of work – 364 new requests are now made every day through the site and we know that the responsible governance of digital platforms is crucially important to their effect on society.
Richard Taylor, John Cross, Martyn Dewar, William Fitzpatrick, Matt Knight, Luis Lago, Alison Bellamy, Doug Paulley and more before them have put countless hours in helping and supporting WhatDoTheyKnow’s users – thank you all.
And for absolutely invaluable on the spot pro-bono legal advice – when you need it, you really need it – many thanks to Francis Davey, and Matt Lewin.
And thank you too to Helen Cross who, having been a long time volunteer, has taken on the challenge of managing the service with the help of her robot friends, and now with the help of Georgia Kelsey, who has been gamely spelunking into the support mailbox over the last few months.
I’ve talked about the significant progress we’ve made in sustaining ourselves as an organisation. That problem is not yet solved – and I know this is a sympathetic audience, as many of you have played a part in getting us to where we are. The funding question keeps me up at night, because I think it is a genuinely hard problem of finding a financial model to deliver services which are a public good.
So two more sets of thank yous here.
First, to all the funders who have supported our work – with some notables in somewhat chronological order – Tim Jackson for our very first seed funding and Joseph Rowntree for our first philanthropic institutional funding. Long term early support came from OSF, the Omidyar Network and Luminate, Google, and the Indigo Trust. The Quadrature Climate Foundation and the National Lottery are supporting our climate team and the Adessium Foundation, Swedish Postcode Foundation and NED are supporting our international work. Porticus, and the Patrick McGovern Foundation are supporting work across all our programme areas.
Second, to those who’ve worried, along with the Chief Execs, about the money in various different ways – alumnis Abi Broom and Paul Lenz (Abi Broom’s graphs of doom!), Angela and her finance team Yolanda Gomes, and Jill Aquarone and on fundraising the eloquent Asha Pond, and now our latest recruit Alice Williams.
There are many names I haven’t named here – after twenty years, the list becomes too long. But I’m particularly happy to have many people from different points in the life of mySociety, because I think one thing you can see from the vantage point of twenty years is that effort and planning pays off over time in a way that can be hard to see when you’re in the midst of it. If you are at this party, it’s because you are part of the story of mySociety and your help and support has got us to this milestone. And if you don’t think that’s true, perhaps it’s because you’re going to be part of our future in some way.
So I hope you’ll read through a copy of the impact report and feel proud. Thank you to Myf Nixon and Lucas Cumsille Montesinos for telling our story in such a beautiful way, in the impact report and across our sites.
And finally thank you to everyone who has used our services to try to make things better for their communities. Which must be my cue to stop talking and hand over to Myf and Zarino for the second phase of the evening, our anniversary awards, where we recognise some of the incredible stories of change that we’ve been a little part of.
On the afternoon of Tuesday 8 August 2023, we were contacted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) with a request to remove a response that they had made to a Freedom of Information request submitted through WhatDoTheyKnow.
As many news stories have since reported, the response contained personal information pertaining to a large number of Police Officers and civilian staff. In line with our policies around serious data breaches, we took rapid action to hide the material from public view and subsequently deleted it. We also submitted cache removal requests to ensure that any copies of the information would be removed from search engines as soon as possible.
The overwhelming majority of requests and responses that we process through WhatDoTheyKnow are unproblematic. However, we take the responsibilities that come with operating a large platform extremely seriously, especially around the personal data breaches that can occur when authorities’ release processes fail.
We recognise the significant impact that serious data breaches like this one have on the people affected and on their families, and we are assessing whether there is more we can do to help authorities avoid making such breaches in future.
Image: Jason Leung
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.
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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 email@example.com.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.