1. How you’ve been using our services to help the climate

    mySociety services help people be active citizens, whether by speaking truth to power, communicating directly with politicians, or demanding change on your doorstep —  and that’s true for the area of climate activism as much as it is for any other burning issue.

    By listing some of the ways you’ve been using our services to help the climate, we hope to inspire others to do the same, and to consider new ways in which you might be able to use them to push the climate agenda even further.

    At the beginning of 2020, mySociety made a commitment to the planet, adding Climate to our existing workstreams of Transparency, Democracy and Community.

    There are many experienced and knowledgeable organisations already working to fight the climate crisis. Accordingly, much of our work in this area has involved teaming up with these existing institutions, to offer the skills we do have and which they are often lacking: data wrangling, service design, site development, research and so on.

    But there’s another way in which we can be useful, with no extra development or resource required from us: thanks to our established suite of services, we can help individual citizens to take action. mySociety’s UK websites are already set up to help people find out facts, ask politicians questions, check how MPs are voting, and demand better for their local communities — all useful tools when you want to tackle climate change.

    We’ve had a look at the ways in which you’ve been using our websites in service of the climate, and we’ve found a huge variety of examples. Take a look through, and you might be inspired. And, if you’ve taken another type of climate action through our websites, do let us know so that we can add it to our list!

    Changes in your neighbourhood

    On FixMyStreet, we’ve seen people pointing out eco-unfriendly practices to the council, and asking for new amenities that would help locals to pursue a greener lifestyle.

    Trees filter air pollution, absorb carbon and provide shade, so it’s possible to argue that every tree is a benefit to the community. As Friends of the Earth advise, that’s all the rationale you need to lodge a request for a Tree Preservation Order, which means that an existing tree cannot be removed without reason. 

    Or perhaps there simply aren’t enough trees where you live? Then you can write to your council and request that new ones are planted.

    We know that climate change is driving bees away, so those who ask their councils to leave roadside verges unmown and allow wildflowers to grow are also doing their bit to help offset the damage. 

    Campaigning

    Meanwhile, WriteToThem can be used by any campaign which wants its supporters to email their politicians, and there are many with an environmental or climate agenda who have done just that. 

    Hyperlocal groups are campaigning against the loss of green spaces; the Possible organisation regularly rallies its supporters for innovative climate issues such as ground source heat from parks and better spaces for walking or cycling

    Badverts wants to stop the advertising industry from pushing high-carbon products, and Power For People is pushing for non-profit clean energy companies.

    And it’s not just campaigns that use WriteToThem, of course — tens of thousands of you use the site every month to tell your politicians what is important to you, how you’d like them to vote, or to alert them to wrongs that need to be set right. 

    Emails sent through WritetoThem are private between you and your representative, though, so unless you tell us about it, we can’t know what you’re writing about. All the same, we can say with absolute certainty that many of you are expressing your concerns about the climate — it’s such an important topic that you must be. 

    Requesting information

    Many councils declared a climate emergency in 2019 — but what does that mean in real terms, and what comes next? If your council hasn’t published its Climate Action Plan, and you want to ascertain whether they actually have one (or are perhaps working on it) then a Freedom of Information request might yield answers, and plenty of people have used WhatDoTheyKnow for just this purpose.

    Or, if the plans are already written and available to the public, there’s still lots more that might need disclosing: are they being adhered to and working as intended? And are the budgets accurate and adequate? How is money actually being spent? 

    This request enquired whether the commitment to the climate went as far as divestment from fossil fuels, and this one dug into whether a council was using renewable energy sources.

    FOI can be used in a huge variety of ways: for example, to collect disparate data from multiple authorities to make up a coherent dataset showing a nationwide picture — like this one, on behalf of Amnesty International, finding out how local authorities were reacting to childrens’ climate strikes.

    Thanks to our Alaveteli software, organisations all over the world are running sites like WhatDoTheyKnow that allow their citizens to ask for information. In Hungary, the KiMitTud site uncovered a river pollution scandal; and on AskTheEU the VW emissions misconduct was hinted at long before the story hit the public consciousness.

    Holding politicians accountable

    FOI requests can take a while to be processed by authorities, so while you’re waiting you might like to do something a bit more immediate and look up your MP’s voting record on TheyWorkForYou

    Each MP’s voting record includes a section on the environment, containing all parliamentary votes since 2010 that we’ve identified as relevant. The data — on policies from selling state-owned forests to higher taxes on air fares — comes from the Public Whip website, where votes are analysed and categorised. 

    In the interests of stressing the importance of the climate emergency, we’re keen to give this Environment section more prominence and detail, but of course we can only include the votes that have been held, and even then only the votes that were recorded in Parliament — not those that were just ‘nodded through’ (see more about this here). However, we’ll be keeping a keen eye open for the key climate-related votes of the future.

    Data

    The open data accessible through our sites can often be useful for researchers: one example of this is the TheyWorkForYou API, which allows for the analysis of everything said in Parliament, among other uses. 

    As examples of what can be done, Carbon Brief analysed Hansard to see which politicians mention climate change the most; and the Guardian, using TheyWorkForYou, gave a more rounded score to each MP which also took into consideration their votes and interests.

    So – that’s quite a long list, and just goes to show the breadth and diversity of the possibilities afforded by our various online services.

    If you’ve been feeling helpless about the climate crisis, perhaps this will give you a little hope, and inspire you to take a few small online steps yourself, in service of the planet and our future. Please do let us know how you get on.

  2. Need something in your neighbourhood? Sometimes all you have to do is ask

    What happened when you contacted your councillor or MP through WriteToThem? If that was the first step towards a change for the better — large or small —  we’d love to hear about it.

    When we asked this question on Twitter, the first person to reply was Tim Morton, who told us how he’d used our services to get a useful addition to his local neighbourhood. The story began on FixMyStreet, but really came to fruition thanks to WriteToThem.

    Tim says that he’s been using FixMyStreet since 2008: “If you look at my reports, the vast majority relate to the street I live in, and my local park” — and indeed, that’s the scene for the success he tweeted to tell us about: the story of the Grit Bin.

    It began with a report, back in 2010:

    Grit bin request on FixMyStreet

    “I pressed send,” says Tim, “and waited for something to happen”.

    But unfortunately, nothing did — had Tim’s message been lost in the internal workings of his council?

    It was radio silence until four weeks later when FixMyStreet’s automated mail arrived, asking whether the report had been seen to. If you click ‘no’, you’re taken to a screen suggesting a few ideas for escalating your issue, one of which is to contact your local councillors through WriteToThem.

    Tim decided that this was a good idea, and posted an update on his FixMyStreet report to say so:

    FixMyStreet update from 2010

    “Again, though, there was a period of silence… and I’d almost forgotten about it,” says Tim.

    But sometimes these things take a bit of time. Because, seven weeks later, and just in time for Christmas:

    Tim’s simple request had brought about a useful and tangible change for his community.

    OK, so, ideally it would have happened quickly and with full communication from the council, after that first FixMyStreet report. But on the other hand, this is a great example of how sometimes you have to persevere, and try another route, before you get success.

    “The grit bin is still there: occasionally I ask for a refill, and when the snow falls I trudge along the road and shovel grit across the junction.”

    So the benefit has lasted — and is allowing Tim to do his bit for his community even now, a decade later.

    A grit bin - image by Tim Morton

    Tim rates FixMyStreet so much that he’s demonstrated it to community groups and on training courses. He explains, “I think the great thing about FixMyStreet is its ease of use, and the very visible audit trail.

    “One thing I always point out is the timestamps on my initial reports. I often make reports in the evening, or at weekends: they’re done in the moment and not by trying to get through to the council on Monday morning or when the office is open. I find if I had to wait, I’d forget about the issue.

    “Leicester Council has been good at responding to my requests, and I always post their replies in the comments on my reports.” (Leicester is not currently a FixMyStreet Pro client, so their responses are not automatically published on the website, but sent to the report-maker by email.)

    Being an expert user, of course Tim knows all about FixMyStreet’s more advanced features.

    “I’ve recommended that community groups use the local alerts function. This means they can see what other people are reporting in their area, which they may be unaware of.

    “If they’re a group that focuses on neighbourhood improvement, it will identify potential issues for them to work on, and in fact, may introduce them to potential new activists in their area. I’ve pointed Ward Councillors to this, as well, as it can be really helpful in their work”.

    Thanks so much to Tim for telling us all about the grit bin and his efforts to help spread the word about FixMyStreet. A grit bin may seem like a small win, but when you consider how many thousands of reports are made up and down the country every week on FixMyStreet, and how many messages are sent to councillors on WriteToThem to ask for a neighbourhood improvement, you can see that the net effect could be massive.

    And on that note, if you have brought change by writing to your MP or councillor, by making a FixMyStreet report or perhaps by using one of our other services, please let us know — we’re all ears.

    We’re using these stories as part of a training module that helps young people understand how democracy functions in the UK, and how to work within it to make positive change. Your stories will help us to show this in action, rather than just theoretically, so you’ll be helping us to help those who need it. Thanks!

  3. Digitising parliaments: it took a pandemic

    Thanks to all who attended the second in our series of TICTeC Seminars this week: and if you weren’t able to attend, catch up with the video or read the collaborative notes taken during the session.

    Many thanks, too, to our panelists, who spoke so knowledgeably and engagingly about the experiences of parliaments around the world that have been forced to make a quick switch to digital technologies during the COVID months.

    Julia Keutgen of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Avinash Bikha of the Centre for Innovation in Parliament and Lord Purvis of Tweed from the UK’s House of Lords were led in conversation by mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.

    We heard about parliaments in Morocco, Brazil, Chile, the Maldives, and of course the UK, with a rounded view of the benefits of quick digitisation against the challenges and inconveniences. Naturally, parliaments and their members come in all shapes and sizes around the world, and their readiness or suitability for transferring to online methods vary accordingly.

    On the negative side, some representatives have struggled to adapt, especially if older; and all may be missing the nuances of face to face conversations with their colleagues.

    But there are positives too, with MPs able to spend more time in their constituencies helping constituents, and (close to mySociety’s heart, this one) a quicker turnaround of digital data on voting results.

    Watch the video to hear plenty more detail on this engrossing topic.

    The third and final TICTeC Seminar in our autumn 2020 series will focus on civic tech’s role in the climate crisis and will take place next month — date TBC. Sign up for TICTeC updates and we’ll send you an alert once timings are confirmed.

    Finally, if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.

    Image: Joakim Honkasalo.

  4. No boundaries to Freedom of Information

    A forthcoming tribunal will examine the blocking of FOI requests that have been placed by people living outside the UK.

    To those at mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow, the matter is quite simple: the UK’s Freedom of Information Act was written explicitly to allow “any person” to request information from a public body. There’s no restriction to say that the requester must be a UK citizen.

    A phrase often used is that the FOI process must be ‘applicant blind’. An authority doesn’t have the right to refuse information because of what it knows about the requester. That applies to nationality as much as to any other characteristic.

    We vehemently defend this principle, not least because we have seen first hand that important investigations can result from cross-border collaborations — right now, we’re working to support journalists across Europe working on several stories that cannot be confined to one territory.

    Associates across the international FOI network are proof positive that this kind of collaboration is invaluable in getting to the truth. Last year, Arne Semsrott of German FOI site FragDenStaat told us of a project they are running in tandem with Spain-based AccessInfo, to find out more about the treatment of migrants in many countries.

    “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe”, he said, “so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.

    If each country insisted that its information was only accessible to its own citizens, there would be significantly less opportunity to uncover such cross-border instances of mistreatment, not to mention stories of corruption, malpractice, misspending and cronyism. And as we know, such phenomena are unlikely to respect jurisdictional boundaries.

    For a view from closer to home, we can consult a member of the experienced WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team. Richard Taylor comments, “If UK FOI requests were restricted to British citizens or to those living in the UK, that could, depending on how it was implemented, seriously impact our ability to provide WhatDoTheyKnow’s service.

    “Providing proof of nationality or residence would be a significant additional hurdle for people making requests, and for us in managing them.”

    We question why there is a need for a tribunal to examine a point of the Act that is already quite clear — and, since there is to be one, call upon them to make a judgement that adheres to the letter, and spirit, of this country’s information law.

    Image: Max Böhme

  5. Join us at LocalGovCamp

    We’re longstanding supporters of LocalGovCamp, the conference where innovators in Local Government come together to share knowledge on how to improve services.

    This year we’re both sponsoring it and running a couple of hands-on, interactive sessions. All online, of course, given the way things are these days.

    On Tuesday 6 October, join a mySociety-led discussion with Mark and Zarino, on how consistent data standards across councils could open the doors to much better innovation.

    We’ll be looking at our own Keep It In The Community project, nodding to our Council Climate Action Plans database, and inviting attendees to join a wider discussion on how we can encourage better joined-up data across councils.

    And on Weds 7 October, our designer Martin will be running a mock ‘consequence scanning’ exercise. He’ll take participants through a new and useful way of assessing and mitigating risks in new government services, as conceived by Dot Everyone, recently taken up by Future Cities Catapult, and now used successfully in service design workshops by SocietyWorks.

    We hope you’ll come along and enjoy some good discussion and deep dives into local government service improvement: find out more and book your place here.

     

  6. Challenging refusals: upholding the right to information

    We’re very pleased to say that we’ve been awarded funding by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to extend the Freedom of Information services we offer through WhatDoTheyKnow and WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

    This work will support users in taking the next steps, if appropriate, when their requests for information are denied.

    A bit of background

    In the last few years, there has been a significant and sustained decline in FOI requests being granted by the UK government.

    According to the Institute for Government, the proportion of refused FOI requests reached a record level in the third quarter of 2019, with departments refusing to comply in full with more than half of all FOI requests that they received. This compares to around 40% in 2010 and around 30% in 2005.

    And yet, our research found that, when challenged, a large proportion of refusals were overturned, suggesting that the fault did not lie with the type of request being made. 22% of internal reviews resulted in the full or partial release of information, and a further 22% of appeals to the ICO led to all or some of the information being released.

    For local authorities, up to half of internal reviews – and just over half of all ICO appeals – led to the release of all or some of the information requested. In Scotland, with its own FOI regime, 64% of appeals to the Information Commissioner resulted in the full or partial release of information.

    And so, while acknowledging that some refusals are certainly legitimate, there is a clear case for challenging such responses. But to do so is daunting, especially for novice requesters who can understandably be discouraged by an official response citing exemptions in legalese.

    Our plan

    This new funding will allow us to approach the issue from four different, but interlinked directions, each intended to inform and support users in challenging government refusals of FOI requests.

    • When a WhatDoTheyKnow user confirms that they’ve received a refusal, we’ll be integrating context-sensitive advice. This will inform the user of their right to appeal, give clear guidance on how to assess whether the authority has complied with the law, and also advise on other channels, beside FOI, by which information may be obtained.
    • We’ll automatically identify which exemption has been cited in the refusal, giving us the ability to help users better understand why their request has been turned down.
    • Based on this finding, we’ll offer context-specific advice for the exemption identified. For example, if the request has been turned down because of cost, we’ll show how to reframe it to fall below the ‘appropriate limit’.
    • Finally, once the user has been fully informed, we’ll offer the support they need to escalate the request to an appeal.

    Ultimately we hope that this work will help reset the balance on the public’s right to access information, better enabling citizens, journalists and civil society to effectively scrutinise and hold authorities to account.

    As always, we’ll also be thinking hard about how to make all of this apply more universally, across the various legislatures that apply in jurisdictions where people are running sites on the Alaveteli platform.

    If this interests you, watch this space. We’ll be sure to update when we’ve made some progress on the project.

    Image: Tim Mossholder

  7. Catch up with the first TICTeC Seminar

    Open Data: an essential, not just ‘nice to have’

    Would societies around the world be better able to respond to the pandemic, if more or better open data were freely available?

    That was the question put to our expert panel on Tuesday, in the first in our series of online TICTeC Seminars.

    Karabo Rajuili of Open Ownership, Olivier Thereaux from Open Data Institute and Fabrizio Scrollini of the Open Data Latin American Initiative (ILDA) were led in a discussion by our own Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.

    We heard of the need for — and simultaneously the impossibility of — a rapidly-constructed open data standard; the benefits and dangers of releasing data about COVID to a potentially uninformed public; and the need for good ownership data to be freely available in a fast-moving procurement environment in which there may not be the tools to investigate where money is being spent.

    After the speakers had laid out their positions, the floor was opened for questions, each of which ignited still more informed debate. Finally, attendees were invited to a quick (and optional!) networking session in which they could speak to other attendees more directly.

    If that all sounds interesting, you can catch up on the main session for yourself by watching the video or reading the collaborative notes that were taken by attendees.

    There are still two more TICTeC Seminars in this series to go, so do join us to take part in the conversation.

    On 20 October, panelists will discuss why it’s taken a pandemic for more parliaments to digitise; while in November (date TBC) the topic will be the climate crisis. Find full details for both sessions here, and don’t forget you can sign up for TICTeC updates.

    Also: if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.

     

  8. Stop the bombing of civilians, with WriteToThem

    Humanity & Inclusion is a charity working to combat the injustices faced by people with disabilities and vulnerable populations in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.

    Their recent campaign, ‘Stop Bombing Civilians’, encourages supporters to protest the bombardment of innocent citizens in areas of conflict like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

    As their website explains, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians. Many are left injured or disabled with their lives and livelihoods completely ruined — surely all would agree that this is not a just or desired outcome of bombardment, no matter what your view on the conflicts generally.

    And so we were gratified to learn that WriteToThem, our ‘contact your MP’ service, is playing a part in this campaign.

    A toolkit for speaking out

    Humanity & Inclusion have put together a set of actions that supporters can take, from signing a petition to taking a selfie and sharing it on social media — or writing to your MP.

    “WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”

    And that’s where we came in: this last action is managed through integrating WriteToThem on the charity’s campaign page (something that any campaign can do, for free).

    We asked Tom Shelton from Humanity & Inclusion to explain more about how they used our service within their integrated campaign.

    Up to date contacts

    Tom explained that a central part of the campaign is the petition, and it is easy enough for them to run petitions by using the forms on their own website.

    However, when they’re asking supporters to directly email MPs, it’s just too complex to maintain and implement the dataset of politicians’ contacts themselves.

    “Yes, this data is publicly available, but like many small organisations, we have no capacity for maintaining its integrity”.

    Flexible and free

    So the charity looked around to see what tools were available.

    “There are some impressive tools out there, but most of them are pretty expensive given our modest needs. In previous years, we have used a relatively low cost paid tool for this type of ‘email your MP’ campaign.

    “We needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use.”

    “However, given that this new campaign was quite targeted, we were expecting a relatively low volume of emails, so we needed something that was easy to implement on our website, and we didn’t want to make any investment in a paid tool that would involve setup costs.

    “We also wanted to avoid an ongoing subscription cost as we knew that our campaign would probably be paused at various points and then re-activated later (say, during elections, parliamentary recess etc).

    “In particular, we needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use, and would help them to approach MPs in a way that is appropriate and would get the best response.

    “Based on this, WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”

    For all levels of coding knowledge

    How easy was it to add the tool to their website?

    Tom says that, for anyone with basic web skills, the postcode box option is very simple to set up.

    “The more complex integration is also quite straightforward, but due to time constraints, we opted to integrate the postcode finder widget.

    “The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent.”

    “This fitted nicely in with our website and immediately worked. The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent, as is the guidance for how best to use the tool for effective campaigns.”

    Humanity & Inclusion are actually a great example of an organisation who have read the guidelines and included them into their campaigning plans: if you visit the ’email your MP’ page of their campaign, you’ll see that they encourage you to write messages in your own words, while providing inspiration for some of the points that might be included.

    This is because WriteToThem blocks mass copies of identical messages, based on evidence that these tend to be regarded as a nuisance by politicians, rather than having the desired effect.

     

    Thank you very much to Tom and Humanity & Inclusion for sharing their experience of using WriteToThem as one part of a simple but effective online campaign.

    And now, if you have been convinced of their cause, we suggest that you take advantage of their campaign pages, and email your MP.


    Image: ©Peter Biro/HI
    Nada, 10, was injured in a bombing with her father in Mosul. As a result of her injuries her leg was amputated below the knee and she will need jaw surgery to help make eating less difficult.

  9. Problems with your tower block? Please tell us all about it.

    Do you live in a tower block as a social tenant?

    Have you ever had — or are you still having — problems with any of the following?

    • Damp or mould
    • Leaking pipes
    • Cracks in the walls or ceilings
    • Broken windows, doors, lifts, etc
    • Poor repairs, or repairs that never get done
    • Fire risks, such as dangerous cladding or cluttered fire escape routes
    • Pests such as fleas, cockroaches, vermin or moth
    • Unsafe gas or electricity
    • Poor heating
    • Landlords that don’t respond, or don’t fulfil their legal duties

    If so, Tower Blocks UK would love to hear from you — and if the problem is ongoing, help to point you in the right direction so that you can take steps to get things resolved.

    As you may recall, we recently co-launched the FixMyBlock website in partnership with Tower Blocks UK. It is designed to help tenants get problems resolved, whether that takes a letter quoting the relevant laws to your landlord, or escalating the issue to another level. It suggests a range of possible routes, from contacting your local councillor, for example, to getting together with other tenants to form a united action group.

    Now, it would be great to hear tenants’ real-life experiences so they can be included on the site. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at the end of the story — you got your problem fixed — or are still trying different methods to solve the issue. Either way, we’d really like to know more.

    Sharing experiences can help others who are having a similar problem. It tells them they are not alone, and may give new ideas on how to rectify the issue.

    So, if you have a tower block-related problem and you’re happy to tell us all about it, please let us know on this form.

    Image: Professor Paul Wenham-Clarke

     

  10. Our commitment to the environment starts with ourselves

    Working around the climate emergency, you can’t get far before realising that you must look to yourselves. And so, our environmental policy has been added to this site — you’ll see a link in the footer of every page.

    We’ve blogged previously about the work mySociety is doing within our Climate practice — the website we created for the UK’s Climate Assembly hosted an important milestone today as the final report launched; and we’re still collecting local councils’ climate plans to better allow for national analysis. Then, the third in our series of TICTeC seminars, this November, takes as its subject the climate crisis.

    But of course, every organisation also has its own responsibility towards the climate. To this end, we’ve been working on the first version of our environmental policy. It’s the outward reflection of the work we’ve been conducting internally over the past few months, to examine how we can best cut mySociety’s carbon emissions.

    You can see the policy here. We will keep working on it. If you’ve been doing the same work within your organisation, or have ideas for other ways for remote-working tech organisations to cut carbon, we would very much welcome your input.

     

    Image: Bill Oxford