November was another busy month for our Climate programme, with progress on a number of fronts – from the return of an old friend, in the shape of the Council Climate Scorecards; to the development of two new ones, as a result of our prototyping process earlier this year. We’ve also been working hard to share our data and tools with new audiences. Here’s a quick round up:
Constituency data for climate campaigners
As Alexander mentioned in October, we’ve been working on a Beta version of platform that brings together data about MPs, constituencies, and local climate action, as part of a project with The Climate Coalition. The aim is to help campaigners at both national and local levels to understand where to focus their efforts on enabling real local action on climate goals.
This month—thanks to the involvement of not only Struan and Alexander but also Graeme, on loan from our Transparency programme—we’ve made lots of progress, adding the features and importing the datasets we’ll need for testing out the minimum viable product with target users in the New Year. I look forward to sharing more with you in the coming months!
Exposing high-emissions local authority contracts
Another service that’s come out of one of our earlier prototyping weeks is ‘Contract Countdown’, which aims to give citizens advance notice of large, high-emissions local authority contracts that might be expiring in six, 12, or more months.
This November, Alexander finished developing the final pieces of a working Alpha version – including the use of real contracts from UK Contracts Finder and the Find A Tender service, and pulling in the details of local authority climate officers and councillors with climate/environment responsibilities (so we could test the idea of helping users contact these representatives).
And Siôn and I have been testing the alpha with target users – including local and national journalists, local authority climate officers and procurement officers, and local climate activists. We aim to continue getting feedback on the Alpha throughout December, and maybe January, after which point we can make a decision on whether to develop and launch a full service later in 2023.
Climate Action Scorecards 2023
Speaking of next year, preparations are already underway for next year’s follow-up to the Council Climate Scorecards project—this month saw Lucas and I work with Climate Emergency UK to design and publish their draft methodology for the assessment that will begin next year.
With CEUK’s assessors now looking at councils’ climate actions, in addition to their plans, we wanted to make it as easy as possible to understand precisely which questions your local authority will be scored on. I think we came up with a nice solution, where you can filter the list of draft questions by your local authority name or postcode, as well as by local authority type.
Sharing our data and tools
In other news, Alex updated our deprivation and urban/rural classification datasets to show relative figures for local authorities and Westminster parliamentary constituencies. We also published a local authorities lookup dataset that makes it easy to convert between the many names and codes used to identify local authorities.
If you want to use these new datasets—or any of our data in fact—Alex runs drop-in office hours on Thursdays and Fridays to talk about just that. We’re also happy to help collect or analyse climate-related data for free, as part of our work on supporting the UK’s climate data ecosystem – you can read more about that here.
Speaking of data ecosystems, you’ll now find a number of mySociety’s open climate datasets listed in Subak’s Data Catalogue, and Icebreaker One’s OpenNetZero catalogue.
Finally, Myf and Siôn in particular have continued to share and talk about our tools, and how people are using them to support local climate action, this month. Highlights include attending the Natural History Consortium’s Communicate conference; giving a hands-on workshop about all of mySociety’s tools for London’s small charities and community groups at Superhighways’ “Where’s The Power In Data” conference; and publishing a really exciting case study about how an officer at Surrey County Council used CAPE to share experiences and best practices with other similar councils elsewhere the UK.
There’s lots, as ever, to report from the Climate team this month, so I’ll try to pick some highlights… this time with a Shakespearean flavour, as I (mySociety’s Liverpool correspondent) celebrate the opening of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in the nearby town of Prescot. May the bard’s lyrical visions propel us into a summer of climate action!
All things are ready, if our mind be so
In the previous monthnotes Jen trailered Innovations in Climate Tech – our online, half-day event, featuring inspirational examples and discussion about how civic tech projects are supporting climate action around the world, and how we might be able to seed more projects like this, with the cooperation of local authorities, here in the UK.
This month Jen’s been lining up speakers for the event (which takes place on 21st September), and Siôn has been planning how we can use workshops in the second half of the event to share best practice and build more connections between technologists and local authority officials.
If you’re from a local authority, or you’ve been involved in a climate-related technology project, and you’d like to share your work at the event, there’s still time to submit a proposal for inclusion in the programme.
We’re also excited to find we’ve been accepted to speak at the upcoming Code for All 2022 Summit (also happening in September), so we’re looking forward to working our sessions there into our wider plan for building connections between the climate and civic tech communities.
And finally, to complete the Summer events trifecta, we’ve been laying plans for an informal online get-together about energy efficiency and retrofit, since it’s proved such a popular subject during our prototyping weeks, and we’d really like to find the most impactful contribution we could make in the space, especially with fuel costs expected to continue rising well into 2023. If this interests you, share your availability for the week in which we’re planning to meet and join our climate updates newsletter to hear how things develop.
Once more unto the breech dear friends
All good things must come to an end – and our series of six rapid prototyping weeks has certainly been a good thing! This month we’ve been preparing for the final week in the series, focussing on how improved collection and sharing of MP, constituency, and local climate action data, between environmental charities and organisations, could enhance public understanding of climate challenges and solutions, and build networks across local communities.
We’re really excited to be working on this with a number of really big names in the space—including The Climate Coalition, Green Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trusts, Hope for the Future, WWF, and Climate Outreach—and we’re really excited to see what recommendations come out of the week.
We’re also putting the final touches to our write-ups of the last two prototyping weeks (on fair transition and energy efficiency for private rental tenants) and will be posting them on our Climate Prototyping page shortly.
Friends, romans, countrymen, lend us your ears!
Siôn has been sharing our procurement and energy efficiency prototypes with a whole range of organisations, getting their input on next steps we should take, and potential collaboration opportunities. So far we’re excited to have met with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, UK Green Building Council, Architects Climate Action Network, Living Rent, Energy Local, Connected Places Catapult and Citizens UK.
Meanwhile, Myf has been renewing our efforts to promote CAPE to journalists, as one of the core audiences where we think up-to-date, accessible data on local authority climate action could really enable a new level of scrutiny and cross-pollination of climate actions around the UK. We’re looking to potentially speak at a few journalism conferences in the coming months, and we’re planning to prepare a set of online resources that might give journalists an idea of how they can use our data to find stories.
We also presented CAPE and the Scorecards at Friends of the Earth’s Environmental Data for Change event—which I was honoured to be asked to facilitate on FoE’s behalf—right at the end of June. It was an absolutely packed call, which left everyone buzzing with ideas for the future. We’re continuing to work with Friends of the Earth, and other attendees from the event, on how we take the this great momentum, and shape a community of practice around sharing and building on the rich environmental data available in the UK, to power more informed climate action.
Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash.
The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol groups emissions sources into “Scopes” as a way of helping organisations understand where in their operations they could reduce emissions:
- Scope 1 covers ‘direct emissions from owned or controlled sources’.
- Scope 2 refers to ‘indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company’.
- Scope 3 includes ‘all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain’.
We’ve been calculating our emissions since 2019. It didn’t take us long to realise—as an entirely remote organisation with no cars, no factories, no offices, and no private jets— that all of our emissions fall under Scope 3.
Beyond that, our calculations show that roughly half of our Scope 3 emissions are as a result of the activity of the services we use – for example, emissions created by the trains we use to travel to visit clients and take part in team meetings, or by the power stations that generate the electricity that feeds the (third-party) datacentres that our websites are served from.
There is plenty of advice out there on how organisations can work to reduce these types of Scope 3 emissions. We’ve already made progress in this regard – asking suppliers for their sustainability policies as part of our procurement process, switching to greener suppliers where possible, even improving the performance of our websites to consume less power.
But it’s the remaining half of our Scope 3 emissions that pose a challenge. These emissions are generated by mySociety’s staff – primarily lighting and heating for our homes and workspaces. Unlike a traditional organisation, we can’t just overhaul the office lighting, or turn down the thermostats – we don’t have an office to make those changes in! Instead, it’s up to each of our employees to do their part.
That’s why we’ve introduced incentives like our Climate Perks programme, which rewards staff with extra time off when they travel to/from holidays via sustainable transport options. We produced a guide for mySociety employees looking to lower their carbon footprint while working from home. But we know these changes are only scratching the surface of what we should be doing.
There isn’t a huge amount of information out there on how organisations can influence emissions generated by remote workers. Where should the balance of power lie in that relationship? How much can organisations require of employees, and how much they can only incentivise and support more sustainable options?
It’s made all the more difficult because each employee’s situation is different – and we’re aware a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work.
So we’re talking about this in the open, to see whether other organisations have faced this issue and come up with a way forward that works for them. As more organisations embrace remote working, this will only become a more common issue. If you’re already doing something in this space, get in touch!
Image: Clay Banks
mySociety’s Climate team is used to grappling with the big questions, but this month the one at the forefront of our minds was something along the lines of ‘Where did March go!?’ – Still, there’s a lot to report on for the last few weeks, including our first two prototyping weeks, new research outputs, and further improvements to the Climate Action Plan Explorer.
Working in the open
Unsurprisingly, our first two prototyping weeks have been top of the agenda this last month.
First, an exploration of council procurement as a lever for local climate action kicked off with a day of workshops on Monday 4th April, including a ‘Lightning Decision Jam’ exercise (aka rapidly writing thoughts on digital Post-It notes) on the challenges around climate and procurement, as seen in the picture at the top of this post).
All the discussions, input and ideas culminated with us building a mock-up of a service that would help notify journalists and local climate action groups about council (re-)procurement activities so they could act on them before it’s too late. We’ve summarised the week’s findings in a short report here, where you can also see screenshots and even a link to the prototype where you can click around a bit to see how it would work.
Thank you to all of the wonderful participants who joined us throughout the week, collaborating in our workshops and testing out our prototype.
Our second prototyping week—looking at conditional commitment as a model for addressing challenges around home energy—is already underway, and has provided a fascinating insight into how local collective action could help with the challenge many people around the UK are currently facing with fuel pricing and energy efficiency.
We’re in the final stages of building and testing a prototype service that helps neighbours act together to book thermal imaging of their houses, and then make small and large improvements to their homes, benefiting from group activity. We’ll have another write-up about this prototype ready in a week or so.
If you’re interested in joining our upcoming prototyping weeks (the next one, starting 9th May, is on access to nature) then get in touch.
Researching, measuring, understanding
But we haven’t just been prototyping: there’s other exciting stuff going on, too. This month we were happy to finally publish a fascinating review of public understanding of local government and its role in combatting climate change, prepared for us by Tom Sasse.
Amongst Tom’s findings were: a marked rise in public concern over climate change, and continued support for stronger action on climate issues; a general agreement across society that local councils have a high degree of responsibility for tackling climate change, and that central government should provide more funding to enable local action; and signs that the most effective way to promote climate action will be by framing it around local—rather than national or global—concerns. Read Alex’s blog post for more details.
Alex also did some experimentation into how we can categorise local government services. His dataset is already shaping our outreach with local authorities, and our policy work. It could also form the basis for improved comparisons on CAPE, the Climate Action Plan Explorer.
Meanwhile, Pauline, our Policy and Advocacy Manager, combed through all 305 pages of the government’s Levelling Up whitepaper, to extract the policy implications for local authorities trying to reach net zero. The whitepaper’s proposal to establish a new independent body for gathering, enhancing, and making available public data is really encouraging, especially in a field like local climate response, where a lack of timely, high quality data is already hampering local authorities’ abilities to plan and measure climate initiatives. You can read more about this in Pauline’s blog post.
Our developer, Struan, took advantage of the lack of an Easter Monday holiday in Scotland to deploy a number of improvements to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans and emissions data. You can now, for example, filter the list of councils by English regions (like the North West, or South East) and also quickly compare district or borough councils inside a given county. This filtering is also available on CAPE’s sister site, Council Climate Plan Scorecards.
We also improved the way we decide whether a council “has a plan”, so that draft plans, or other types of documents no longer count. As a result, the figure on our homepage of “councils with a plan” dropped from 88% to 77%, but we think you’ll agree that this is a more accurate reflection of the real number of councils with a real climate action plan or climate strategy. Of course, new plans are released every week, and we’re doing work behind the scenes to make it easier for council officers to notify us of these changes, and get their CAPE pages updated quickly.
We also had our first six-month check-in with one of our funders, the National Lottery Community Fund. We’re really excited to see how we can work with them over the next two years, to enable local climate action that both involves and respects communities that wouldn’t normally be active on climate. As part of this, Gemma and I, in particular, have been thinking about how we can use public events to convene a community of practice around climate and other complementary sectors of society. For more on that, watch this space!
February proved to be a month of relative calm for the mySociety Climate team, positioned as we were, between our previous whirlwind of activity delivering the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, and the imminent beginning of our ‘prototyping weeks’, introduced in last month’s notes by Lucas.
That’s not to say we didn’t get a lot done! Here’s a run-down of everything we managed to pack in this February, and some hints of what’s on the horizon.
Full steam ahead on our first two prototyping weeks
As mentioned before, over the first half of this year, we’ll be exploring some of the topics from our ‘hopper’ of ideas that have come out of all our research and development so far.
In a process inspired by Design Jams and the GV Design Sprint, we’ll be inviting external subject matter experts—council officers, tech and open data practitioners, local government suppliers, citizens, campaigners—to work with us for a week, on a topic they have experience of, so that we can quickly identify, prototype, and test services that will really move the needle on enabling a faster, more informed and more collaborative local response to climate change.
This month, we planned out exactly what these prototyping weeks will look like—for us, and external participants—and began approaching potential partners and stakeholders that we feel could contribute the most on our first two topics:
- Climate and local government procurement
- Enabling local climate action through ‘conditional commitment’
If either of these two topics interest you, fill in our signup form and Siôn will get in touch with more details.
Research on public understanding of local authorities and climate
One of mySociety’s key strengths has always been our ability to combine research and action, to make a difference on the problems that matter. Over the last few months, Alex has been working on beefing up our research capacity, so that we can understand more about the role local government plays in combating climate change.
After interviews earlier this month, our research comissioning process is now complete, and we are excited to have engaged a really excellent external researcher, Tom Sasse, to take on this important piece of work. More from them in due course!
Two new features for CAPE
This month we dramatically improved the way that CAPE displays emissions data, to help people picture which sectors (industrial, commercial, domestic, transport, etc) the most emissions are coming from in each part of the country.
We also introduced a new ‘Browse by feature’ page, allowing you to see councils whose plans scored particularly well in key areas we’ve identified as being of most interest to officers, campaigners, and community groups – from councils with the best approaches to adaptation and mitigation, or the best communicated plans, to the fairest plans for communities most directly harmed by climate change.
If you missed my blog post last week about bringing these two long-awaited features to CAPE, give it a read now.
Header image: A technician makes adjustments to a wind turbine, Dennis Schroeder / NREL.
Last month the project we’ve been supporting Climate Emergency UK on, their Council Climate Plan Scorecards, made a big splash with local and national news outlets.
But that’s not all mySociety’s climate team has been working on – we’ve also been putting effort into making CAPE, our Climate Action Plan Explorer, more useful to council officers and campaigners, through improved emissions data, and ‘features’ – a whole new way of discovering councils with exemplary plans.
Sectoral emissions breakdown
Until recently, CAPE displayed a small amount of emissions data on each council’s page – coming from BEIS’s annual estimates of CO2 emissions within the scope of influence of local authorities:
A key improvement we wanted to make was to better highlight the sources of emissions in a council’s area. The balance of emissions from different sectors (domestic, industrial, commercial, transport, etc) will be different for each council, and will influence their approach to emissions reduction.
Thanks to BEIS funding, we’ve been able to expand our emissions data to cover combined authorities and new 2021 authorities, and we’ve used this to display a new emissions graph on council pages that separates out the emissions of different sectors over time:
Find your council on CAPE today, to see how emissions stack up in your area.
We hope this improved breakdown will help visitors understand the actions their councils are taking, and the scope there is for improvement in the different areas. The graphs can be downloaded and re-used, with the data source and attribution already embedded. Hooray for transparency!
Browse by feature
And there’s more. If you’re interested in seeing, say, all the councils who are doing a good job engaging residents and other stakeholders on their climate plans, or maybe all the councils with a clear plan for upskilling the workforce in the face of climate change, then we’ve got a new feature for you.
Thanks to data from the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, you can now use CAPE to browse councils by ‘features’ we’ve identified, through our research, as being particularly interesting to council officers and campaigners – such as the best approaches to adaptation and mitigation, the best communicated plans, and the fairest plans for communities most directly harmed by climate change.
You can start by visiting the ‘Browse by feature’ page:
Or you can follow the links on any council’s page, to see other councils who also share the same features:
We’re looking to expand our selection of features over time, but we need to make sure these are based on an external dataset that we can import into CAPE. If you have an idea of something new we should include, let us know!
Another month, another chance to share progress from the Climate team. And this time, you get to hear it from a different person too – Hello! I’m Zarino, one of mySociety’s designers, and Product Lead for the Climate programme.
Over the last month, we’ve moved the programme on in three main areas: Adding some much-anticipated features to our headline product, the Climate Action Plans Explorer; continuing full steam ahead on development of Climate Emergency UK’s ‘Council Climate Plan Scorecards’ site, and setting up a research commissioning process that will kick in early next year.
New features on CAPE
Just barely missing the cut for Siôn’s mid-November monthnotes, we flipped the switch on another incremental improvement to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans:
CAPE now shows you whether a council has declared a climate emergency, and whether they’ve set themselves any public targets on becoming carbon neutral by a certain date. We are incredibly grateful to our partners Climate Emergency UK for helping us gather this data. Read my earlier blog post to find out more about how we achieved it.
As well as displaying more data about each council, a core aim of the CAPE site is enabling more valuable comparisons with—and explorations of—the plans of similar councils. Previously, we’d done this by allowing you to browse councils of a particular type (London Boroughs, say, or County Councils), and by showing a list of “nearby” councils on each council’s page.
However, we’re now excited to announce the launch of a whole new dimension of council comparisons on the site, thanks to some amazing work by our Research Associate Alex. To try them out, visit your council’s page on CAPE, and scroll down:
These five tabs at the bottom of a council’s page hide a whole load of complexity—much of which I can barely explain myself—but the upshot is that visitors to CAPE will now be able to see much more useful, and accurate, suggestions of similar councils whose plans they might want to check out. Similar councils, after all, may be facing similar challenges, and may be able to share similar best practices. Sharing these best practices is what CAPE is all about.
We’ll blog more about how we prepared these comparisons, in the new year.
Council Climate Plan Scorecards
As previously noted, we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to display the results of their analysis of council climate action plans, in early 2022. These “scorecards”, produced by trained volunteers marking councils’ published climate action plans and documents, will help open up the rich content of council’s plans, as well as highlighting best practice in nine key areas of a good climate emergency response.
As part of the marking process, every council has been given a ‘Right of Reply’, to help Climate Emergency UK make sure the scorecards are as accurate as possible. We’re happy to share that they’ve received over 150 of these replies, representing over 50% of councils with a published climate action plan.
With those council replies received, this month Climate Emergency UK’s experts were able to complete a second round of marking, producing the final scores.
Meanwhile, Lucas, Struan, and I have been working away on the website interface that will make this huge wealth of data easily accessible and understandable – we look forward to sharing more about this in January’s monthnotes.
Finally, as Alex recently blogged, we’ve been setting up a research commissioning process for mySociety – primarily to handle all the research we’d like to do in the Climate programme next year. Our main topics for exploration aren’t yet finalised, but we’re currently very interested in the following three areas:
- Public understanding of local authorities and climate
- Public pressure and local authorities
- How local authorities make decisions around climate
Watch this space for more details about these research opportunities, and how to get involved.
The Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) is gathering together every Climate Action Plan from every UK council that’s published one. We’re actively adding more functionality on an ongoing basis; most recently, we’ve extracted the ‘headline pledges’ from each plan, like this:
Pledges like this give an idea of the council’s overarching priorities, but often have not been presented in isolation before, even by the councils themselves.
Why we did this
A core aim of our Climate programme is to improve the information ecosystem around local responses to the climate emergency:
“We’re improving the information ecosystem to allow local and national campaigns, policymakers and other stakeholders to undertake better scrutiny and analysis of local climate action, and develop evidence-based policies and solutions.”
We’ve already written about how we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to collect and score Climate Action Plans for every local authority in the UK. Providing people with an easy way into their local authority’s action plan will give them an unprecedented opportunity to gauge their council’s level of ambition in facing the climate emergency, and how they’re planning to turn those ambitions into actions.
But plans can be complex, and time-consuming to read. Another, faster way people can understand their council’s level of ambition is by finding any targets that it might have set itself for decarbonising either the entire area, or just the council’s own operations, by a particular date.
We call these ‘pledges’, and they’re typically not all that easy to find – they can be buried in council meeting minutes, or slipped somewhere into an unassuming page on the council’s website or action plan.
Knowing what date your council is working towards, and what they believe they can achieve by that date, fundamentally sets the scene when it comes to understanding and contributing to the council’s climate actions.
That’s why we decided to collect these pledges and share them on CAPE. Here’s where you’ll find them on each council’s page, setting the scene before you dig into the full action plan:
How we did this
Collecting these pledges from scratch would be a mammoth task. Luckily, we were able to build on two partial datasets that gave us a headstart.
An important thing to note is that we wanted to collect not only the scope (that is to say, whether the plan covers council operations only, or the whole area) and target date, but also the exact wording of the pledge, and the source where it was found.
We found that local authorities often use terms like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ interchangeably, and the scope of pledges can sometimes be ambiguous. The most objective approach, therefore, was to present the entire pledge, as it was originally worded, and leave it up to the viewer to interpret the council’s intent. Collecting and exposing the source of the pledge would allow them to dig deeper and view the pledge in context, if they wanted to.
Our partners, Climate Emergency UK, had already been collecting climate target dates as part of their ongoing monitoring of council responses to the climate and biodiversity emergencies. But since the target dates were just one small part of a much wider database, they hadn’t collected the direct quotes that we wanted to present.
Still, in the Climate Emergency UK dataset, we effectively had a wide but shallow starting point, covering most councils in the UK, from which we could then proceed to fill in the detail by revisiting the sites, scanning them for anything that looked like a pledge, and pasting them into our database.
We were also incredibly grateful to receive a smaller, but much more detailed, dataset of climate commitments from the National Audit Office, which covered 70% of the principal local authorities in England, some of which had made no commitments. They themselves had manually gathered these commitments from public sources—council’s minutes, websites, and action plans—over April to June of 2021.
Combined with the Climate Emergency UK dataset, this data from the National Audit Office got us 75% of the way towards a full dataset of climate pledges from every council in the UK.
With the help of Climate Emergency UK volunteers, we filled in the gaps on this combined dataset, collecting direct quotes for both council-only and whole area climate pledges, for 341 of the 408 councils in the UK.
For the remaining 67 councils, we were unable to find a public climate pledge, or at least one with a concrete target date – but we’re hopeful that we might yet find this information, and the CAPE website includes a link on these councils’ pages through which visitors (or maybe councillors or council officers!) can contribute the data, if they’ve found a source elsewhere.
The data was collected via an online spreadsheet, making it fairly easy to import into CAPE, as part of the website’s existing data processing pipeline. This feeds the pledges through to both the individual council pages, and also the all councils page, where you can now filter the list to show only councils with a target in a given five-year period, or no target at all.
We will soon also be exposing these pledges via the CAPE API, so third parties can programmatically access and reuse the data in their own services. If this sounds like something you might find useful, do get in touch or subscribe to our Climate newsletter where we’ll be sure to share any news.
Image: Romain Dancre
In this technical deep-dive, our designer Zarino Zappia explores how we used the latest web performance techniques to make our 2020 annual report quick and easy to download — no matter what kind of connection or device you’re using.
Each year, mySociety produces an online annual report sharing a round-up of our achievements, a thank you to our supporters, funders, and volunteers, and our vision for the immediate future.
For the last two years, that annual report has taken the form of a single, multi-section web page.
This year, with more news than ever to cover across both mySociety and our commercial subsidiary SocietyWorks, we knew it was super important to get that single page running as smoothly and efficiently as possible in visitors’ web browsers.
Our annual report is often shared as an introduction to the work mySociety does. It’s crucial that it sets a good first impression, and performance is a big part of that. It’s also an embodiment of what sets us apart from the crowd – we sweat the small stuff, to give users the best possible experience.
What’s a PageSpeed score anyway?
Google has done a lot of work championing fast loading websites, and their PageSpeed Insights tool is often used as a benchmark of web performance. Developers aim to achieve a mobile performance score of 90 or more – but often this is easier said than done!
In this fairly technical blog post, I’m going to go through a few of ways we really optimised the performance of our 2020 annual report, to achieve a consistent 90-plus PageSpeed score. Through a combination of common sense, technological restraint, and a little extra effort, we manage to serve 6,500 words (a 33% increase over last year), 90 images, and two videos, over nine sections of a single page, in the blink of an eye.
Keep it simple, stupid
Like most mySociety products, the annual report starts with a very boring, very unfashionable, but very fast base – plain old HTML – in this case generated by Jekyll. Jekyll helps to keep our work maintainable by letting us refactor common elements out into their own includes, but since everything compiles to plain HTML, we get lightning fast page renders from our Nginx web server. We use static HTML sites a lot at mySociety – for example, for our documentation, our prototypes, and even some of our user-facing products. Sometimes simple is just better!
On the styling side, we use Bootstrap to help us quickly pull together the frontend design work on the annual report in about a week at the beginning of December. We build our own slimmed down version of Bootstrap from the Sass source, with just the modules we need. Libraries like Bootstrap can sometimes be a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but by cherry-picking just the modules you need, you can dramatically reduce the size of your compiled CSS, without losing the flexibility and fast prototyping that a library like Bootstrap provides. The annual report makes heavy use of Bootstrap’s built-in components and utility functions, and then anything truly bespoke is handled by a few of our own custom styles laid on top.
Use the tools at your disposal
Performance tweaks that were cutting edge a few years ago have quickly gained widespread browser support, so if you’re not using them, you’re missing out. Most of them take pretty much no effort to set up, and will dramatically improve perceived loading time for your users.
As a single, big, long page with almost 100 image tags, it’s imperative that we use lazy loading, to prevent the browser requesting all of those images at once on initial page load. Doing this is as easy as adding
We also make an effort to efficiently encode our images – serving images at roughly the size they’re actually displayed, to reduce wasted bandwidth, and using WEBP compression with JPEG fallbacks, for the best balance of quality and filesize.
Reduce run-time dependencies
Overall, some sensible tech decisions early on, and a lot of hard work from the design team (including our new hire, Clive) resulted in a 2020 annual report I think we can be really proud of. I hope it’s also a taste of things to come, as we start introducing the same techniques into our other, bigger products.
That said, there’s still a few things we could improve.
We could achieve almost instant rendering on first pageload by extracting the CSS required to display the first few hundred pixels of the page, and inlining it, so it renders before the rest of the styles have been downloaded. We already do this on fixmystreet.com, for example, using Penthouse.
There’s also an external dependency we could drop – Google Fonts. We’re currently using it to serve our corporate typeface, Source Sans Pro. The advantage of loading the typeface off Google Fonts is that most of our other sites also load the same typeface, so chances are the user will already have the font files in their browser cache. Self-hosting the fonts is unlikely to be much faster than loading from Google, but it would be a win for user privacy, since it’s one less external resource being hit for each pageload. Something to consider for future!
Photo by Indira Tjokorda on Unsplash
When something’s not right on your street, and you’ve gone out of your way to report it to the local council, the last thing you want is to get bogged down in a complex log-in procedure.
That’s why FixMyStreet has always put the log-in step after the reporting step, and has always allowed you to report a problem without needing an account or password at all.
But we know we can always do better, and in the 11 years that FixMyStreet has been around, new design patterns have emerged across the web, shifting user expectations around how we prove our identities and manage our data on websites and online services.
Over the years, we’d made small changes, informed by user feedback and A/B testing. But earlier this year, we decided to take a more holistic look at the entire log-in/sign-up process on FixMyStreet, and see whether some more fundamental changes could not only reduce the friction our users were experiencing, but help FixMyStreet actively exceed the average 2018 web user’s expectations and experiences around logging in and signing up to websites.
One thing at a time
Previously, FixMyStreet tried to do clever things with multi-purpose forms that could either log you in or create an account or change your password. This was a smart way to reduce the number of pages a user had to load. But now, with the vast majority of our UK users accessing FixMyStreet over high speed internet connections, our unusual combined log-in/sign-up forms simply served to break established web conventions and make parts of FixMyStreet feel strange and unfamiliar.
In 2014 we added dedicated links to a “My account” page, and the “Change your password” form, but it still didn’t prevent a steady trickle of support emails from users understandably confused over whether they needed an account, whether they were already logged in, and how they could sign up.
So this year, we took some of the advice we usually give to our partners and clients: do one thing per screen, and do it well. In early November, we launched dramatically simplified login and signup pages across the entire FixMyStreet network – including all of the sites we run for councils and public authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro.
Along the way, we took careful steps—as we always do—to ensure that assistive devices are treated as first class citizens. That means everything from maintaining a sensible tab order for keyboard users, and following best practices for accessible, semantic markup for visually impaired users, to also making sure our login forms work with all the top password managers.
Keeping you in control
The simplified log-in page was a great step forward, but we knew the majority of FixMyStreet users never used it. Instead, they would sign up or log in during the process of reporting their problem.
So, we needed to take some of the simplicity of our new log-in pages, and apply it to the reporting form itself.
For a few years now, the FixMyStreet reporting form has been split into two sections – “Public details” about the problem (which are published online for all to see) followed by “Private details” about you, the reporter (which aren’t published, but are sent to the authority along with your report, so they can respond to you). This year, we decided to make the split much clearer, by dividing the form across two screens.
Now the private details section has space to shine. Reorganised, with the email and password inputs next to each other (another convention that’s become solidified over the last five or ten years), and the “privacy level” of the inputs increasing as you proceed further down the page, the form makes much more sense.
But to make sure you don’t feel like your report has been thrown away when it disappears off-screen, we use subtle animation, and a small “summary” of the report title and description near the top of the log-in form, to reassure you of your progress through the reporting process. The summary also acts as a logical place to return to your report’s public details, in case you want to add or amend them before you send.
Better for everyone
As I’ve mentioned, because FixMyStreet is an open source project, these improvements will soon be available for other FixMyStreet sites all over the UK and indeed the world. We’ve already updated FixMyStreet.com and our council partners’ sites to benefit from them, and we’ll soon be officially releasing the changes as part of FixMyStreet version 2.5, before the end of the year.
I want to take a moment to thank everyone at mySociety who’s contributed to these improvements – including Martin, Louise C, Louise H, Matthew, Dave, and Struan – as well as the helpful feedback we’ve had from our council partners, and our users.
We’re not finished yet though! We’re always working on improving FixMyStreet, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye on user feedback after these changes, so we can inform future improvements to FixMyStreet.com and the FixMyStreet Platform.
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