1. A response to Robert Largan, MP

    On 18 January we received a letter from Robert Largan MP regarding our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. He requested that we ‘correct a misrepresentation’ in the way that the site displays how he and his fellow MPs have voted on measures to prevent climate change:

    The letter was co-signed by around 50 members of his party, and identified three votes not currently included in our climate change vote calculations, with the request that they be taken into account on their voting records pages.

    This was not an unusual message: we often receive emails from MPs to TheyWorkForYou, asking us to explain or reconsider the data we publish on them — and the most common subject is the voting records pages.

    The only differences with this letter were that Mr Largan had gathered the support of so many other MPs; and that it was covered in the press and shared on Twitter quite a few days before we actually had receipt of it. 

    So we’ve treated it in the same way that we would any other, but given the amount of exposure the issue has already had, we thought we’d also share our considered response here. We’re glad to have this opportunity to illustrate how we run the site, and the judgements that we have to make in order to run the fairest, most factual service we can.

     

    Image: UK Parliament

  2. TICTeC Show & Tells: Call for Proposals now open

    We would dearly love to be issuing a Call for Proposals for our normal two day Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC), in person, in some beautiful city somewhere, in anticipation of having some great discourse and drinks. Alas, the pandemic means we are not yet in a place to do that.

    We also recognise that attempting to hold a two day event online is just too much – we are all suffering a bit of screen fatigue at this point, and we understand how difficult it is to concentrate and engage with lengthy online sessions.

    Therefore, we will instead be hosting a series of online TICTeC ‘Show and Tells’ from March until May 2021, which will be short, energetic and to-the-point.

    These will be hour-long virtual events that will bring together the global community who use, build, research or fund digital technology that empowers citizens. Speakers will share their real and in-depth research and lessons learnt about the impacts of these digital technologies, and whether their intended outcomes were indeed realised. TICTeC, as it always has been, continues to be a safe place to honestly examine what works, what doesn’t, what can be improved etc, so, ultimately, better digital tools are developed.

    TICTeC’s ethos is that every organisation developing and running technology that serves citizens should do so with evidence-based research at the forefront of their decisions, and should examine their impacts. This is to ensure validity and legitimacy, but also to curb and mitigate possible detrimental and unintended consequences.

    Apply to present

    Each TICTeC Show and Tell will feature five 7-minute presentations, followed by a Q&A session after all speakers have made their presentations. If you have relevant research/experiences/lessons learnt to share, please submit a talk by 14 February 2021.

    We’re looking for proposals relevant to the below topic areas in particular, however, if your proposal doesn’t quite fit into these themes but is still relevant to civic technology we’d nevertheless love to hear from you. We’re also particularly keen this time to hear from users of civic technology about their experiences, as well as researchers, funders and practitioners.

    For more advice on submitting a proposal please see our guide.

    Sponsorship opportunities

    TICTeC really does bring together a truly global group of people, all passionate about examining digital technology’s impact on society. TICTeC events usually bring together participants from at least 30 countries worldwide.  But, as a charity, we need support to make TICTeC convenings happen. We’re currently looking for sponsors to help us continue. If you’re interesting in helping us to continue TICTeC’s valuable work, please see our guide to sponsorship and sponsorship packages, or feel free to contact Gemma Moulder to speak about more bespoke alternatives.

    We look forward to reading your proposals, and to seeing you at our Show and Tells!

  3. A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI

    Kids in Scotland can start school at the age of four and a half, if that makes sense for them. The school year begins in August, and any child who turns four from the February before can enter Primary 1.

    But not every child is ready to progress from nursery to school, just because they’ve hit the age when they’re legally able to.

    We spoke to Patricia Anderson from the Give Them Time campaign about how Freedom of Information requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed. From 2023, those kids who aren’t quite ready for school will still be able to benefit from more nursery time — and their parents will be able to rest easy that they won’t be charged fees for that extra year.

    A confusing state of affairs

    We began by asking Patricia to explain a bit more about the campaign, and to spell out the underlying issue for us.

    “Give Them Time is a grassroots movement which evolved in 2018 from parents across Scotland sharing their own, often difficult, experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child”, she told us.

    WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign.

    “No child in Scotland is legally required to be formally educated in Scotland until the August after they turn five years old. Therefore, any child still aged four at the school commencement date in August doesn’t need to start school (or be home educated) until the following August a year later.

    “This is set out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, section 32, sub-section 3. However, currently only those with January and February birthdays have an automatic entitlement to a free further year of early learning and childcare (nursery) whereas those children who turn five after the school commencement date in August and by 31st December have to apply to their local authority to be considered for this funding.”

    So in other words, while there is a recognition in law that any four-year-olds should have the option to defer, parents have to apply for the relevant funding for all but the youngest (those with birthdays in January or February), but have no certainty that they’ll receive it?

    “Yes”, says Patricia. “There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the legal right to defer any child who hadn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date, as well as a lot of misinformation being passed around about whether parents could even apply to their local authority for funding for a further year of nursery or not.

    “With this in mind, I set up a Facebook group called Deferral Support Scotland in May 2018 as I felt there wasn’t a central place where parents could go to find out more about deferral options and what the process was for applying for continued nursery funding in their local authority area.

    “Three weeks later, after hearing disturbing stories of parents’ experiences which indicated varied practices across the country, members of the Facebook group decided to set up a campaign for a more transparent, consistent and child-centred approach to so called ‘discretionary’ deferrals. And so, Give Them Time was born.”

    FOI for gathering hard evidence

    As with so many campaigns, Facebook had proved to be an effective space for gathering like-minded folk together, and a catalyst for action. But how did Give Them Time move from Facebook to the use of Freedom of Information requests?

    “We realised from the outset that to be taken seriously, we needed hard evidence of national disparities rather than anecdotes, so that’s when we started submitting FOI requests to all local authorities across the country. We wanted to establish whether the anecdotal accounts could be supported by factual data.”

    WhatDoTheyKnow was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.

    FOI was just one of the tools used by this savvy campaign, as they realised that data could be well supplemented with parents’ real life stories.

    These testimonies demonstrated the issue well, with one parent saying, “They knew but seem to try to put you off the idea, make statements like ‘they’ll be fine’, etc”.

    Others pointed to the stress and frustration of the bureaucracy and mixed messages they had to navigate, all while contending with worries about what was really best for their own child. Patricia explains how the campaign gathered these comments:

    “We used online surveys to gather evidence about people’s experiences of finding out about and applying to their local authority for continued nursery funding. The quantitative data provided by the FOI responses supported the findings of our qualitative surveys.”

    You can see all the data, qualitative and quantitative, on the Evidence page of the campaign’s website.

    The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow

    Using FOI is one thing, but the decision to do so via WhatDoTheyKnow does not always follow — so we were curious to learn what had informed the campaign in doing so.

    This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. It helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.

    “I discovered WhatDoTheyKnow by chance when searching online for deferral information. It was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.

    “It’s very easy to share a link to an FOI response on WhatDoTheyKnow rather than search through emails and forward them on. It also removed the fear we had of potentially sharing confidential information by mistake as responses are published by WhatDoTheyKnow on the internet, and councils know this will happen in advance so it removed the onus on us to police this.”

    This was great to hear, as while we’ve heard many benefits to using WhatDoTheyKnow through the years, we don’t think we’ve heard this precise one before. Of course, the ease of publicly linking to a webpage is something that we appreciate, but the added dimension of mitigating the risk of sharing confidential information was a detail we hadn’t considered (and of course, that’s not to say that authorities don’t sometimes make mistakes, but it does add that extra layer of protection, for sure).

    Patricia added that WhatDoTheyKnow was integral to their success:

    “WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign. The credibility it helped us to achieve, as well as the actual data provided by the FOI responses, enabled us to successfully lobby the Scottish Government to change the law.

    “On 7 December 2020, the process was started to amend existing legislation so that from August 2023, any four-year-old deferring their primary one start will automatically be entitled to a free further year of early learning and childcare.”

    You can see some of the media coverage of this decision here.

    You should use it, too

    Finally, we asked if Patricia had any advice for anyone else wondering whether to use FOI for their campaign, or to help bring about a change in the law.

    “Don’t hesitate to use it. This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. WhatDoTheyKnow helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.”

    We often cover stories of corruption, injustice, finance and other very adult topics — and while those are all crucial matters that deserve transparency, it is also very gratifying to hear about the site being used to benefit thousands of children and their families, in a way that hurts no-one and removes worry and frustration for many. Well done to the Give Them Time campaign.

    Image: Jelleke Vanooteghem

  4. …and it didn’t go quite as expected

    Each December we gather together everything we’ve done through the year, and bundle it all up in our annual report.

    And at the end of every annual report we add a small section forecasting what we’ll be up to in the year ahead — it’s always pretty gratifying to be able to look back at the previous year’s report and think, ‘Yup, that happened’.

    Not this year, though. Skilled clairvoyants might have been able to foresee some of the parliamentary happenings, or that political events would result in an explosion of use in our Democracy services, or the growing need for enhanced Transparency from our public authorities — but no-one could blame us for happily planning an international conference to take place in March, completely unaware that travel would be off the cards for some time to come.

    In many ways, mySociety’s work-from-home set-up (which we’ve had since our very beginnings) served us very well in being able to provide uninterrupted services to our users and clients alike. In other ways, we suffered like everyone else from a lack of face to face contact — remote we may be, but we do like our occasional meet-ups!

    Well, anyway: you can see all the highs and lows for yourself in the annual report. We hope you enjoy reliving the year with us… and, yes, call us foolish, but we have indeed included that little forecasting section at the end. What could possibly go wrong?

     

     

  5. What is consequence scanning?

    At LocalGovCamp, our designer Martin ran an interactive exercise that took attendees through a ‘consequence scanning’ exercise, as a way to predict and mitigate all the outcomes, both positive and negative, of a proposed piece of development.

    In this case, the service under discussion was a fictional parking violation reporting app.

     Consequence Scanning

    Let’s just repeat that, in case of any angry reactions: fictional!

    So, what could possibly go wrong with a piece of tech designed to encourage residents to grass on fellow citizens for their poor parking? You can see how it played out in this video:

     

    Now you’ve seen a consequence scanning exercise in action. If you’d like to understand more about the process, read on: this is how Martin explained the whole idea to us here at mySociety, with more detail on the underlying principles:

    We’ve been working on a few sensitive projects recently – specifically our work expanding FixMyStreet Pro to cover issues of a more social nature, like noise reporting, antisocial behaviour, that sort of thing.

    As experienced as we are with the ‘make a report by sticking a pin in a map’ style of interaction design, we recognise the need for extra care when applying this to issues that are about people, rather than things. There’s an increased risk of building a tool that results in unintended negative consequences; especially where the service concerns an area already prone to controversy.

    mySociety Board member Jonathan Flowers put us in touch with Connected Places Catapult, who had been using ‘Consequence Scanning’ for this very thing, and we realised it was just what we needed.

    It’s a structured system for drawing out the consequences of a new idea, and giving people a say in what actions are used to mitigate or address them. It originated from the Doteveryone thinktank, and CPC have taken it forward and customised it for their needs.

    In Consequence Scanning, consequences are classified as either intended or unintended, with the important distinction that intended consequences aren’t always positive, and unintended consequences aren’t always negative.

    The process is delivered in a workshop format and works best with a good mixture of participants with diverse views and backgrounds, directly involved in the service on both sides. This means ideally both service users and service officers should take part and be prepared to be honest about consequences. For this reason it’s important to create a safe space where information can be shared honestly and openly.

    The process is split into three parts:

    Part one: What are the consequences?

    Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?

    Part three: What are the unindented consequences we should mitigate?

    Part one: What are the consequences?

    1. What are the intended consequences for:
    •  Organisation – How might this affect our organisation?
    •  Users – How might this affect the users of this service?
    •  Community – What are the consequences that could affect the wider community?
    1. What are the unintended consequences? For the kind of work we do, unintended consequences tend to emerge in these areas:
    •    Lack of digital understanding:
      • What can happen in a situation where there is a lack of digital skills or access to technology?
    • Unintended uses and users
      • What could be the unintended uses of this service?
      • What could be the unintended users of this service? Eg private companies using public services for profit
    • Weak security/reliability/poor support/monitoring
      • What could happen in situations of technical failure, poorly equipped staff, or lack of budget etc?
    • Changes in norms and behaviours
      • How could this cause changes in societal norms and behaviours?
    • Displacement (what will people do this instead of… )
      • If people use this service instead of others what could result?
    • Impact on environment
      • How might this service result in consequences for the planet or local environment?

    Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?

    1. Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
    2. Add further details or related information

    Part three: What are the unintended consequences we want to mitigate?

    1. Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
    2. Use causal mapping to work out the relationships between the consequences and help determine where mitigations could have the greatest impact: eg, solve A before B, solve D and prevent E,F,G
    3. Use grouping and categorisation of consequences to show relationships

    This system works best on a new, but defined idea. If it’s done too early in the design process, the consequences end up being very general, or people bring their own assumptions and often focus on the wrong things. It’s best to bring it in once scope has been defined.

    The primary function is to identify the consequences and not to “solutionise” the mitigations, but the group should be free to discuss possible mitigations where they feel it’s important.

    We’ve been using Consequence Scanning in our work on noise reporting and antisocial behaviour, and it’s also proving useful for our internal anti-racism action group, where we want to understand the potential unintended results of any future development in terms of who our services reach, and who they exclude.

    Image: Drew Graham

  6. What role for Civic Tech, and open data, in mitigating the climate crisis?

    Our third and final TICTeC Seminar for this year was on civic tech and the climate emergency.

    Speakers Rachel Coxcoon of the Centre for Sustainable Energy (and also a District Councillor & Cabinet Member for Climate Change & Forward Planning), Tom Sasse of the Institute of Government, Natalia Carfi from Open Data Charter and Louise Crow, mySociety’s own Head of Development, engaged in a productive hour-long discussion.

    Meanwhile there was an equally useful conversation scrolling by as attendees shared links and insights in the chat window! We’ve summarised this at the foot of this post.

    Local councils may have declared a Climate Emergency, but now we get into the nitty gritty: where will money be spent, and how can it be used most effectively?

    “The biggest political issue is politics”, said Rachel, pointing out that our current, slow decision-making processes may not be fit for purpose in the face of a global emergency.

    She bemoaned the duplication of effort, almost inevitable thanks to our local government structures, when so much could be achieved across the country as a whole with a bit of co-ordination.

    Natalia was keen to point out the value of open data in all of this – and yet, as she says, the topic was hardly on the agenda at the last COP. The key is to get the governments in the same room as the people who need the data, so that the use case can suddenly become crystal clear to those engaged in gathering and sharing it.

    Tom reminded us that two thirds of people have never even heard of the term ‘net zero’, let alone thought about what it means, so there is a long way to go. He agreed that it’s no good each council working in isolation within their own carbon budgets: somehow we need to step back and get the wider picture.

    That’s where there may be a role for smaller data organisations, said Louise: taking big countrywide datasets and using them to inform the general public about the actions they can most usefully take.

    You can watch the whole event again via this video, or read the collaborative notes here.

    If you’d like to be the first to know about TICTeC events in 2021, sign up to our Research newsletter. We only send it when there’s something worth saying, so it won’t clog up your inbox!

    Thoughts and links from the Seminar chat

    We’ve removed names for the sake of privacy, but if there’s a comment or opportunity you’d like to respond to, email us at tictec@mysociety.org and we can put you in touch with the relevant person.

    • The Climate Action Open Up Guide: “the Chilean implementation report in Spanish and English”
    • mySociety’s Climate Action Plan explorer
    • The UK Climate Assembly website
    • “What ClimateView are doing with this open data project around defining a set of indicators for reducing carbon is also a useful tool when focusing on carbon and changes to make.”
    • “I’m working on Open Carbon UK – aiming to define data standards for carbon emission disclosure by all sizes of organisation. We’ve got some initial map-based visualisations from existing BEIS and public data here. Would love to talk to potential data or tech collaborators.”
    • “For learning how to effectively and constructively engage with decision makers, I can recommend Hope For The Future and for climate literacy training (including for local councils) I can recommend Carbon Literacy.”
    • “Here’s a playbook for Civic Voice during COVID — incorporating the new digital rules in the US Congress.”
    • “Builders build for profit and most are not installing the technologies needed until forced to do so, eg solar panels or heat pumps. Any thoughts how to overcome this barrier?”
    • “With regard to retrofit and how we find local trades etc, a good example is the Futureproof project. It’s vital that supply and demand are stimulated at the same time. Badly timed grant schemes that are too short are causing huge problems. Citizens want to act, and then find that the supply chain simply doesn’t exist in their area, and they lose heart.”
    • “Here’s an Open Environmental Data Project where we’re building this overlap between communities.”
    • “This is one of the projects where citizens are helping leverage data via sensors – and another one.”
    • This is the Climate Outreach resource Rachel is mentioning just now.
    • “Local initiatives based on the specific situation on the ground is the way to do this. The pandemic response has illustrated this starkly this year.”
    • “More councils using similar or the same frameworks for tracking and taking climate action would also help sharing and reuse of good practice.”
    • “In the UK charging points are holding back the transition to electric cars, particularly the reliability of the charging points. I wonder if anything can be done to help?”
    • “In the UK planning system we have a low level called Neighbourhood Plans which need to cover minimisation and impacts of Climate change. The Government intends to computerise these.”
    • “We’ve tried to do the best for our Neighbourhood plan by our own research but it should have been better connected to the data. Hopefully future NPs can be better connected. … Perhaps there could be boilerplate material available for Climate change data input to Neighbourhood plans. It’s taken us 4 years to curate relevant material :-(”
    • “There are so many NDP groups trying hard on this and MHCLG has let them down by not centralising a lot of data and making this available to them. But this is because MHCLG does not prioritise climate. ”
    • “Last May Congress changed its rules to allow for electronic document submission—does anyone have a legislature template or schema so that this kind of participatory climate data can be archived and discovered for example, during research on legislative history? For lawmakers?”
    • “The west coast fires in the USA has created a massive opening up of general awareness of vulnerability …we need to figure out how to channel the momentum now…”
  7. Tracking carbon for mySociety

    As we explore projects where mySociety can help address the climate crisis, as an organisation we’ve also been trying to understand the carbon impact of our existing work.

    Using Code for Australia’s carbon calculator as a really helpful guide and starting point, we’ve estimated mySociety’s 2019 and 2020 carbon footprints.

    In  2019 this was 74 tonnes of CO2, and so far in 2020 it’s, as you’d expect in a year that includes several months of lockdown, substantially lower at around 23 tonnes.

    It’s proving frustratingly difficult to place these figures in context: even while using their methodology, we can’t accurately compare the outcome to Code for Australia’s given their very different geographical situation and activities; and as a remote organisation where all employees work from home, our footprint is always going to be different from more conventional set-ups. If you think your organisation bears similarities to ours, and you’ve also calculated your emissions, please do let us know!

    As for addressing our output, we are pushing a two pronged approach: we’ve already changed staff policies to encourage more sustainable working methods and to ensure a significant reduction in our future emissions; and, currently, having learned of disturbing failings in even the most-recommended offsetting services, we are researching where we might be able to make direct payments to mitigate  the carbon we produce.

    mySociety 2019 carbon footprint
    Item Total CO2 (metric tonnes) Percentage of total
    Flights 40.663 55.31%
    Accommodation 9.545 12.98%
    Ground transport 6.198 8.43%
    Electronics 0.695 0.95%
    Servers – manufacture 5.120 6.96%
    Servers – electricity 7.199 9.79%
    Laptop – manufacture 1.655 2.25%
    Laptop – electricity 0.475 0.65%
    Catering 1.967 2.68%
    Everything else 0.002 0.00%
    Total 73.56 100.00%

     

    The biggest contribution to carbon expenditure in 2019 was travel. mySociety is a distributed organisation, with staff all around the UK. While on a daily basis that means very little commuting, we do (or did pre-COVID) meet up frequently in teams, and three to four times a year the entire organisation convenes in one place. International research contracts that require onsite interviews can mean long haul plane journeys, and travelling to the international events that we organise requires some air travel as well.

    As an organisation we produced 47 tonnes of carbon in travel in 2019, with 75% produced by relatively few longhaul plane flights. The overall contribution of train travel is relatively low despite a large number of journeys (349). There were far fewer domestic plane journeys, but even so they accounted for almost as much carbon as train trips within the UKs.

    Mode Journeys (one way) CO2 % C02 Total distance % Total distance Average C02 per journey
    Long distance plane 24 35,297 75% 73,201 63% 2,941
    Short hop plane 31 5,366 11% 11,938 10% 298
    Train 349 3,068 7% 24,035 21% 17
    UK plane 15 2,156 5% 2,964 3% 270
    Car 39 887 2% 1,359 1% 39
    Bus 25 36 0% 397 0% 3
    Eurostar 9 29 0% 1,830 2% 5
    Grand total 492 46,839 100% 115,724 100% 181

     

    While for obvious reasons our 2020 travel costs are much lower, we are keen to avoid a return to the ‘old normal’.

    Over the last year, our policy towards ‘short’ plane journeys has changed. When staff do travel, if their destination can be reached within 7.5 hours door-to-door by train (or other forms of sustainable public transport) they should take this option rather than flying, except in mitigating circumstances around safety or accessibility.

    Additionally, if staff choose low-carbon holiday travel they are entitled to claim additional annual leave, as part of mySociety’s involvement in the Climate Perks scheme.

    Our wider environmental policy can be read on our website.

    Image: Providence Doucet

  8. ARG! What have we done

    That’s ARG as in ‘Anti-Racism Group’ — not exactly a backronym, but we definitely didn’t object to having this internal mySociety committee named after a cry of exasperation and frustration. The subject matter certainly warrants it.

    Like many other organisations, we were inspired to make changes in response to the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for action this summer, sparked by the death of George Floyd. In mid-July we stated mySociety’s commitment to anti-racism and formed a working group, open to all employees to attend.

    In many respects this has operated in the same way as our less snappily-titled Climate Action Group: fortnightly meetings in which members discuss and prioritise issues, educating ourselves and formulating policy to share with the organisation as a whole.

    There’s plenty to tackle, from staff culture to HR and employment practices, the demographics who use our services and the research that still needs to be done. In all of these the question is the same: how can we do better to support other lives and experiences, especially Black experiences?

    It’s a long journey and we’re not pretending that an hour a month is going to bring down systemic racism. But in the spirit that small actions add up to make a difference over time, here’s what we’ve done thus far:

    • We’ve added a ‘Supporting diversity’ section to the Culture page of our website. People visit this page when they’re thinking about applying for a job here, so this small change could punch above its weight in the area of recruitment.
    • Since we’ve had job vacancies recently, we’ve been able to put in practice plans to place job adverts strategically so that a wider diversity of candidates will see them.
    • All line managers will have taken ACAS training on Equality and Diversity by the end of the year.
    • New methods in our product development, like ‘consequence scanning‘, should help us to foresee any biases or unforeseen results of service features before we launch them.
    • We’ve created a staff ‘anti racism and diversity’ reading list, purchased digital copies that any staff member can access, and suggested which books people might like to begin with.
    • We ran a workshop on power and privilege at our last team meeting.
    • We have plans to amend the terms and conditions on WriteToThem and other mySociety services to better prevent their use for hate speech and other abuse.
    • We’ve researched best practice in terms of style and vocabulary, and added them to our inhouse style guide.

    Over the next few months, we’ll be kicking off a research programme to dig more deeply into the question: what types of services are useful to marginalised groups? This will inform us in future development, and we’ll also be able to share the findings so that others can learn from them too.

    This may be the trigger for an annual piece of research in which we examine who’s using our services, what for, and the impact they’re having.

    We also want to understand how we can best provide support to groups who want to use our services to campaign around race, racism and structural inequalities in the UK.

    That’s how far we’ve come in the first three months. To some extent, we’re feeling our way, as we’re not experts in this field.

    This work involves many difficult conversations, but they are the conversations that need to be had, and we know that they will slowly result in a better organisation for everyone. We appreciate that, for some, this work is coming late and seems like little. And to you we want to say, we’re trying to do better, and we will keep on trying.

    Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

  9. 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.

  10. Do photos help resolution of FixMyStreet reports?

    Summary

    FixMyStreet allows people to upload images along with a report. This can quickly provide the authority with more details of the issue than might be passed along in the written description, and lead to quicker evaluation and prioritisation of the repair. For problems that are hard to locate geographically by description (or where the pin has been dropped inaccurately), images might also help council staff locate and deal with the problem correctly.

    In 2019, 35% of reports included photos. Accounting for several other possible factors,  reports with photos were around 15% more likely to be recorded as fixed than reports without a photo. In absolute terms, reports with photos were fixed at a rate two percentage points higher. This varies by category, with photos having a much stronger effect (highways enquiries and reports made in parks and open space) in some categories, and in other categories photos having a small negative effect in the resolution (reports of pavement issues and rights of way).

    In general, these results suggest that attaching photos is not only useful for authorities, but can make it more likely that reporters have their problem resolved. There is a significant reservation that photos are much more useful for some kinds of reports than others. In terms of impacts on the service, when photos can convey useful information that helps lead to a resolution, users should be encouraged to attach them. Where photos are less helpful (such as problems encountered mostly at night), other prompt suggestions or asset selection tools may help lead to more repairs.

    (more…)