Following their launch in October, we have continued to improve the Council Climate Action Scorecards site — for example, the scores for all councils on any one question can now be seen on one page (like this). Find these pages from any individual council’s page, or via the section pages.
Meanwhile, CE UK have continued to network, influence and promote the site and their work around the Action Scorecards. They have created significant media interest, especially at the local level (just where it’s needed!) and also attracted coverage from ITV, the Independent, and specialist press such as LGPlus. They’ve been invited to speak to a variety of audiences from an LGA event to Mobility Ways. Having already trained up 110 local residents/campaigners since the launch, the last of CE UK’s How to use the Council Climate Action Scorecards’ training sessions will run today (7th Dec) at 5.30pm, and bring people together to learn about how to use the Scorecards in their campaigning, and network with others doing the same.
A key learning point from CAPE and our Scorecards work has been to see just how fragmented the data around local authorities’ climate planning and action is, and how much of a barrier this is to data transparency and therefore to improvement: it can be highly ineffective, and a waste of (paid) people’s time, to compare metaphorical apples and pears.
As such, this month we were proud to run an event focused on Fragmented Data, with support from our partners in the Blueprint Coalition. Julia Cushion, our Policy & Advocacy Manager, chaired the webinar which saw Anna Powell-Smith introduce key findings of our report Unlocking the value of fragmented public data, while a variety of speakers provided perspectives around the potential and practical application of de-fragmenting data and answer questions from a 80+ strong virtual audience.
It was encouraging to see influential people grasping the significance of what might be seen as a bit of a dry, obscure issue to the untrained eye. This, we hope, is just the beginning of this story and I suspect we’ll see it move into the mainstream over the next few months / years, with more ‘next steps’ from Julia and our Senior Researcher, Alex, sooner. The recording is available here (with subtitles) on our YouTube channel.
We are a month closer to launching the Local Intelligence Hub (LIH) to the public (in early 2024) with our partners the Climate Coalition. November saw more groundwork going into this, with new datasets uploaded, the ‘new constituencies’ work continuing, and functionalities enabled. Our developer Struan moved across from handling the Scorecards’ site development to double our developer capacity on LIH for the next while, and give our other developer, Alexander, someone to work alongside. Planning has also ramped up beyond the site itself, including around communications, and how it fits into the Climate Coalition’s broader plans for 2024.
Partnership has been a solid theme for mySociety’s Climate team from the word go, but it has been particularly noticeable this month with a number of the team scoping out, listening and learning from each other and potential partners to help bring our Neighbourhood Warmth plans together.
As we prepare for a retrospective on our latest year in partnership with CE UK, I find myself reflecting on how vital trust, mutual respect, care and good will are for enabling people to achieve, as is learning to recognise and rise above one’s ego. Achieving with others can also be, in my experience, deeply rewarding, as we join with the best of others to achieve more than we could alone. It is a pleasure and an honour to work in a team, and with partners, who work hard to put the needs of the planet, society and the sector before themselves.
Image: Hannah Domsic
In celebration of our millionth public FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve been examining many aspects of the service — and now we come to that huge archive of released information, built up by members of the public asking for what they wanted, and receiving data in response.
So, what’s in there?
The thing is, we don’t know.
Well, that’s not to say we have no idea: of course we do occasionally look at what’s being requested and released via WhatDoTheyKnow. When we find something interesting, we often tweet about it. But with requests being submitted at an ever-increasing rate, there’s no way that we can inspect every single one.
We do, however, have some thoughts about what you can find in the massive public archive that is WhatDoTheyKnow, and it’s not just ‘information that people have asked for’. The meta-benefit of having a big corpus like this free and online is that it provides a lens for examining our own society.
So for example, some of the information just waiting to be analysed by curious researchers, linguists or historians include:
What sort of things people want to know Machine learning technology can now allow a researcher to take a huge dataset like WhatDoTheyKnow’s million public requests, and analyse it. What topics do the most people ask about, which authorities do they make what type of requests to, which type of wording is most likely to gain a response, and all sorts of other questions are just waiting to be answered — should a curious enough researcher want to get their teeth into it.
And incidentally – if an authority analyses the requests made to it over the years, it would also find useful intel on what data it could be publishing proactively, so people don’t even have to submit an FOI request, and they don’t have to expend effort responding to them.
Lessons about how language changes When you have a million questions, and a vast number of responses from authorities, you can start to understand shifts in our language. For example: when did information officers start including pronouns in their signatures? That may not be relevant to the information being released, but it still marks a significant change in social history. And when did society settle on ‘covid’ rather than ‘coronavirus’, ‘Brexit’ rather than ‘leaving the EU’? We reckon there’s a huge value to any linguist or historian who takes a look.
Widely useful information There’s at least one type of information that we know is useful to hundreds of people every year: the acceptance rates at various universities.
Every year, prospective students start to worry about their chance of getting into their preferred institution; and every year (usually on Reddit) they are pointed towards previous releases showing the data; or, where it doesn’t exist, advised to put in their own request for it.
That’s just one example of how information, once published, has a spread far beyond the single person who requested it. There are many more, not least in Wikipedia citations.
When contracts are due for renewal Another common use of the FOI Act is by companies or startups looking for commercial information — such as when a contract is up for renewal so they can submit a tender; or whether certain authorities have a need for the product they’re developing.
A request sent across a number of authorities in the area, or even across the country, can be a very efficient source of intel.
Your esoteric pet subject What are you into? Politics?, Public transport? Cookery, bats, or seagulls perhaps? Whatever it is, you can search WhatDoTheyKnow and see if anyone’s uncovered interesting information about it.
If not, maybe you’ll think of something you’d like to know — and don’t forget you can set up an alert, so you’ll receive an email whenever someone mentions your chosen keyword in a future request or response.
What authorities don’t actually have a record of. We blogged a while back about what it means when your request comes back as ‘information not held’. Sometimes this can be as revealing as the information itself.
Datasets behind news stories. When journalists or researchers use WhatDoTheyKnow or WhatDoTheyKnow Pro to gather data that helps them break a story or write a paper, we always encourage them to link their article or report back to the responses on the site. Because, yes, they’ve found one story, but there may be more to discover in there, and there are always people motivated enough to look. Equally, we’ll link back from the site to their story – look out for the ‘in the news’ section in the right hand column of every request page.
These are just a few examples of the riches to be found in plain view on WhatDoTheyKnow. If it wasn’t for the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, and for WhatDoTheyKnow’s ability to make information truly free, none of this would be available. But it is, and that’s great, so why not dive into the search bar and see what you can find?
Tomorrow, in the final post of this series, we’ll be looking at what we’re doing to bring WhatDoTheyKnow’s benefits to the communities that need them most.
As we look back on a million public requests, we’re also looking to the future and how WhatDoTheyKnow might be leveraged for the most important issue of our generation — the climate.
The climate emergency is a “wicked problem,” that is to say that it is a challenge with incomplete, contradictory, and often changing requirements. When you add misinformation into the mix, with politically-driven narratives that seek to derail progress (indeed, question the need for progress), it is easy to see why the release of factual information might be a vital tool in our journey to decarbonisation.
There is, as it happens, a legal mechanism that was designed specially for requesting information about the environment. The Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) are similar to FOI in that they allow you to request information from authorities, and they can be used when requesting anything — broadly — to do with the environment.
Happily, they cover more authorities and have a higher bar for refusal than FOI. Equally happily, you can submit an EIR request on WhatDoTheyKnow, just as you can with FOI requests. Find out more about EIRs on WhatDoTheyKnow.
With that in mind, no matter who you are — a company, a campaign or just a concerned citizen — there are ways in which you can put the EIR to the service of the climate. Here are just a few of them.
- If you’re a startup in the climate sector, you might ask authorities about contract renewals, research whether any competitors exist, or request data that will inform your product development. There are many more such uses, but hopefully that’s enough to get you started!
- If you are running a climate-related campaign, you may also find EIRs helpful. You can get the facts and figures that underline your arguments; find out richer data about your issue; or even get minutes from meetings where decisions have been made about your cause.
- If you’re an individual who would love to do something for the climate, but don’t know where to start, how about holding authorities to account, for example over divestment from fossil fuels in their pensions? Ask a question, get the facts — and then maybe write to your councillors, or even ask a question at a council meeting to get the point home.
- If you’re a journalist, you can use WhatDoTheyKnow (or WhatDoTheyKnow Pro if you want to keep your findings private until your story goes out) to uncover the truth — or even corruption — around climate issues. For inspiration, take a look at what journalist Lucas Amin found out with a series of dogged requests.
- If you’re a researcher, or just someone who loves stats, remember that you can fill in any gaps in your information with WhatDoTheyKnow. Just see what Climate Emergency UK did when they needed information from every council in the country, to inform their Scorecards project. That was a massive endeavour, but the principle can be applied to any quest for information.
Yesterday we considered what the world would look like if WhatDoTheyKnow had never been launched. Come back tomorrow for thoughts about what’s in that massive archive of requests and responses, and how society as a whole can benefit from it — beyond the obvious utility of simply accessing useful information.
Yesterday we shared the news that WhatDoTheyKnow has processed its millionth public request.
The site’s been around since 2008, nearly as long as the UK’s right to information, and we think it’s fair to say that we’ve had some impact on the world during that time.
Let’s go back, just for a moment, to 2006 when mySociety ran its open call for suggestions of new websites we could build. Imagine we’d bypassed the ‘Freedom of Information Filer and Archive’ suggested by both Francis Irving and Phil Rodgers, and instead had plumped for one of the easier ideas. And in this scenario, let’s imagine that no-one else went ahead and made an FOI site either.
So, in a world without WhatDoTheyKnow:
Information would be released to the requester only. Here’s the most obvious difference: instead of being automatically published on WhatDoTheyKnow, any information received would come directly to the person who requested it.
If someone else wanted the same information, they’d have to ask for it again. And every time it was requested, authorities would have to send it out all over again.
This one simple thing that WhatDoTheyKnow does – publishing responses – both puts information into the public domain, and saves authorities from the bother of duplicating their efforts.
Information might not be released by email. Of course, when you make a request on WhatDoTheyKnow, it goes to the authority by email, and, almost always, the response is sent by the same means. But in our alternate universe without WhatDoTheyKnow, information might come much more regularly through the request-maker’s own letterbox.
In WhatDoTheyKnow’s early days, one of the big battles we had to fight was for email to be accepted as a valid FOI request — not to mention email that came from a WhatDoTheyKnow-generated email address. Guidance from both the Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner now confirms that such requests are not only valid — and in 2016 an independent commission concluded that publishing responses to FOI requests “should be the norm”.
Many fewer people would have heard of FOI, and FOI would be the preserve mainly of journalists and researchers. Let’s face it, FOI still isn’t as well-understood as we might like it to be — even though our research found that one in ten adults in the UK has put in a request at some time.
But without WhatDoTheyKnow, we believe the concept of FOI would be even less recognised. Fewer people would have stumbled across it when looking for answers; even those who had heard of the Act might find it difficult to figure out how to access it. It’s probable that only trained professionals such as journalists and researchers would be using FOI on a regular basis.
We wouldn’t be there to help people with FOI issues. WhatDoTheyKnow’s amazing team of volunteers answers a massive number of queries every day — questions from users of the site who are puzzled about how to make a request, what to do when they receive a refusal, or what an exemption means.
If it wasn’t for WhatDoTheyKnow, the chances are that the small part of the general population who did figure out how to make a request would give up as soon as they received a refusal or a request for clarification.
People around the world wouldn’t have access to FOI sites, either. If we hadn’t built WhatDoTheyKnow, we’d never have packaged it up as the open source Alaveteli codebase — and motivated individuals around the world wouldn’t have had a simple way to set up their own access to information websites. We’re proud to say that Alaveteli sites are running in more than 25 jurisdictions globally, from Argentina and Australia, to Ukraine, Uganda and Uruguay.
Our right to information would be weaker. We’ve defended the FOI Act through successive governments, with winds blowing FOI in and out of favour. We’ve given evidence in Parliament, stood up for FOI via inquiries and fought against its erosion with campaigns.
We believe in the right to information as a basic tenet of democracy and accountability, and we’re prepared to do whatever it takes to defend it.
So, with all that in mind, aren’t you glad that WhatDoTheyKnow does exist?
Come back tomorrow to find out how WhatDoTheyKnow can be used to tackle the overarching issue of our times: climate.
Image: Fons Heijnsbroek
Pop open the bubbly — this is huge! Yes, it’s a big day for us, as the number of Freedom of Information requests on WhatDoTheyKnow ticks over to a mahoosive one million. That milestone was reached at 05:34 this morning, when a request to Kent Police was published.
A million public requests! It’s proof of the value of FOI, and of the need for WhatDoTheyKnow. In essence, this big round number represents the vast archive of publicly-available information, built up by hundreds of thousands of individual users over the site’s 15 year lifetime. They’ve asked — and continue to ask — for information from public authorities, at the current rate of two-and-half thousand requests a week.
Why? Because, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, they can; and, perhaps more importantly, thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow, it’s easy. Normal. Unintimidating.
According to our polling, one in ten UK citizens have used FOI. People are doing good things with WhatDoTheyKnow — we celebrated several of them at our recent awards, and over the years we’ve written about the varied and often surprising ways in which people have used our service to change the world. As a small sample of the many amazing uses we’ve seen, here’s how WhatDoTheyKnow has helped people to:
- get to the truth of the Post Office Horizon scandal
- reveal vital environmental information
- investigate into missing children
- protect social housing
- understand what happens to victims of modern slavery
- fight against LOBO loans to local councils
- uncover discrimination towards wheelchair users
- stand up for erectile dysfunction care
But the impact doesn’t stop there. We know from the massive ratio of visitors to requesters that the main use of WhatDoTheyKnow is in viewing information that others have made public. This means that for the same cost to the public purse of processing an FOI request, information has been made much more public and discoverable.
Over the past nine years, 660,000 requests have had 107 million page views (160x). WhatDoTheyKnow is, in systematic terms, a cheap way of getting more benefit from the hundreds of thousands of pieces of public information that have been released through FOI. That benefit will multiply, long into the future, with an archive that will always be available.
And that’s what we mean when we say that information can be free. Free, as in free to fly; and free as in provided at absolutely no cost to anyone who can make use of it.
Thank you to everyone who’s played a part in WhatDoTheyKnow reaching this meaningful milestone: the volunteers who help run the site; the developers who helped to build it and those who continue to refine it; the information officers who gather and respond with information; the funders who understand the worth of our service; and of course all those citizens who, collectively, have asked for information and, together, built up this unparalleled library of knowledge.
Here’s to you all, and here’s to the ten millionth request — which given the exponential rate of growth, will not take ten times as long for us to reach.
If you’d like to assure the future for easy access to information, then please do make a donation. Thank you.
Next post in this series: what the world would look like if WhatDoTheyKnow had never been launched.
Image: Ivan Lopatin
Wednesday night saw a steady stream of people making their way to one corner of a small square in London. mySociety staff, past and present; friends and associates; stellar users of our services; funders, journalists — in short, folk who had played a part in mySociety’s early years or subsequent history — assembled in Conway Hall to celebrate our twentieth year as an organisation.
It was a wonderful opportunity to look back, sometimes with a slight sense of wonder, but also with some pride. It turns out that when you put together so many people with a bit of mySociety in their history, they have a lot to talk about, even if they come from quite separate bits of our timeline.
Traditionally, we put out an online impact report at the end of the year, covering the previous twelve months. Well, this year we’ve gone all out and covered our whole history as an organisation. Guests had special early access to this, with a print booklet left on each seat. Don’t worry if you weren’t there: we’ll be putting it out as a digital version closer to our usual December publication date.
The report doesn’t just present our history though; some sections look toward our future mission and purpose — something that Louise Crow, our Chief Executive, also folded into her speech. Anecdotes, facts, call-outs and thoughtful sidenotes contributed to an engaging and informative spin through the ‘eras’ of mySociety which you can read here.
And of course, there was the presentation of our awards. A couple of weeks ago, we told you which people and projects had been shortlisted; and now we can reveal the winners.
Driving Institutional Change award
The award was collected on behalf of Richard Bennett, aka the Heavy Metal Handcyclist, by his partner Eryn and sister Perin, and represents his activism and generosity in sharing knowledge with others to make the world more accessible for everyone.
You can read more about his work in our blog post of 2021.
Accelerating Climate Action award
This award was taken by Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, in recognition of the way they’ve turned climate data into tangible climate action, using both our CAPE site and our MapIt API.
We wrote a bit about that in this post.
Exposing Truth award
Journalist Jenna Corderoy was recognised in this category, for her bold and sustained work in uncovering the Cabinet Office’s ‘FOI clearing house’ – bringing about change, using FOI, for the benefit of FOI.
Impactful International Use award
We awarded this one to Ukrainian FOI service Dostup do Pravdy (Access to Truth) – in their absence. The award was collected by our head of Transparency, Gareth Rees, and we’ll make sure it gets to them safely.
We’ve had a long relationship with Dostup; but our most recent coverage of their work can be seen here.
Campaigning for Justice award
The final award was given to Eleanor Shaikh for her tireless research uncovering injustice and official cover-ups around the Post Office Horizon scandal, which we recently wrote about here.
Of course, we really wish we could have given an award to all of our shortlistees, who are all doing such excellent work in their own areas. It was great to see so many campaigners, researchers, journalists and organisations chatting away and comparing notes over their methods: we hope the evening has resulted in some useful connections.
We were extremely touched by all the winners’ words when they came up to the podium to accept their awards. They indicated that our services had allowed them to attain breakthroughs that they either wouldn’t have managed without us, or which would have taken a lot more time and effort.
For us, the evening was a chance to see the living, breathing results of our lines of code and theories of change – ideas that we believe should help people to make a difference, but which are unproven until we hear of such incredible achievements. We are honoured to be a small part of that.
Might you be a part of our future?
Be part of our Board! As all of this activity makes clear, mySociety still has an awful lot to do — and a clear direction to take. If that sounds like something you’d like to be part of, you might be interested in our current Trustee and Non-Executive Director vacancies. As a Trustee or NED, you use your expertise and a little of your time to help steer our direction and input on all our activities. Find out more here.
Help us extend our impact further! Could we work together to achieve more? Part of our mission is to form mutually beneficial partnerships with other organisations, with each side supporting the other. If that sounds like something you’d like to explore further, drop us a line.
Finally, here are a few photos from the evening – click to see them at a larger size.
There was also a professional photographer in attendance, so we’ll make sure to come back and share those images once they’ve been processed – especially those of the award winners, which, it turns out, mobile phone snaps didn’t do justice to!
Thank you so much to everyone who helped make this such a joyous and moving event, from our shortlistees to our guests, and all the staff members who pitched in to make it go smoothly.
Photos: Sally Bracegirdle and Lizetta Lyster
Thank you for joining us to celebrate mySociety’s 20th anniversary. It’s brilliant to be able to toast 20 years of using data and digital tools to empower people.
One of my favourite descriptions of our work was written a few years ago by the journalist Zoe Williams. She said “Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions – whether Democracy Club or mySociety – collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”
I think magic is a really appropriate metaphor here, maybe stage magic, where something seemingly impossible happens. Sometimes, as in mySociety, there are clever technical tricks, but mostly, what makes it seem magical is that no-one can imagine that someone would spend so many hours practising to make the trick work.
To build a thing that sustains for 20 years, is hard. I’m going to try to tell a bit of the story of the services and projects, but there’s another story, which is a story of people. People who care and go above and beyond, sometimes above and beyond what is reasonable, to make mySociety what it is. That is what makes the impossible possible.
With all the people and photos from different times in the life of the organisation, it feels a bit like the mySociety ‘eras’ tour.
So I thought maybe I would sketch out the different eras of the organisation and how they led us to this point.
Era 1: the early days
mySociety was launched in 2003, 12 years after the launch of the ‘web’ itself. I came across it three years later in January 2006 when I used a site PledgeBank.com to sign an online pledge, a novelty at that point. The pledge was to “pay £10 into a fund that aims to fill a public advertising space with something thought-provoking” if 350 other people would do the same things. According to my emails, in the same minute, I volunteered to write some code to screen scrape official information about the Northern Ireland Assembly, and later that evening joined two of the mailing lists.
I must have been excited. Lots of people were – mySociety represented a unique opportunity to use technical skills to do something good.
When I first worked for mySociety later that year, I think I was employee no 5, joining Tom Steinberg and the first three developers – Chris Lightfoot, Matthew Somerville and Francis Irving, and a group of dedicated volunteers. They were in the middle of an exceptionally creative period, having already launched three public facing services – including WriteToThem (which was born as FaxYourRepresentative). They had also taken on TheyWorkForYou, the parliamentary monitoring site, which had been developed by a group of volunteers.
That era of creativity continued, with brilliant new services:
In 2007 FixMyStreet was launched, a simple way for people to report local issues.
It was followed in 2008 by WhatDoTheyKnow – a service for making FOI requests, created as a result of multiple suggestions in an open call for proposals.
Oh, and also the first ever Downing Street e-petitions site.
So, an era of productivity, but also, like many new organisations, one of huge financial instability.
At mySociety’s 5th birthday party, Tom said: “We know from the continued influence of newspapers, some born in the 19th century, that political media needs longevity to gain the reach and legitimacy required to transform whole systems and to challenge the expectations of whole populations. mySociety needs to work out how to be here not just in 6 months, but in 20 years.”
So that first era defined two grand challenges – how can the web be used “to tip the relationship between people and government, in favour of the people”, and how can you embed that mission inside an organisation that can survive long enough to make it stick.
Era 2: International community and reuse
I think the second era of mySociety is the era of international reuse. Our code had always been open source, and there had been a couple of new sites built with it by this time.
But now we extracted and built customisable software in collaboration with partners around the world, and fostered an international community to accelerate reuse and impact. Alaveteli was the first product of that era, a framework extracted from WhatDoTheyKnow to power new FOI sites. AlaveteliCon in 2012 was our first significant international event, and was accompanied by an install lab where people could bring laptops and work together to get new FOI sites running.
This era brought efficiencies of reuse, but in the same way that the most powerful thing about civic tech can be the idea that someone, somewhere has built this tool because they expect you to want to ask a question of those in power, or check what your representative’s been doing, sometimes the most powerful part of international work is not the reuse of the code itself, but the encouragement that comes from a set of friends and colleagues around the world that don’t think that what you’re doing is crazy.
As the field grew and matured enough to settle on a name – ‘civic tech’ – mySociety also took a more structured approach to understanding impact. This work stepped up a gear in 2015 with the first TICTeC – the Impacts of Civic Tech conference. TICTeC has run in person or online every year since then, convening thousands of researchers, funders and practitioners to share their knowledge and experience.
In all there have been 87 projects based on our code, with 48 still running today, including at least a dozen sites like AskTheEU across Europe, InfoProVsechny in Czechia, KiMitTud in Hungary, Mzalendo in Kenya, and QueSabes in Uruguay that have now passed their own 10th anniversaries. We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and not every project has lasted. But when reuse works, it’s a huge force multiplier. Alaveteli has been one of the real successes in this respect and it’s been very exciting to see new features, such as the tools we subsequently built for journalists, have immediate impact not just in the UK but across the world.
I’m very happy that we’re continuing to learn and share internationally through TICTeC and our Access to Information network where along with partners we’re sharing approaches around the technology, but also how it works with other modes of action – journalism, campaigning, and strategic litigation and legislative change.
So the first of many thanks this evening go to Transparency programme lead, Gareth Rees, who has juggled the many, often conflicting demands of running a large UK platform, a successful international open source project, a pan-european learning network and several other projects with fortitude and meticulous planning, ably supported by Graeme Porteous and Jen Bramley.
They also go to Gemma Moulder, our incredible Events Manager, who has been the heart of the TICTeC community. And please mark your calendars, now that she’s organised the hell out of this anniversary party, she’s going to be turning her attention to TICTeC 2024 next spring.
Era 3: Real products
So the first era of mySociety defined two problems to make progress against, with perhaps the more challenging one being how to run services for long enough to have impact at scale. In 2015 Mark Cridge joined as Chief Executive faced with two big tasks – to be mySociety’s first non-founder chief executive, a transition point at which many organisations fail, and to develop the commercial side of the organisation into a sustainable business.
mySociety Ltd had always taken on commercial work, but in 2016 we made a decision to focus on a product in order to scale revenue and generate profit to actually contribute significantly to the parent charity. That product became FixMyStreet Pro, designed to help councils handle fault reporting. And in time mySociety Ltd became SocietyWorks. As of today, SocietyWorks has 28 clients for FixMyStreet Pro, and 6 for our second significant product, WasteWorks. In that time FixMyStreet has gone from 850k problem reports to now 4.4 million.
This is a huge achievement, and whilst the success of FixMyStreet, like so many things at mySociety, would never have happened without Matthew, our resident non-evil genius, the transformation into a profitable business has taken a huge team effort – to research, build, price, market, sell, contract, manage and deliver a product that works for citizens and for councils. So, along with Matthew, I want to say thank you to the whole SocietyWorks team – Dave Arter, Sally Bracegirdle, Chris Mytton, Moray Jones, Lizetta Lyster, Bekki Leaver, Jacqueline Lau, Victoria Mihell-Hale, Amelia Nicholas, Nicolle Whitehead, Nik Gupta, Sally Reader and Chris Edwards.
And two special thanks – first to Sam Pearson and to Pete Stevens and co at Mythic Beasts for the seamless work behind the scenes to provide stable infrastructure to support both an unusual digital charity and a growing software as a service business. There’s tons more I could say about this but I will limit myself to this – we’ve come a long way since the days of a fax server in a cupboard.
And second to Angela Dixon – for throwing absolutely everything into SocietyWorks and mySociety and leading the team as Managing Director with the exact combination of thoughtfulness, decisiveness and boundless positive energy that we needed.
Era 4: Citizen empowerment at scale and with nuance
This brings us more or less to the present era. I quoted Tom earlier, saying that political media needed longevity in order to get reach and legitimacy. We’re starting to see the results of some longevity.
Some representative polling in 2021 showed that one in three UK adults have heard of TheyWorkForYou, and one in five have used it. In the last 10 years WhatDoTheyKnow has gone from 100k public FOI requests to close to a million, and informed countless news stories and campaigns.
So how do we use that longevity and reach most effectively? We have some ideas.
Between them, our services span the practical issues that introduce people to civic life – dog mess, housing issues and bin collection, through the many facets of the tens of thousands of public institutions covered by the FOI act, to the fundamental building blocks of our democracy – voting and representation in the UK’s parliaments.
People want to participate in civic life but only if they have a reason to believe it makes a difference. One thing that has become clearer over time is that the real core of our mission with respect to government is not to get it to do better at digital, but to use digital to get it to do better at democracy – to show the kind of transparency, responsiveness and interest in people’s lives that makes participation meaningful. The scale and openness of our platforms gives us a unique perspective on the challenges people hit when they try to engage with democratic institutions. The fact that the platforms sit outside those institutions gives us a point of leverage.
We’ll be using what we’ve learned from our services, and support from the communities that use them, to bring about changes in policy and practice that are directly targeted at those challenges. That way, we’re not just helping people work around obstacles, but removing those obstacles for good.
Alex Parsons has given us hugely valuable insights into how our services are being used, and a credible voice on Access to Information, democratic participation and yes, potholes and dog poo too. Thank you Alex, for being an incredible fount of ideas on where we can go from here.
Reach more and more kinds of people
There are also responsibilities that come with scale, and one is to make sure that our services do more than empower the already empowered. We want to reach more and more kinds of people, with a focus on those who are being democratically underserved, and who are underrepresented amongst our service users.
We recognise that this is an area where we need to learn from others and we’re taking multiple approaches – conducting outreach and research on how we can better support people from marginalised and under-served communities using our core services, and developing partnership work that gives us opportunities to learn, such as the FixMyBlock project with TowerBlocks UK – helping tower block residents understand and exercise their rights, or the Stop and Search Data dashboard we’ve developed with Black Thrive.
Respond on climate
We also need to recognise the era we are entering. This is one in which climate change is no longer the story, but the setting in which all stories take place. In the next decades we have to rapidly make changes across our society – in how we travel, what we eat, how we heat our homes. In order to do that fairly, the decisions we are faced with need participation from all kinds of people: to reduce the harms and share the benefits of this enormous transition. It’s a huge democratic challenge. We’re going to need to continue to learn and experiment, not least in getting people in all kinds of roles the information they need to act together. We’ve been working on a suite of services in our Climate programme to help people track, challenge, coordinate and collaborate. I want to share a couple of examples of that work.
In the Climate Action Scorecards, a project led by Climate Emergency UK scoring local authority plans and action on climate, we see several interesting elements come together – the use of WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to rapidly create datasets from batches of FOI requests, along with research and policy work, so that we can present simple headlines on local climate action that anyone can understand, and at the same time, make an evidenced case to policymakers for better publication of the underlying data. Come to our webinar together with the Centre for Public Data on fragmented data on the 28th of this month to hear more about that.
In the Local Intelligence Hub, we’re working with the Climate Coalition, a coalition with more than 100 member organisations, representing 22 million people across the UK, exploring how a digital service can help them share data to work better as a coalition to have effective conversations about climate action with politicians, and to better understand local areas, and their own movement.
Finally our latest service, Neighbourhood Warmth will bring back a little of the ‘I will if you will’ spirit of Pledgebank to the challenge of home energy across the UK, encouraging neighbours to take action to explore energy efficiency improvements together.
Zarino Zappia leads the climate team – Struan Donald, Alexander Griffen, Emily Kippax, Siôn Williams and Julia Cushion. Thank you to you all for inventing and realising a new generation of mySociety services. And thanks to Zarino for being a collaborative and multi-talented leader, and for quietly rolling his sleeves up and improving everything he touches, across the organisation.
I hope I’ve given you a flavour of how we’ve evolved as an organisation, and how I think we can have the greatest impact in our next era. I’m excited, because I think we are starting to see the shape of what mySociety could be for the long term – a stable and effective institution working with citizens, civil society and digital technologies in the service of a democracy capable of meeting the challenges we now face.
Which makes this a good point to talk about the role of our trustees and directors – a truly inspirational set of people who give up their time and expertise on a voluntary basis to advise, challenge, and connect us, and to help us be the organisation that we aspire to be.
A huge thank you to Ade Adewunmi, Cam Ross, Devin O’Shaugnessy, Jen Thornton, Onyeka Onyekwelu, Rachel Rank, Steve Skelton and Tony Burton, and Gen Maitland Hudson as our Chair of Trustees, and Mandy Merron as the Chair of the SocietyWorks board, as well as all their predecessors, for being sound advisors, and making board meetings something to look forward to.
I also want to take a moment to mark the very sad recent loss of Francis Mainoo, a hugely valued member of both boards, and a kind and generous leader. Like early staff members Chris Lightfoot and Angie Ahl, Francis’ many contributions here and elsewhere will long be remembered.
mySociety simply would not have got to this milestone without the dedication and selflessness of the many people who have supported the organisation in volunteer roles.
Along with our trustees, that is particularly true of the people who have volunteered around WhatDoTheyKnow, where scale brings challenges as well as impact. Running a service like WhatDoTheyKnow responsibly takes a significant amount of work – 364 new requests are now made every day through the site and we know that the responsible governance of digital platforms is crucially important to their effect on society.
Richard Taylor, John Cross, Martyn Dewar, William Fitzpatrick, Matt Knight, Luis Lago, Alison Bellamy, Doug Paulley and more before them have put countless hours in helping and supporting WhatDoTheyKnow’s users – thank you all.
And for absolutely invaluable on the spot pro-bono legal advice – when you need it, you really need it – many thanks to Francis Davey, and Matt Lewin.
And thank you too to Helen Cross who, having been a long time volunteer, has taken on the challenge of managing the service with the help of her robot friends, and now with the help of Georgia Kelsey, who has been gamely spelunking into the support mailbox over the last few months.
I’ve talked about the significant progress we’ve made in sustaining ourselves as an organisation. That problem is not yet solved – and I know this is a sympathetic audience, as many of you have played a part in getting us to where we are. The funding question keeps me up at night, because I think it is a genuinely hard problem of finding a financial model to deliver services which are a public good.
So two more sets of thank yous here.
First, to all the funders who have supported our work – with some notables in somewhat chronological order – Tim Jackson for our very first seed funding and Joseph Rowntree for our first philanthropic institutional funding. Long term early support came from OSF, the Omidyar Network and Luminate, Google, and the Indigo Trust. The Quadrature Climate Foundation and the National Lottery are supporting our climate team and the Adessium Foundation, Swedish Postcode Foundation and NED are supporting our international work. Porticus, and the Patrick McGovern Foundation are supporting work across all our programme areas.
Second, to those who’ve worried, along with the Chief Execs, about the money in various different ways – alumnis Abi Broom and Paul Lenz (Abi Broom’s graphs of doom!), Angela and her finance team Yolanda Gomes, and Jill Aquarone and on fundraising the eloquent Asha Pond, and now our latest recruit Alice Williams.
There are many names I haven’t named here – after twenty years, the list becomes too long. But I’m particularly happy to have many people from different points in the life of mySociety, because I think one thing you can see from the vantage point of twenty years is that effort and planning pays off over time in a way that can be hard to see when you’re in the midst of it. If you are at this party, it’s because you are part of the story of mySociety and your help and support has got us to this milestone. And if you don’t think that’s true, perhaps it’s because you’re going to be part of our future in some way.
So I hope you’ll read through a copy of the impact report and feel proud. Thank you to Myf Nixon and Lucas Cumsille Montesinos for telling our story in such a beautiful way, in the impact report and across our sites.
And finally thank you to everyone who has used our services to try to make things better for their communities. Which must be my cue to stop talking and hand over to Myf and Zarino for the second phase of the evening, our anniversary awards, where we recognise some of the incredible stories of change that we’ve been a little part of.
Giving your time and expertise as a member of a charity’s board can be an amazing opportunity – to expand your horizons, to dig into a new sector, and, of course, to do good.
If you feel like now might be the time to step up and do something new and exciting, please do have a look at the job ads linked above, where you’ll find a lot more detail on the kind of people we’re looking for, and copious information on what the roles involve.
Last week, Louise and I attended the Business Green 2023 Net Zero Festival, in London.
We were there to talk about public mobilisation on climate—in the space between direct action, on one hand, and government ‘business as usual’ on the other—and to share examples of how citizens are already using mySociety’s services like CAPE, the Climate Action Scorecards, and Local Intelligence Hub to track, challenge, coordinate, and collaborate on local climate action. You can read Louise’s slides and notes here.
It was also a great opportunity to connect with both existing contacts and partners (hi Climate Coalition, MCS Foundation, and Anthesis!) and new organisations we could potentially collaborate with in the rapidly approaching fourth year of our climate programme.
But it was also interesting to see how mySociety’s democratic, citizen-led approach to climate action compares with—and fits alongside—the festival’s strong focus on business actors.
Many of my fellow attendees have already shared their highlights from the festival, but here are two challenges that struck me in the days after the festival, and how I think mySociety’s work could contribute to solving them.
The role of local authorities, local businesses, and local residents in taking climate action together
With the festival being hosted in the beautiful Business Design Centre in Angel, it was particularly interesting to hear from a number of local, Islington-based organisations on how they’re addressing the climate emergency. I sat in on a particularly good pair of talks with representatives from organisations like Islington Council, Caxton House Community Centre, a number of London BIDs, and Anthesis, who recently launched a Net Zero Strategy for Angel Islington, and who we already know through their support for our and Climate Emergency UK’s Council Climate Scorecards project.
Islington Sustainability Network in particular was a great example I’d not come across before, of coordination between a huge number of private, public, and third sector organisations in a local area. I think it was Simeran from Anthesis who reiterated her experience that building trust between businesses and residents is crucial, and I expect networks like these, while not a silver bullet for citizen engagement, at least encourage a holistic climate response from all of the local institutions a citizen might engage with. (This is something PCAN has been exploring with their very exciting Climate Commissions in places like Leeds, Edinburgh, Belfast, and Yorkshire.)
I was also reminded of an example given by one participant in our Neighbourhood Warmth prototype testing last year, where the owner of a local corner shop had become a sort of trusted demonstrator/influencer of climate action, because they’d installed solar panels on the shop’s roof. Utilising these trust-based networks to encourage faster, more regret-free home energy action from citizens, is something we’re particularly interested in exploring at mySociety.
In one of these sessions, I asked the panel for any examples of resident power, or residents signalling demand for home energy services like retrofit and energy flexibility. Sue Collins from Caxton House Community Centre, which has run workshops for local residents on topics like energy saving, said they’d seen a lot of residents asking about funding for measures like insulation, heat pumps, and solar panels. Islington councillor Rowena Champion added that, while many people in the area might have the means and the interest to undertake works like this, complication around planning permissions, Victorian housing, and conservation areas is a big blocker. It sounds like Islington Council is looking at producing guidance on net zero actions—how you do retrofit, how you do double glazing in a conservation area—to overcome this, as well as setting up regular panels where residents can raise issues and find out more about actions the council is taking. It’d be interesting to see how a service like Neighbourhood Warmth could tie into hyperlocal advice like this, or even become a source of new knowledge sharing and advice, as groups of neighbours progress through the retrofit journey together and want to share their findings.
There’s still lots of talk about climate, not so much action
The music-themed title of the second day’s opening keynote was, fittingly, “A little less conversation, a little more action”. Speakers in a number of sessions noted that both national and local governments seem to be discovering that it’s easier to talk about climate policies than to implement them. The rallying cry of the festival’s organisers is that business leaders need to lead – to show that there is both commercial and public support for (and demand for) climate action.
I thought it was particularly interesting that both Chris Stark of the CCC, and climate activist Farhana Yamin, forecast that the threat of litigation from citizens/customers will be a growing motivator for businesses (and, I’d add, local and national governments) to address their climate impacts. “There will be a reckoning,” in Farhana’s words. Chilling!
We’re now less than a month away from the start of COP28. This year’s COP is a critical one, because it marks the start of the global stocktake – participating countries will essentially be “handing in their homework” on their climate actions over the last few years, and experts are already bracing themselves for disappointment.
Giving citizens, campaigners, and even local authorities themselves, open, actionable data about the progress local authorities are making, and the barriers to faster action, has obviously been a core strand of mySociety’s climate programme, and will continue to be so. We’ve also been campaigning for not only the quantity but the quality of local climate data to be improved. Without rigorous, open, standardised data, we cannot exert the level of scrutiny on local and national climate action that we need as a country. We hope that through projects like CAPE, the Council Climate Action Scorecards, and the Local Intelligence Hub, we can provide some of that data.
I also found it interesting that contracts came up a few times over the festival, as a tool for enforcing climate action – turning a business or local authority’s voluntary commitments into something legally binding. Fans of mySociety’s Climate programme will be aware that, last year, we ran a prototyping week on the potential for greater transparency of local authority contracts with high climate impacts. Our Contract Countdown prototype aimed to give citizens and campaigners advance warning of contracts that are approaching renewal, so that conversations could be had—for example, with local councillors through WriteToThem—on strengthening the climate requirements in those contracts’ upcoming replacements. We were particularly interested in folding in the amazing work that The Chancery Lane Project has been doing on pre-written climate-friendly clauses ready to drop into contracts.
As the Procurement Bill (which introduces some significant changes around the scale and quality of procurement/contracts data available from public bodies) was still working its way through the Houses of Parliament at that time, we put Contract Countdown to one side. The Bill has now passed, as the Procurement Act 2023, and it’ll be particularly interesting to see whether this has an effect on local authority decision-making, and whether a tool like Contract Countdown could once more give citizens greater influence over the decisions made in their name. If you’re interested in exploring the role of contracts and climate action together, please do get in touch!
As the seasons change and the leaves start to fall, grab your big scarf as we sum up what the climate team have been up to recently.
We’ve been talking about scorecards for much of the year, and this month the work has fallen into place and the Climate Action Scorecards have launched. There was a load of work done, not least by our designer Lucas and the team at CE UK in the lead up to this, to get the site polished and all the data finalised and published.
Since the launch we’ve been making tweaks and sanding off the odd rough edge. While we’ve been doing this, CE UK have been promoting all the hard work they and the volunteers have done with the result that there’s been a lot of press coverage. You may have seen some in your local paper.
If you want to see how your local council did then check out the site. If you’re an organisation or researcher interested in using the data underlying this then it’s available to buy from CE UK in a handy, easy to process format.
We, for Alex values of we, wrote a bit about some of the tech behind the Scorecards crowdsourcing effort.
On the Local Intelligence Hub front we’ve been making progress on supporting multiple versions of constituencies. For those of you who don’t breathlessly follow political boundary news there was a review of the size and shape of Westminster Parliamentary constituencies which has resulted in many of these changing.
The changes will take effect at the next general election, whenever that happens, so we need to support them, while also supporting the existing ones. Alexander has been working away on enabling the Local Intelligence Hub to display data for multiple versions of a constituency. This will also help if we want to add data for other types of area in the future. This is all working towards the new public launch date of January 2024 so you can make using local climate data part of your New Year’s resolutions.
Should you be in a position where you need to care about constituency changes, we have some potentially helpful data and code for making the transition from the old to new boundaries. If you don’t have to care but are interested there’s also some background on the hows and whys of the changes there too.
On the Neighbourhood Warmth front Siôn is continuing to talk to potential partners and funders, while sharpening up our plans for the next stage of development. As always more details on everything Neighbourhood Warmth can be found in its very own monthnotes.
On the policy side Julia has been lining things up for an event about Fragmented Data which is part of our work to explain how better data will help reach climate targets. Look out for more news on that in the coming weeks. Scraping in under the spooky decorations as I write this on All Hallow’s Eve, Zarino is at the Net Zero Festival where our CEO Louise will be, or indeed was, talking about the work we do to help involve people in matters climate related.
Image: Aaron Burden