1. Scorecards volunteering increases climate skills, knowledge and confidence

    The Council Climate Action Scorecards are compiled by a cohort of volunteers, trained up by Climate Emergency UK. They’re currently recruiting for the next round of marking, so if that sounds like something you’d like to be involved with, check out the details here.

    The knowledge that volunteers acquire isn’t just applicable to the Scorecards: it upskills them for life, empowering them to apply their knowledge to informed climate action. In that way, the benefits of the Scorecards project are more longlasting, and spread further than we might have expected!

    Fiona Dyer was part of the volunteer cohort of 2023, and she shared her journey from climate-concerned to climate-informed. Her story can inspire us all — especially those who may be feeling powerless or hopeless in the face of the climate crisis.

    Fiona explains: “At the start of the COVID pandemic I had to retire early from the NHS to look after my mum. I had more time to read, and the more I read, the more concerned I felt about the impact global heating and biodiversity loss was going to have on my children’s future. Across the world people were already suffering. 

    “I heard about the CE UK Scorecards project from a friend, and decided volunteering would be something positive I could do that I could fit around my other commitments. I doubted whether my computing skills would be adequate, but the CE UK team was friendly and supportive, and we volunteers learnt from each other via a chat forum. 

    “Reading through councils’ climate action plans to find information was challenging at times, but it also gave me a good understanding of the scope, powers and potential influence councils have to help communities mitigate and adapt to the challenges that lie ahead.” 

    So, that’s where it started — but it’s certainly not where it ended! Fiona goes on to tell us how she could bring that acquired knowledge to a whole new arena.

    “I went on to join Climate Action Durham (CAD), and learned that they’d held a Citizens’ Forum on Climate Action the year before, in collaboration with Durham County Council. 

    “I suggested we used the Scorecards at the next forum, as up to date, publicly available research that would give us a better understanding of the breadth of topics councils should be addressing, as well as performance data. 

    “It was agreed that by using the Scorecards we could more easily assess the council’s climate response plan: its strengths and weaknesses, how it compared with similar and neighbouring councils and how we could gauge improvement over time. 

    “The citizens’ forum was held in the autumn, timed to be just after the publication of the Scorecards. As we had already established a ‘critical friend’ type relationship with the council, it was agreed that the introduction to the forum would be given by myself, alongside the council’s Neighbourhoods and Climate Change Corporate Director. 

    “My presentation was a combination of some of the council’s own slides and slides I created using Scorecards data, chosen to highlight issues that would help focus discussion in the work groups that followed. 

    “I would not have had the confidence to do this without my experience of being a Scorecards volunteer, as I have no previous experience in this area. It was also an opportunity for me to champion the broader agenda of increasing local democracy. “

    That’s the increased confidence that knowledge can bring. And then, as Fiona explains, the event itself was enriched and informed by the Scorecards data.

    “The Citizens’ Forum on Climate Action was open to anyone who wanted to attend. People were asked to choose the work group they wanted to be part of in advance: these broadly aligned with the Scorecard categories and they were given the link to the Scorecards website. 

    “The questions and scores in each of the Scorecards categories enabled us to be more effective in scrutinising the council’s performance. 

    “The council said they welcomed CAD’s involvement in consulting the public on its climate plans and being held to account in a constructive way.”

    And from this one day emerged some longterm outcomes:

    “The feedback from the forum work groups was written up in detail as a report, including nine specific recommendations. Where possible I used my Scorecards knowledge to cite examples of good practice by other councils for each recommendation, these were included as footnote references. 

    “For example, Bristol use an Eco Impact Checklist that is applied to all their new projects. This report was shared with the council and made available to the public via the CAD website. 

    “CAD members who facilitated the groups in the forum have continued to work with the relevant councillors, to varying degrees, as the next iteration of their climate plan is being developed. We will see how many of the recommendations are included in the new plan when it is published later this year. 

    “As a group we intend to continue supporting, lobbying and campaigning where it is needed. We have just set up Durham Climate Hub, part of a national network of climate emergency centres and are continuing to work with the council’s community engagement officer. In the run up to this year’s forum we plan to hold sessions in the Hub on some of the forum themes to increase interest and participation from a broader section of the public. 

    “I have suggested CE UKs training to various other groups, one of which I have co-hosted with CE UK using my local knowledge. It feels good to be playing my part in raising awareness of the challenges we face and working creatively with other people to improve local resilience, not forgetting the bigger picture and fundamental need for system change.”

    Fiona’s account is a phenomenal example of how citizens can work together with their local councils to understand, oversee and encourage better climate action. It shows how the Scorecards training has a ripple effect that is tangible and longlasting. 

    Big thanks to Fiona for sharing her experience — we hope it will inspire others who are looking for a way to take practical and productive action on climate issues.

    Image: David Ross

  2. Access to Information community of practice: an in-person gathering

    mySociety is currently helping to support knowledge-sharing between organisations and individuals who run Access to Information projects around the world, in a community of practice.

    Several such folk were in London for our TICTeC conference last month, providing a perfect opportunity to come together in person and share insights.

    Representatives of Access to Information sites from around the world

    Matt Stempeck of the Civic Tech Field Guide has written the discussions up in full (he also deftly explains the slight difference, terminology-wise, between Freedom of Information and Access to Information) and you can read his account here.

    Meanwhile, here are the top-line topics that were under discussion:

    • Logistics How do you facilitate a community of very busy people, spread across multiple countries and speaking different languages — and how do you ensure that interventions are timely and productive? The group discussed which types on online communication and touchpoints work best for them; how to ensure topics are relevant to their immediate needs; and on which platforms it’s possible to talk about challenges just as freely as successes.
    • Measuring impact Are there consistent metrics we could be collecting across all ATI projects to demonstrate and compare impact? What are the individual issues experienced by each project that impede the collection of such metrics?
    • Governments What are the issues that groups face within different countries, with differing levels of governmental tolerance towards ATI?
    • Engagement How do projects educate the public about their rights to information, and encourage more of them to use these rights?
    • Journalism How can ATI projects work with newsrooms or individual journalists to discover stories and, incidentally, also help spread awareness of ATI? In which ways does the ATI process not fit well with journalists’ needs?
    • Funding One area where the network can offer useful peer support is in swapping notes over where they source funding, and other potential channels of income. Some funders were also present, and so were able to give their valuable perspectives too.

    If any of these topics spark your interest, hop over to Matt’s account for the full details.

    mySociety is supporting the international Access to Information community of practice alongside the Civic Tech Field Guide, Access Info Europe and Open Knowledge Germany.

    Banner image: James Cameron

  3. New in Alaveteli: request categories

    Alaveteli is our platform that anyone can use to run a Freedom of Information site in their own country or jurisdiction.

    As the number of requests grows on an Alaveteli site, it can become increasingly difficult to find released information that you’re interested in.

    You can search, but the more general the term, the more likely that you’ll pull in results where the term is mentioned incidentally rather than being directly related to the information released. Or you can browse by authority, but that’s more fiddly when you want the same information from a range of authorities.

    There’s also the issue that people new to FOI might not have a clear idea of what to ask about. Freedom of Information is great because you can ask for anything, but as a newcomer that can feel overwhelming. You need some direction to know where to start.

    Request categories allow us to curate related requests to bridge the gaps mentioned above.

    Here’s an example of a category on WhatDoTheyKnow that compiles successful Freedom of Information releases related to the British Post Office scandal.

    British Post Office scandal on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Categories can be created in the admin interface via the Requests > Categories menu item.

    Request categories work in a similar way to the current public body categories – in fact, as part of this development we’ve revamped the underlying code so that it applies to both!

    At their core, they’re composed of three things – the title, body (where we can add explanatory content), and requests grouped by a tag.

     

    Notes can be added to call out key information, and categories can be added to headings to create a layer of hierarchy. As part of this development, we’ve also improved notes so that they can be more easily styled with some preset colours, and added rich text editing to improve the formatting of longer notes.

     

    We’ve started building up some interesting categories of requests on WhatDoTheyKnow, but we’d love to hear which ones you’d like to see.

    If you’re interested in how the development unfolded you can take a look at the related work on GitHub.

    Banner image: Garmin B

     

  4. New in Alaveteli: explore CSVs in Datasette

    CSV is a great format for releasing sets of structured data in response to Freedom of Information requests. Indeed, on WhatDoTheyKnow we’ve seen several thousands of CSVs released.

    We’ve recently added the ability to explore CSV files via a Datasette instance. Here’s an example.

    Opening the CSV in Datasette makes it easy to explore and analyse it in an interactive website.

    If you’re not familiar, Datasette converts the CSV to an sqlite database, which means you can then query the data using SQL.

    Alaveteli uses the publicly available lite.datasette.io instance by default, but you can host your own instance and configure it at theme level like we’ve done for WhatDoTheyKnow.

    You can see the implementation details at mysociety/alaveteli/#7961.

    Banner image: Joshua Fuller

  5. mySociety’s approach to AI

    To react appropriately to the emergence of AI, we need to understand it. We’re making our internal AI Framework public as a way of being transparent about the kind of questions we’re asking ourselves about using AI in mySociety’s tools and services. 

    At our recent TICTeC conference, there were several great examples of how generative AI approaches can be applied to civic tech problems.  But regardless of whether civic tech projects use AI approaches directly, it’s increasingly part of the tools we use,  and the context our services exist in is being changed by it. 

    A key way mySociety works is by applying relatively mature technology (like sending emails) in interesting ways to societal problems (reporting problems to the right level of government; transforming Parliamentary publishing; building a massive archive of Freedom of Information requests, etc). This informs how we adapt and advance our technical approach – we want to have clear eyes on the problems we want to solve rather than the tools we want to use.

    In this respect, generative AI is something new, but also something familiar. It’s a tool: it’s good at some things, not good at other things — and, as with other transformative tech we’ve lived through, we need to understand it and develop new skills to understand how to correctly apply it to the problems we’re trying to solve. 

    We currently have some funding from the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation where we’re exploring how new and old approaches can be applied to specific problems in our long running services. Across our different streams of work, we’ve been doing experiments and making practical use of generative AI tools, working with others to understand the potential, and thinking about the implications of integrating a new kind of technology into our work. 

    Our basic answer to “when should we use AI?” is straightforward. We should use AI solutions when they are the best way of solving problems, are compatible with our wider ethical principles and reputation, and can be sustainably integrated into our work.

    Breaking this down further led us to questions in six different domains:

    • Practical – does it solve a real problem for us or our users?
    • Societal – does it plausibly result in the kind of social change we want, and have we mitigated change we don’t want?
    • Legal/ethical – does our use of the tools match up to our wider standards and obligations?
    • Reputational – does using this harm how others view us or our services?
    • Infrastructural – have we properly considered the costs and benefits over time?
    • Environmental – have we specifically accounted for environmental costs?

    You can read the full document to see how we break this down further; but this is consciously a discussion starter rather than a checklist. 

    Publishing this framework is similarly meant to be a start to a discussion — and an anchor around open discussion of what we’ve been learning from our internal experiments. 

    We want to write a bit more in the open about the experiments we’ve been doing, where we see potential, where we see concerns. But this is all just part of the question at the root of our work: how can we use technology as a lever to help people to take part in and change society.

    Image: Eric Krull

  6. New in Alaveteli: importing & presenting blog posts

    Alaveteli is our platform that anyone can use to run a Freedom of Information site in their own country or jurisdiction.

    We’ve added new functionality that allows Alaveteli sites to highlight blog posts on the homepage, so they’re more visible. In this way, Alaveteli sites can not only help users with the ‘how’ of making an FOI request, but also show, in a very tangible way, the ‘why’  — especially if the posts are highlighting impactful uses of the site.

    Previously, Alaveteli had a basic way to pull in an RSS feed of blog posts. These were only available on the blog page (/blog), which often does a disservice to all the great work that gets written about.

    We wanted to better signpost the blog from other pages in Alaveteli to celebrate great FOI use, and help users understand how a seemingly simple FOI can go on to have an outsized impact.

    When the site runner configures a blog feed, posts are pulled into Alaveteli and cached in the database. This makes them available on the homepage. Here’s what that looks like on WhatDoTheyKnow:

    Latest News and Campaigns screenshot

    They’re also visible in the admin interface via the Tools > Blog Posts menu item.

    Blog posts lists on Alaveteli

    At present only the title, URL and publication date are cached in Alaveteli. These records are intended to be “pointers” to the canonical URL of the article hosted on the external blog service.

    In the admin interface, blog posts can be tagged to indicate their subject matter.

    As FOI requests and authorities can also be tagged, this allows the blog posts to be highlighted in the sidebar of appropriate pages where there’s a matching tag. So, if someone’s browsing requests or visiting an authority that deals with the climate emergency, for example, they’ll be shown relevant blog posts – hopefully making them more visible to people who have already displayed that they have an interest in the topic, and giving those people a bit more contextual knowledge.

    List of FOI request climate action plans on Alaveteli Climate Action plans on Alaveteli's front end Authority - Geraldine Quango Showing where the related blog posts are on Alaveteli

    In future we’d like to make these posts more visible, by importing header images and a short summary, and give the ability to display some posts when there isn’t a direct tag match.

    You can read about the initial design and subsequent conversation and pull requests starting at mysociety/alaveteli#6589.

    Banner image: Patrick Perkins

  7. Updating TheyWorkForYou on election night

    My colleague Alex has already written about looking forward from this election, so here I am going to look back at the technical work that was involved for the election, and in getting all the new MPs into TheyWorkForYou.

    Boundary changes

    This election was the first UK Parliament election with boundary changes since 2010. Due to the long-running nature of TheyWorkForYou, which has been around now for over 20 years, this can throw up some interesting challenges. In this particular case, it turned out we were using two different JSON data lists of constituencies – both containing the same data, but one also included the other Parliaments and Assemblies, whilst the other included alternative names for some constituencies. I took the opportunity presented to merge these together and update the bits of code to use the one consolidated dataset, and then added in the 650 new constituencies to the JSON data.

    Loading the new constituency data into TheyWorkForYou then threw up another historical problem – the constituency table was still using the very old Latin-1 character set encoding, rather than a more modern encoding such as UTF-8, that almost everything we have uses. This had been fine until now, with even Ynys Môn covered by that encoding, but the new constituency of Montgomeryshire and Glyndŵr contained a letter that Latin-1 could not cope with, leading to a quick emergency upgrade of the table to UTF-8 (thankfully this is a backwards compatible encoding, so worked without issue).

    We had already generated data of the new constituencies and loaded these into our lookup service MapIt before Christmas. Ordnance Survey more recently published the official dataset of the boundaries, which we could then import via our usual processes, though even this raised a small issue to be resolved. It turned out in the last data release OS had given the parts of two county council electoral divisions with detached parts (Lightwater, West End and Bisley and Thorpe St Andrew) different identifiers, which they had reverted in their new release, causing our import script to get a bit confused – resolved with a small manual script.

    Displaying on TheyWorkForYou

    In the period before the election, we knew people would be using our site as a postcode lookup, perhaps to look up their previous MP but perhaps also expecting something useful for the upcoming election, which we wanted to provide, and so we used Democracy Club’s API to show election candidates and link to their WhoCanIVoteFor and WhereDoIVote services. We also displayed your boundary changes using the new constituency data mentioned above.

    TheyWorkForYou isn’t just the UK Parliament, though, it also covers the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, so we also had to maintain the provision of that information to people – email alerts for those bodies continued throughout as usual, and the postcode lookup kept showing people their representatives in the devolved nations.

    Once the election closed, we automatically updated our messaging, and the next day switched back to our normal behaviour of taking you directly to your MP page in England, and showing you your MP and other representatives elsewhere.

    We had a fun issue where some people were getting their new MP, whereas some were getting the old MP – during the period of dissolution, when there are no MPs, we have a configuration flag to enable the site to know it should return the latest result even if it’s not current (you don’t want this all the time, when e.g. an MP has resigned or died), but once new data was being loaded in, one database query was returning results in a random order; fixed by adding some sorting by descending end date.

    Election result data

    At the last election in 2019, we took a live feed of election results from Democracy Club, who have collected all the candidate information for their Who Can I Vote For service – which all began as the result of a mySociety project back in 2010.

    Democracy Club were performing the same service this time, and gratifyingly it was quite a small change to have our 2019 code work with any 2024 changes to the source information (incidentally, there aren’t a lot of narrative doctests in our codebase, but I quite like the one in use there!).

    This script would do half the job, of taking in some source data (who has been elected, and including their TheyWorkForYou identifier if they already had one due to being a previous representative of some sort) and amending our source JSON data to add the newly elected representative.

    The other half is loading that source data into the TheyWorkForYou database for display on the site. Our normal loading script works fine, but looks through all the source data to see if there have been any changes to take account of. For the election, we don’t need it to do all that, so I tweaked the script to only do the minimal necessary to load in newly created information.

    These two scripts were then added to a cron on our server, running every few minutes through the night. I did stay up long enough to check that the first few worked okay, before leaving it to itself from then on. I also set it up to pipe its output to our Slack channel, so people could see it operating:

    This also meant as the final few trickle through, it’s popping up reminding us it’s still doing its job:

    All the results (bar the one we’re still waiting for) are now committed to the repository, joining all our other open data.

    Support TheyWorkForYou and our work

    TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are run by mySociety, a small UK charity. We’re a very efficient operation and do a lot with a small team; if we had bit more money, we could achieve a lot more.

    We want to see a transparent, resilient democracy, with equal access to information, representation and voice for citizens. If you believe in this vision please donate today to enable greater transparency and accountability of the next government.

    Image: Moritz Kindler

  8. TheyWorkForYou – now with the new MPs

    Most seats have now declared a winner (with a few recounts ongoing) and the Labour Party has won a large majority in Parliament. That will mean a change in government and big changes to what happens in Parliament in the next few years. 

    Understanding your new MP

    New MPs have been added to TheyWorkForYou – you can find yours using the postcode search on the homepage.

    With so many new MPs many of these pages are empty (for the moment). To get an alert when your new/returning MP has spoken, voted, or received a written answer: enter your postcode here.

    If you’re interested in learning more about the weeks ahead, the Hansard Society have published a guide of how the start of the new Parliament will work.

    Understanding who represents you

    Over the next few weeks, we will be adding MPs’ contact details into WriteToThem where you can also see details of your local councillors and representatives in the UK’s devolved Parliaments. 

    We want to help people navigate this complicated system and are writing a series of guides to help individuals and campaigns ask the right questions in the right places. 

    The first guide is up now: Who Represents Me – explaining what all the UK’s different parliaments, governments and councils do. To hear when we release more, sign up to our mailing list

    Understanding your new constituency

    For this election, the boundaries of many constituencies have changed.  In some cases the change is small, but others represent big shifts in the kinds of people and places who live within the constituency.

    The Local Intelligence Hub, which we’ve made with the Climate Coalition, has a range of information and stats about your new constituency. Check out the data for your constituency! We’ll be adding lots more in the following months. 

    We’re also publishing a big list of constituencies, and the overlap with local authorities and the old constituencies.  If you need to update data about what constituencies a list of postcodes are within, we’ve made a quick tool where you can paste a list of GB postcodes into the browser, and then copy the new constituencies out.

    For more complex conversions, have a look at MapIt, which can convert coordinates and postcodes into a wide range of administrative geographies. 

    What happens next

    As MPs get settled, we will be picking up our work on WhoFundsThem, working with a group of volunteers to produce summaries of MPs’ registers of members interest, adding context and clarity to improve the transparency and understanding of MPs’ financial interests. 

    For more details on this, and our other plans, please sign up to our newsletter

    Support TheyWorkForYou and our work

    And here’s the bit where we ask for money. 

    TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are run by mySociety, a small UK charity.

    We’re a very efficient operation and do a lot with a small team: at the moment TheyWorkForYou, which is used by millions of people every year, is run with the equivalent of about two people.

    If we had a bit more money, we could achieve a lot more.

    We want to see a transparent, resilient democracy, with equal access to information, representation and voice for citizens.

    If you believe in this vision please donate today to enable greater transparency and accountability of the next government.

    Header image: Photo by Zetong Li on Unsplash

  9. Dive back into TICTeC 2024

    Whether or not you were lucky enough to attend TICTeC in person earlier this month, you can now experience it all over again.

    Where there are videos and slides for a session, you can access them via the Schedule page. Just click on ‘see session detail’ to see which resources there are. Or discover all the videos via the TICTeC 24 YouTube playlist.

    Note: Videos and slides are only available for sessions that were recorded, and where presenters gave consent to share.

    Plus: browse through photos from the two days of TICTeC 24 on our Flickr page, here. All photos are available under a non-commercial Creative Commons licence, so please do share them where you like.

    Don’t miss TICTeC 2025!

    Work with us at TICTeC 2025: we’re open to suggestions from organisations who might like to partner with us to host TICTeC in your region; and we’re also always happy to talk to potential sponsors. Drop us a line if you’d like to discuss more.

    Subscribe to updates: Be the first to know when we put out the call for papers, open bookings and announce the location for next year’s TICTeC — sign up here.

    Thanks for your feedback

    We love hearing what other people got out of TICTeC! Special thanks to those who have taken time to feed back on what those two days meant to them.

    Here are just a couple of the comments we’ve received: follow us on Instagram to see more over the next few weeks.

     

  10. Warm welcomes and fond farewells

    We’re hugely excited to be warmly welcoming an incredible set of new trustees onto the mySociety Board. We’re delighted to have six new board members round our table:

    Ally Tibbitt, Trustee at mySociety Alastair Tibbitt is a journalist and digital audience specialist with decades of experience in digital media and developing new models for public interest news. He currently works at The Conversation, and has previously worked with broadcaster STV, along with a number of other non-profit news projects. He is a founding co-director of Scottish investigative journalism co-operative, The Ferret.

    Alex Scales, mySociety Trustee Alex Scales is Evidence & Learning Manager at Westminster Foundation for Democracy, where he supports and manages research and evaluation projects and synthesises evidence across a global programme portfolio. Alex has worked in various international development and UK charity roles, spanning research and evaluation, business development, communications and knowledge management, programming, fundraising and campaigning.

    Anna Scott, mySociety Trustee Anna Scott is a content, brand and User Centred Design specialist with a background in data and human rights. She directed content and brand strategy at Open Data Institute, 360Giving and clients across data ethics and civic tech, and cut her teeth as a Guardian journalist. Anna currently designs digital public services as a Senior Content Designer at Defra.

     

    Nigel Ball, Trustee at mySociety Nigel Ball has a record in social change spanning government, social enterprise, and academia. He is currently leading University of the Arts London’s transition to becoming a social purpose-led organisation as the Director of the new Social Purpose Lab. As the first Executive Director of the Government Outcomes Lab at Oxford University, Nigel led academics, civil servants and industry in a cross-sector effort to change the way government partnerships work.

    Ravi Gidoomal, mySociety trustee Ravi Gidoomal is a commercial director, business strategy advisor and digital transformation specialist. He leads EDGE Digital Manufacturing, a consultancy which helps organisations to improve their digital readiness and transform their business. Ravi brings multi-disciplinary experience across diverse sectors including financial services, professional services, manufacturing and retail as an investor, management consultant and non-executive director.

    Tim Hughes, mySociety Trustee Tim Hughes is a specialist in public participation and democratic reform. Currently he is Democracy and Participation Lead for the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral platform of 75 national governments, 160 local governments and thousands of civil society organisations working to embed the principles of transparency, participation, inclusion and accountability in government.

     

    As you can see, our new board members bring a highly relevant spread of skills and experience, which we’ll be making the most of as they help us steer mySociety’s direction.

    At the same time, it’s a bittersweet moment as we’re saying goodbye and giving heartfelt thanks to Rachel Rank and Tony Burton, who’ve come to the end of their tenure as trustees after eight years. Both Rachel and Tony have been incredible mentors, guides, supporters and critical friends to mySociety throughout their time as trustees – their enthusiasm and input has been so valuable. We wish them all the best.

    Image: Brad Starkey