1. School meals and climate action plans

    When we and our partners at Climate Emergency UK began work on CAPE, the Climate Action Plans Explorer, it was with a strong sense that gathering together local councils’ plans would be useful to many types of user. We could see how such a dataset would help councils themselves, as well as informing campaigners, researchers and members of the public.

    But of course, when you put data out into the open, you discover the specific ways in which these sectors will put it to use. We’re really enjoying hearing from the varied organisations who’ve been telling us how they have used CAPE and the Scorecards: some we were already quite familiar with, some we’d never heard of, and others in sectors where, while the application becomes obvious as soon as it is mentioned, we just hadn’t foreseen usage.

    The reason for such variety is clear when you think about it: transition to carbon zero will touch every area of our lives, and so this data will be relevant everywhere.

    That includes those working towards moving society towards more sustainable choices in what we eat. We blogged about Sustain’s work around food and farming not long ago; and now we hear from ProVeg UK, who are also working on making sustainable food choices a part of the nation’s landscape.

    ProVeg UK

    Proveg logo ProVeg UK are one of ten country teams that make up ProVeg International, a global non-profit food awareness organisation with the mission to reduce the global consumption of animals by 50% by 2040.

    They began operating five years ago, and focus solely on making school food healthier and more sustainable by increasing the quality and quantity of plant-based food in schools through their School Plates programme.

    The organisation supports local authorities, multi-academy trusts and individual schools throughout the UK to help school menus become healthier, more sustainable and save money through menu reviews, plant-based recipe development, and both online and in-person plant-based cooking in schools workshops with catering staff.

    The team have so far helped to swap over 6.4 million meals from meat-based to meat-free or plant-based, and are currently supporting 35 major catering partners (including 29 local authorities), responsible for over 3,500 schools, and over 580,000 children.

    Underpinning action with data

    With more and more local authorities declaring a climate emergency, ProVeg UK quickly realised that the Climate Actions Plans site was the perfect resource to help them prioritise their outreach to those councils who were actively looking to reduce their emissions. The team’s job is to show councils the significant role food plays in cutting emissions and to offer their free support to make it happen.

    It is so much simpler and efficient for us to know all this information can be found in one easy-to-access place.

    Colette Fox, Programme Manager at ProVeg UK, told us that even just being able to quote the overall number of local authorities who have declared a climate emergency was useful in showing how much work is left to be done.

    She said, “The Climate Action Plans Explorer is our go-to resource to check any new declarations and to reference when we quote the current percentages for the UK and by individual nations.

    “Without the site we would have had to check every council’s website and search for their climate action plans. It is so much simpler and efficient for us to know all this information can be found in one easy-to-access place.”

    Recipes and advice

    You can find out more about the School Plates programme on the ProVeg UK website, and if you scroll down you can download The Recipes – 35 plant-based recipes designed for primary schools. Each recipe has been created to comply with the School Food Standards, and includes the cost per portion (the average is less than 44p), the carbon footprint, key nutrients and allergens.

    Although these recipes are designed for schools, they can of course be made by anyone looking to try more plant-based dishes.

    And if you are involved in school food for a local authority or multi academy trust, ProVeg UK provides free menu review, plant-based recipe development, and in person training for your caterers – all free of charge.

    ProVeg UK also offers free monthly online cooking workshops to individual schools, to help show why it is so important to eat more plant-based foods. If you’d like to learn more, they’d be very happy to hear from you at schools@proveg.com.

  2. Challenging public bodies who refuse to accept FOI requests by email

    While running mySociety’s Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com we’ve noticed that some public authorities are refusing to process valid FOI requests made via email, including some sent via our website. A few public authorities have gone so far as to switch off their dedicated FOI email addresses, and have been telling our users that they need to fill in a webform, or make a request by post.

    This practice is against the law. For a Freedom of Information request to be valid, all that’s required is that a) it’s made in writing; b) it includes the requester’s name and an address for correspondence; and c) it describes the information being requested.

    Requests made via email are valid and should be processed promptly, however they are received. We contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office, who confirmed that:

    “Whilst a public authority can request a form is filled in, you are not obliged to do this” and “this should not be made a compulsory requirement.”

    We believe that citizens shouldn’t need to have a detailed understanding of FOI law in order to have valid requests for information logged and answered. Public authority staff should be trained to recognise valid requests, however they are received. The refusal by some authorities to recognise and process requests for information has led to unnecessary delays in requests being answered, and to some requests not being answered at all.

    User-centred FOI

    Whilst there are obvious benefits to public authorities from using case management systems, these should be capable of dealing with email and handling requests that are made via other means.

    Where web-forms are an authority’s preferred form of contact, these should be simple to complete and not require requesters to hand over more personal information than they are required to by law. We’ve seen web-forms which ask requesters for information such as their date of birth, whether they are a journalist and the purpose of their request, for example, none of which the authority needs to know, and some of which might prejudice their response. Sometimes these additional fields are marked as compulsory.

    We’ve also noticed that some authorities have started to reply to FOI requests using a “noreply” email address. This is poor practice because it makes it harder for requesters to ask for clarification or to request an internal review. Ideally, responses to requests should be sent from an address that accepts incoming mail.

    How we’re responding

    If a public body turns off its FOI contact email address and directs requests to a web-form, we try to find an alternative address to send requests to. We do all we can to get our users’ requests delivered, and we invariably succeed.

    In a handful of cases we’ve resorted to sending our users’ requests to public bodies’ Chief Executives as part of our efforts to both get our users’ requests delivered and to encourage authorities to abide by Access to Information law.

    Have you seen this practice?

    While we have only seen this behaviour at a relatively small number of public bodies so far, some of those adopting this approach have included significant authorities such as local councils. It is important to identify and challenge this practice before it spreads more widely, so please let us know if you spot any examples. If you receive a message suggesting you have to make your request again via a web-form, do challenge that, citing the ICO guidance on valid requests.

    We are keen to see the Information Commissioner step in and tackle systemic problems with the way public bodies deal with requests for information. We are encouraged by the recent commitment from the Information Commissioner’s Office to deliver “more systemic enforcement action against public authorities that clearly and consistently fail to meet their FOI obligations”. The fact we publish FOI requests and their responses provides evidence which can support the Commissioner in this work.

    Here are some examples:

    • “All FOI requests have to be put in writing to the Freedom of Information Officer, […] or by completing our online form.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]

    • “Can I ask that you please submit your enquiry via our website. The FOI process has recently changed and we have a form that will ask for all the information we need to process this.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]

    • “This Freedom of Information request has been received via a mailbox that does not record new requests. Please make your request using the online form under How to make Freedom of Information and Environmental Information Regulations Requests on the Council’s website” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]

    • “All freedom of Information requests now have to be applied for using our online form (see link sent in my colleagues previous email to you). Once we have your request it will be responded to within 20 days of receipt.” [View on WhatDoTheyKnow]

    Image by Ben Wicks (Unsplash Licence)

  3. Climate monthnotes July 2022: Preparing for a Summer of events

    There’s lots, as ever, to report from the Climate team this month, so I’ll try to pick some highlights… this time with a Shakespearean flavour, as I (mySociety’s Liverpool correspondent) celebrate the opening of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in the nearby town of Prescot. May the bard’s lyrical visions propel us into a summer of climate action!

    All things are ready, if our mind be so

    In the previous monthnotes Jen trailered Innovations in Climate Tech – our online, half-day event, featuring inspirational examples and discussion about how civic tech projects are supporting climate action around the world, and how we might be able to seed more projects like this, with the cooperation of local authorities, here in the UK.

    This month Jen’s been lining up speakers for the event (which takes place on 21st September), and Siôn has been planning how we can use workshops in the second half of the event to share best practice and build more connections between technologists and local authority officials.

    If you’re from a local authority, or you’ve been involved in a climate-related technology project, and you’d like to share your work at the event, there’s still time to submit a proposal for inclusion in the programme.

    We’re also excited to find we’ve been accepted to speak at the upcoming Code for All 2022 Summit (also happening in September), so we’re looking forward to working our sessions there into our wider plan for building connections between the climate and civic tech communities.

    And finally, to complete the Summer events trifecta, we’ve been laying plans for an informal online get-together about energy efficiency and retrofit, since it’s proved such a popular subject during our prototyping weeks, and we’d really like to find the most impactful contribution we could make in the space, especially with fuel costs expected to continue rising well into 2023. If this interests you, share your availability for the week in which we’re planning to meet and join our climate updates newsletter to hear how things develop.

    Once more unto the breech dear friends

    All good things must come to an end – and our series of six rapid prototyping weeks has certainly been a good thing! This month we’ve been preparing for the final week in the series, focussing on how improved collection and sharing of MP, constituency, and local climate action data, between environmental charities and organisations, could enhance public understanding of climate challenges and solutions, and build networks across local communities.

    We’re really excited to be working on this with a number of really big names in the space—including The Climate Coalition, Green Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trusts, Hope for the Future, WWF, and Climate Outreach—and we’re really excited to see what recommendations come out of the week.

    We’re also putting the final touches to our write-ups of the last two prototyping weeks (on fair transition and energy efficiency for private rental tenants) and will be posting them on our Climate Prototyping page shortly.

    Friends, romans, countrymen, lend us your ears!

    Siôn has been sharing our procurement and energy efficiency prototypes with a whole range of organisations, getting their input on next steps we should take, and potential collaboration opportunities. So far we’re excited to have met with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, UK Green Building Council, Architects Climate Action Network, Living Rent, Energy Local, Connected Places Catapult and Citizens UK.

    Meanwhile, Myf has been renewing our efforts to promote CAPE to journalists, as one of the core audiences where we think up-to-date, accessible data on local authority climate action could really enable a new level of scrutiny and cross-pollination of climate actions around the UK. We’re looking to potentially speak at a few journalism conferences in the coming months, and we’re planning to prepare a set of online resources that might give journalists an idea of how they can use our data to find stories.

    We also presented CAPE and the Scorecards at Friends of the Earth’s Environmental Data for Change event—which I was honoured to be asked to facilitate on FoE’s behalf—right at the end of June. It was an absolutely packed call, which left everyone buzzing with ideas for the future. We’re continuing to work with Friends of the Earth, and other attendees from the event, on how we take the this great momentum, and shape a community of practice around sharing and building on the rich environmental data available in the UK, to power more informed climate action.

     

    Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash.

  4. TheyWorkForYou quietly provides essential services for civil society — and beyond

    When we talk about our website TheyWorkForYou, it’s often to point out how it helps the ‘everyday’ citizen keep up with what their elected representatives are doing in Parliament: you don’t need to be an expert to see how your MP has voted, or what they’ve contributed to debates.

    This is one invaluable aspect of the site, but it ignores another large and equally important function. It’s an aspect that we haven’t much highlighted, but that could, without overstatement, be said to be underpinning civil society.

    We recently ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system, which made it clear just how much heavy lifting the site is doing for charities and small organisations. Indeed, it is providing a service that many rely on — free subscription to alerts on any keyword, so that you receive an email when it is mentioned in Parliament. Despite recent improvements to the official Hansard site, respondents still indicate that they find TheyWorkForYou’s provision more useful than Parliament’s offering. 

    So it’s not too much to say that TheyWorkForYou is a vital service which would cause substantial fallout to this sector if it were to be discontinued; or, more positively, that if mySociety had the resource to update the site, make improvements and promote it to more of the types of organisations that would otherwise struggle to access the Parliamentary process, hundreds more charities and campaigns would be empowered to affect policy for the better. TheyWorkForYou is lowering the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament.

    Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also helping those who work within Parliament to access the data they need to perform their roles.

    Charitable and service organisations

    We are too small to do any lobbying or to afford a paid-for service so this helps keep us in touch”

    People working in charities told us that they used keyword alerts to track all mentions of themes relevant to their work, such as words around domestic violence; asylum and immigration; religious persecution; accessibility; nature conservation, and many more. 

    “Without the site we might have to pay for a service, or give up trying to make our voice heard”.

    Tracking which representatives mention keywords can help charities in identifying potentially interested parliamentarians to connect with, but can also be directly useful in organisations that deliver services, like advising people on their rights.  

    “The alerts are invaluable as we don’t have the capacity to follow what’s happening in Parliament […] alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”

    Our email alert system helps distribute the latest policy via subscriptions to written questions and answers. For instance, a child poverty group uses a subscription to written answers from Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers to get clearer details of policy and policy changes. This helps them conveyup to date information to clients & even get benefit decisions changed!” 

    Keyword searches can give indications of the interests of representatives, and potential MPs and Lords to try and make contact with. Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society. In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask.

    “We find your service very easy to navigate & a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”

    One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response. Where relationships are more established, making written questions more visible helps civil society groups suggest written questions to MPs, because they can better match the language and style.

    I find the emails that collate [Parliamentary Questions] of specific topics incredibly helpful. It’s a brilliant service” 

    Inside government and Parliament

    “I also use TheyWorkForYou to search and reference hansard as it is a lot more user friendly than the Parliament hansard website.” 

    Perhaps more surprising was the degree to which people working within Parliament are still using TheyWorkForYou.

    For some time after TheyWorkForYou’s launch, we were aware that it was being used by civil servants and MPs’ offices. We took this as a sign that we were offering something that the official channels did not; however, in recent years the Hansard site has improved greatly (perhaps, in part, due to TheyWorkForYou’s example) and we thought that this type of usage might have dropped off accordingly.

    Members of Parliament

    “I rely on the alerts to stay up to date with any written questions or debates relating to the interests of the MP I work for.” 

    MPs’ offices use the service to check if people live in the constituency, and for notifications of recent speeches by their or nearby MPs.

    “It’s the quickest way to keep up with any questions or votes that my boss has participated in.” 

    Information from TheyWorkForYou is also used as part of preparation of reports, media releases, and to support correspondence with constituents

    Civil servants

    Civil servants similarly have an interest in understanding the history and views of their ministers. Respondents to our survey included civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office, Foreign Office, Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. 

    They use the service to keep track of Parliamentary mentions of their department and work. Inside the DWP (one of the larger departments), one response came from a civil servant who used the alerts to shape service delivery

    While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants in writing responses to those questions as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously. 

    Local government

    “As I’m an unpaid elected member your service effectively provides me with free parliamentary services which I value, especially the alert function so I can see what our MP acts on.”

    Local and devolved elected officials said they use the site to keep track of developments in Westminster

    Other uses

    Another notable group of users were academics and researchers. This includes those who study Parliament and government directly, but more broadly is useful to academics to help keep an up to date view of how MPs talk about their area of work in research and teaching

    TheyWorkForYou is used by large and small private sector organisations to be better informed on policy changes. In some cases this includes companies who may be able to afford access to a closed, paid-for monitoring system – but lowering the barrier to entry means making it easier for everyone. Providing a service good enough for those who could afford to pay is encouraging about the quality of service being provided to those who could not.

    In one private sector example that is worth highlighting, an accountancy firm uses TheyWorkForYou as part of due diligence checks on politically exposed persons. Improving the ease and quality of accessing official information about MPs’ activities (in particular given concerns about written questions and second jobs) enhances wider legal regimes around money laundering and anti-corruption. 

    TheyWorkForYou and the Parliament website

    Our survey did not specifically ask about this, but some respondents indicated why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. It is generally still serving its original role as a more functional version of Hansard. 

    “Primary use is a better Hansard than Hansard (still, though Hansard has caught up a lot)” – Public sector organisation

    There were several specific complaints about the search function of the official site. 

    “Its [the Parliament site’s] search function barely works at all.”  – Business consultancy firm

    In some of these cases the official site may improve in future (improving the search seems a very attainable goal), but in other cases there has been backsliding, such as availability of the register of interests. TheyWorkForYou has value as a backstop on the official service where it has flaws, but also in providing services like the email alerts that go above and beyond what the official service is ever likely to offer. 

    Image: Monisha Selvakumar

  5. Faster and better targeting of requests to multiple bodies on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    WhatDoTheyKnow Pro is the paid-for, premium, version of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com, designed for journalists, academics, campaigners and others whose needs exceed what our free service provides.

    Features available to Pro users include the ability to delay publication of requests and responses; and to make requests to multiple authorities at the same time via the batch request tool. 

    We’ve just made it much easier for Pro users to add relevant bodies to a batch request via a list of authorities within specific categories.

    WhatDoTheyKnow Pro batch: browse by category

    Our database contains FOI contact addresses for more than 42,000 authorities. Using our service saves you from having to source appropriate contact details yourself, and we’ve now made it even quicker and easier to make batch FOI requests. 

    Since WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s launch, creating a batch request has involved searching for bodies and adding them individually to the batch. WhatDoTheyKnow’s fantastic volunteers curate over 200 categories to help users on the main site to explore and navigate the UK authorities subject to FOI, and we’ve now incorporated these listings into WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch tool.

    As a result, requests are more likely to be sent to the bodies that hold the information being requested, and the number of requests sent to inappropriate bodies is minimised.

    We’ve been trialling this feature in a limited beta period for a while, and thanks to our funding from the Swedish Postcode Foundation we were able to work with handlingar.se to iron out some bugs and performance issues before making it available to all Pro users.

    We hope the new feature will aid some great cross-authority research, while helping to ensure that requests are targeted to appropriate bodies. 

    Let us know if there are additional categories you’d like us to add!

    Image: Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0)

  6. Green Finance Institute’s Local Climate Bond campaign

    CAPE, the Climate Action Plans Explorer, is at its heart a collection of data. It began life as a searchable database of councils’ climate action plans, and over time we’ve added other useful datapoints and links.

    Why have we gone to the effort of collating and sharing this information? Because it’s our belief that when climate action plans are in one place, easier to find, compare and analyse, they will have utility far beyond the sum of their parts.

    In the spirit of open data, we hope to see our projects in the Climate programme feeding in to all kinds of initiatives, campaigns, organisations, stories and research that will, in one way or another, facilitate faster, more effective climate action at the local level.

    When we hear of the ways in which CAPE data is being used, we’re keen to share the details in the belief that this can spark new inspiration, and in that spirit, here is a case study demonstrating how it has furthered a really beneficial strand of innovation for local authorities.


    One way in which CAPE‘s data can be used is as a directory: if your organisation offers a service to local authorities that is designed to help with their action on climate, it’s useful to be able to look a council up and understand their plans before making an approach.

    Green Finance Institute logoAnd that’s just how the Green Finance Institute have been using CAPE, and specifically the accompanying Scorecards site. This government-backed organisation was founded in 2019 with the aim of removing barriers to investment in climate solutions. As their Associate Alessandra Melis explains, the Institute’s three objectives can be neatly summed up as “Greening Finance, Financing Green, and Knowledge Exchange”. 

    Their Financing Green objective predominantly works through a coalition-based model, forming taskforces of experts who are able to identify the barriers to green investment in that sector and then co-designing solutions and tools to help lift those barriers. They have active coalitions working on decarbonising the built environment, in road transport, and in nature.

    A simple way for residents to invest in the climate activities of their local authority

    Green Finance Institute Local Bond CampaignThe Green Finance Institute, along with Abundance Investment, are the body behind the Local Climate Bond campaign, an initiative launched in 2021 and also supported by Innovate UK, UK100 and Local Partnerships. These present a simple way for residents to invest in the climate activities of their local authority. 

    Alessandra explained more about what exactly Local Climate Bonds are: “They’re a form of Community Municipal Investment that present a simple, proven, and lower cost way for local authorities to finance local net zero solutions, diversifying their sources of funding, engaging the local community, and helping meet net zero targets. The ethical investment platform Abundance provides the regulated crowdfunding platform for the administration of the bonds issued so far.

    “Basically, they enable local authorities to raise money directly from the public. Investments in the bonds can be anything from as little as £5, so they’re accessible to almost everyone.”

    Using Climate Action Plan data

    Clearly, the first step towards getting the scheme going in a local area is getting the local authority on board. The Green Finance Institute found it very helpful to be able to have an informed discussion with a council about their climate ambitions and their existing level of engagement with local citizens before moving on to the question of whether the scheme would help to achieve their net zero goals.  

    We really recognise the value that local government has in addressing climate change and the climate emergency”, says Alessandra. “We are always on the lookout for organisations who are actively aware of the power and value of local councils and who are engaging practically and pragmatically, and we found the Scorecards site through this research.”

    So how did they utilise it? In this case, through a bulk download of every councils’ assessment, available on the homepage of the Scorecards site.

    “The Scorecards helped us examine the climate plans on a per-council basis: whether they had a net zero target, when it was set, what their current community engagement looked like. All this was a really useful diving board for deeper research and further conversations.”

    Enabling local climate projects to flourish

    What type of project do the Local Climate Bonds help bring about? Alessandra is quick to provide examples.

    “In West Berkshire, the million pounds raised from 643 residents was used to build Solar PV roof-based projects on council facilities, and there was enough left over to fund other projects like urban tree planting, wildlife improvement and travel infrastructure.

    “Then in Islington, 661 investors contributed to the council’s ongoing efforts to improve air quality, and adding EV charging points; in Camden, the investment made by almost 400 investors will also go towards EV charging points as well as replacing the council’s fleet with green alternatives. Among the projects that are still crowdfunding on the Abundance platform, we see plans like Cotswold District Council’s energy efficiency improvements for the council’s offices. Telford are looking to make energy improvements to their temporary and supported housing stock.”

    That sounds like a lot of progressive climate activity! How many councils have introduced the Bonds so far?

    “The first Local Climate Bonds were issued by West Berkshire Council and Warrington Council. Then seven more pioneering councils joined around the time of COP26. From these, the London borough councils of Islington and Camden, plus Cotswold District Council and Telford & Wrekin have been the first to subsequently successfully issue a Community Municipal Investment to put money into low carbon projects, bringing the total number of issuances to six so far.”

    For councils, Alessandra says, the benefits are clear. 

    “One great thing the Local Climate Bonds bring about is the opportunity for residents to get involved in their council’s climate projects. But beyond that, of course, there are economic benefits: the Bonds offer a lower cost of funding to the local authority than the one offered by the main source of funding from central government, the Public Works Loan Board.

    “It’s even better for the council when investors — as has been the case for West Berkshire and Warrington — decide to donate all or part of their interest payments back to them. Respectively 16% and 11% of investors in the first issued bonds did this, to finance specific projects, such as a wildflower verge restoration project in West Berkshire.

    “Councils have particularly praised the engaging way of utilising a lower-cost form of borrowing for their net zero ambitions, and the possibility of giving citizens the opportunity to make a positive contribution towards a carbon neutral future, while also providing them with a financial return and deeper engagement.”

    Engaged residents

    Great stuff for councils then, but how about the residents?

    As we’ve already mentioned, councils enjoy the increased engagement from their residents. This goes both ways. The Bonds allow people to have a real stake in the climate action happening in their local area. One might say, no pun intended, that they are more invested.

    Alessandra points out, too, that the Local Climate Bonds offer a very low risk investment by taking local government risk rather than project risk: “This means that these regulated instruments are secured against the ability of the council to pay the returns, rather than the successfulness of the projects invested in.”

    Local Climate Bonds can also be eligible to be held in Innovative Finance ISA, which means they can offer investors to earn tax-free returns.

    More to come

    The Green Finance Institute and Abundance Investments are continuing to hold discussions with councils and private investors across the country to respectively stimulate more issuances and scale up the investment opportunity.

    Councils interested in exploring Local Climate Bonds can get in touch via their website or by sending an email to localclimatebond@gfi.green.

    And if you want to buy a Bond? “Interested investors can visit the Abundance Investment website to see the full range of Community Municipal Investments available — you don’t actually need to live in a council area to be eligible to invest in its activities. Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn if you want to be kept informed about the latest issuances.”

    The Green Finance Institute are also always very happy to hear from organisations that are interested in helping to raise awareness of this solution, that can offer on the one hand a cost-effective and engaging way for councils to fund hundreds of green local projects; and on the other, a low-risk and fixed return investment to citizens who want to support their local green initiatives.

    And we at mySociety are always happy to hear from organisations, campaigns and people who are using CAPE or the Scorecards site as one part of their efforts around climate action — please do let us know if you have a story we could tell.

    Subscribe to mySociety’s newsletter for a monthly update on all our climate-related activities.

  7. Closing down SayIt

    We’re sad to have to announce that we’ve made the difficult decision to stop hosting SayIt and will close the site by the end of July.

    SayIt is an open source tool for making transcripts easy to read, search and share on the modern internet. It lays out transcripts so that the viewer can cut and dice them to best suit their needs. Want to see everything said by one speaker? Everything said on a specific date? Search for every instance of a particular word or phrase? SayIt can do all of this.

    Over the years SayIt has hosted transcripts of all kinds. Not only the Leveson Inquiry, the trial of Charles Taylor (former President of Liberia), speeches recovered from the online archives of the Conservative and Labour parties, but also many user-generated transcripts too.

    We’ve had to close down sites in the past in order to focus on current priorities and sadly that time has come for SayIt. Although we believe that the concept is a good one and that having searchable, web friendly transcripts is a good thing, we don’t have the resources to continue to maintain or develop it. This means that we’re no longer able to continue running the service itself.

    Many SayIt instances may have been preserved in archive.org’s Wayback Machine. Get in touch if you have any questions or concerns or have an interest in continuing to maintain the project. The code will remain open source and available on GitHub.

  8. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #5: Learning from climate action

    Last week saw us come together for the fifth online TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.

    Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion on one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.

    This time, the discussants examined issues faced by those tackling the climate emergency with civic tech: what are some of the blockers they face, how can these be overcome, and what could a small grant do to help with one or more of those challenges?

    Discussants were Laura Brown, Chief Marketing Officer of ISeeChange, Jacopo Ottaviani, Chief Data Officer at Code for Africa and Laurence Watson, Head of Technology at Subak.

    For a high-level view, read on. We’ve attempted to capture all the ideas discussed, but if you’re keen not to miss anything, access the notes from the meeting, as well as the full recording of the session and the AI-generated transcript.

    Problems

    A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.

    Data and understanding

    Access to data – there is a lot of relevant data out there, but much of it is behind paywalls, expensive, or relies on an understanding of jargon. It is difficult to get reliable data for many areas that are needed.

    People aren’t experts: To what extent do you need to hold their hands and tell them what to do with complex datasets? The very people who are impacted by climate change impacts do not understand the terminology: climate communication should be localized for people to understand and get involved in the fight.

    Experts in climate data aren’t experts in communications – they need to learn how (or employ staff) to make their messaging easier for those at the receiving end. As a techie, it’s relatively easy to build solutions, but there’s a whole different skillset involved in publicising them and getting people onboard with them.

    Apathy and mistrust

    There’s general apathy from the public over a problem that seems too big or difficult to solve, or which has ben talked about for such a long time with no seeming progress.  People think they’ve heard it all before, and don’t believe this time will be any different. They also don’t think small local changes can make enough of a difference.

    Mistrust of government: the diminishing levels of trust, especially in national government, affects how people regard the data they provide (and possibly the data provided by all authorities).

    Governments shift responsibility between levels and governments are complex to navigate.

    It’s hard to persuade people to make difficult changes  – it’s easy enough to suggest them, but harder for tech to push them to actually see it through. The challenge is in getting people to accept short term inconvenience or risk, for a long term (and often non-individual) return. Incentives are tricky to identify and then communicate.

    The public has a short attention span and climate is a longterm, slow burn issue.

    Ways of working

    Startups also tend to work to short timescales and need to see quick results.

    NGOs don’t work together: there may be infighting as NGOs jostle for the same resources, which wastes their energy and disregards opportunities for working together. There are many organisations  working on similar-but-different solutions, making for a lot of wasted/duplicated effort. Non-profits often are funded for very specific things that they can deliver individually, so they are not incentivised to put effort into working with one another.

    Too many projects have no Theory of Change – they’re just created because it seemed like a good idea.

    It is difficult to measure impacts when asking people to take action in the real world. Particularly for projects that aim to create or open up information that could be used by a wide variety of stakeholders

    Societal issues

    Citizen action can only go so far – governments need to lead the way with legislation.

    Dis- and mis-information from climate denialists makes the job harder. The for-profit practices of social media and mass media are amplifying division. For all the energy and money going into advocating issues and their solutions, there seems to be an effective amount of money and energy preventing those solutions.

    Logistics

    Access: In countries with poor Internet coverage, there is a very basic problem of poor connectivity. This makes all sorts of things difficult, but the example given was about the difficulties of journalists in central Africa accessing training resources.

    Financial stability of newsrooms in Africa – many are relying on grants, which is fine for the short term, but can pose problems for sustainability.

    Trying to train up people with differing levels of experience: for example, training journalists who might not have used Excel before, in the same group as people with a bit more expertise.

    Possible solutions

    Making data accessible

    Employ data guides – make experts visible and available (perhaps at set times). These people could aid less experienced people in how to use complex data, like a reference librarian.

    Distil expert views and make them available so that people can understand them without ploughing through masses of data or content.

    Humanise the data – journalists can portray the human stories behind the facts and figures. See Lungs of the Earth and vox.com for some great examples; animations can be appealing and Johnny Harris from Vox does explainer videos that show how these can be made cheaply.

    Reaching people with meaningful messages

    If only a small proportion of people are likely to act, speak to those people. Find the ‘champions’ and don’t worry about communicating to the others just yet – they may follow on.

    Put attention on to those living low-carbon or low-plastic lifestyles, rather than shaming them. For some reason, we as a society seem to have taken this path with plant-based diets (influencers have led the way in normalising veganism) but not with other climate-friendly practices.

    Go where the people are – if that means learning how to utilise TikTok, the most-used social channel at the moment, so be it! Learn how to visualise data and include robust and useful climate change information within the TikTok vernacular.

    Games that help us envision the future: There is a disconnect between local discussions on local issues and the big changes that are coming, ‘like the end of the private motor car that in 15 years will be no more relevant than the horse and cart’. Could games help people understand?

    Roadshows Done well, a travelling event with a single message can be very effective.

    Hyperlocal webinars Match local interest community groups with experts in their area, like an e-bike expert talking to cycling groups; a food and growing expert to local gardening groups.

    Systemic change

    We need an effective, overarching law – like GDPR- designed to stamp out mis- and dis-information on the social media platforms.

    Working together

    Open and scaleable solutions When groups create something, they should do so with reuse in mind – create the documentation and support that will make it easy for other groups to pick up and adapt internationally.

    Identify & connect with climate officials working on a topic internationally

    Collaborate internationally or cross-country with other initiatives to collect data.

    Winning elections: Encourage more people to stand for election on a climate platform.

    How the grant could help

    Some ideas for spending the grant.

    Develop the results.org model for mobilising people, with an emphasis on climate.

    Create a model example for how to respond to your council’s Climate Action Plan that people could use as a template.

    Financial support for a data librarian who is available at set times of the week.

    Recruit, train and support ‘community climate champions‘ based in research teams, policy units, universities etc. We couldn’t fund this long term but could dedicate seed funding for an agency to pilot the idea.

    Infographics based on Climate Outreach’s work on persuasive language around climate.

    Give grants to college students who will be able to use them efficiently – with a little going a long way.

    Set up a table at climate protests to seed action in  people who are already feeling passionate, eg ask people to write a letter to their MP that you can gather up and send en masse the next day.

    Run a hackathon or challenge for students to come up with new solutions.

    Research into how communications can be used to overcome climate denialism.

    Make climate change data journalism micro-grants in under-reported regions.

    Communications between climate champions and citizens: Help, for example, the local authorities that have declared climate emergencies to engage citizens with their actions so there is mutual understanding, with a combination of engagement software used in public consultation with local data and the psychology used by Climate Outreach to reach different audiences.

    Action lab

    Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.

    We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to six people who are keen to use this discussion to inform the group as they pin down how the grant will be spent.

    To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.

  9. Call for proposals: resources to help train organisations/ the public in accessing good quality data

    In one sentence

    TICTeC Action Lab #3 is looking for an individual, organisation or joint team to produce resources to help train organisations/ the public in how to access and use good quality data.

    About TICTeC Action Lab #3

    As part of the TICTeC Labs programme, mySociety convened the TICTeC Action Lab #3 working group in order to take ideas raised at Civic Tech Surgery #3 forward, and decide together what piece of work would be useful to commission to help the global civic tech community to overcome common barriers to accessing quality information.

    TICTeC Action Lab #3 is comprised of 7 individuals from across the world, who between them have many years of experience working on civic tech. You can read more about Action Lab #3 members here.

    About this project

    We are looking for resources that can be used to train civic tech practitioners or the public to help them engage with data and with the authorities supplying that data. We recognise that there is value to the civic tech community in training organisational staff and also in better informing the public about accessing data. The proposal could include some initial training sessions, if these can be delivered within the timescale and budget, but the priority is to produce resources which can continue to be used by organisations to increase their knowledge/deliver training.

    This could include:

    • resources that explain the value of open data standards rather than just advocating for open data standards in of themselves
    • training for organisations on engaging with authorities
    • resources for NGOs and organisations on how to engage with authorities
    • signposting to resources for educating the public
    • collating or signposting to existing resources with guidance on how to use these

    These are suggestions and we do not expect any one proposal to cover all of these areas. We are open to different formats for the resource and we welcome innovative ideas about how to deliver the content.

    They are open to different formats for the resource – it doesn’t necessarily need to be a website or guide, and we welcome innovative ideas about how to deliver the content. Above all, we want the work to be as accessible as possible to ensure it can be easily used in practice. We ask applicants to let us know what approach they will take in their application.

    There is up to $3760 USD (inclusive of taxes) available for this work.

    Your application

    If you’re interested in producing this piece of work, then please fill in this application form – the deadline for applications is the end of Thursday 28th July 2022. Applications will be reviewed by the TICTeC Labs team at mySociety, the TICTeC Labs Steering Group and the Action Lab #3 group. Applicants will be notified of the status of their application no later than 24th August 2022. The work will then need to be completed within 8 weeks of the successful applicant being appointed.

    What happens after the project

    We intend to publish the work you produce, credited to you, on the TICTeC and mySociety website, licensed under a Creative Commons licence. We may make some light edits (beyond proofreading) before we publish. You will be free to make publicly available your own version should you wish to, and any other material based on the research you conducted. The project will then be disseminated by TICTeC Action Lab members, the TICTeC Labs Steering group, and the TICTeC community to ensure it’s used as much as possible.

    mySociety will convene a ‘report back’ event at the end of the TICTeC Labs programme to discuss how the programme went and the work commissioned by the programme and its participants. Authors of commissioned work will be invited to attend to present their work.

    Any questions?

    Please send any queries or questions to tictec@mysociety.org.

  10. Food, farming and climate action plans

    Sustain's logoSustain is the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, working to create a better food system for people and the planet.

    Like mySociety, the charity has identified local government as an area where meaningful change can be achieved — and they’ve been using CAPE, our climate action plans explorer tool, to help them bring it about.

    Councils have a role in the sustainable food transition

    We spoke to Ruth Westcott, Climate Change Campaign Coordinator at Sustain, to find out more about the organisation, and how CAPE has been of use to them. To kick things off, she explained why they’d been looking at councils’ climate action plans in the first place:

    “One of our aims at Sustain is to tackle the enormous environmental hoofprint of food and farming. We need, as a country, to transition to agroecological farming, using sustainable methods that work in harmony with nature.

    “And we need to reassess our diets so that they reflect the climate and nature emergency — as well as to tackle injustice and exploitation.”

    Of course, we can’t argue with that — but where does local government come in?

    “Councils have a huge role to play in making climate-friendly food the norm,” says Ruth. “They buy a lot of food for schools, care services and events. Lots of councils have planning power, and can support sustainable farming and food growing — in fact, some councils even own farms and farmland.”

    And those aren’t the only ways that which councils can contribute to their net zero targets through the areas of food and farming. “Food runs through so much of where councils have influence. They can help minimise food waste and the emissions that come out of it; educate citizens on sustainable diets and support good food businesses in their area.”

    Climate action plan data

    When Ruth spells it out like that, it is indeed clear just how much sway local authorities have over food and farming-based emissions. But she says that back in 2020, Sustain had the impression that not many councils were seeing it that way, nor had many included food in their climate action plans.

    That’s where CAPE came in: Ruth used the data on the site to produce a report, An analysis of UK Local Authority plans to tackle climate change through food. This sought to depict how well councils are considering action on food in the context of the climate and nature emergency — and if you want a spoiler, “not at all well” is Ruth’s succinct summary.

    “Using CAPE, we were instantly able to see which councils have declared a climate emergency, which had released an action plan, and (amazingly!) find all the action plans in one place. That allowed us to do an analysis of how many councils were including food in their action plans, recognise and congratulate some leaders, and identify those that could do more.”

    Some of the standout findings were that only 13 out of 92 climate emergency plans released by UK councils at that time included policies to tackle food emissions at the scale needed; and two thirds (67%) of climate action plans contained no new or substantial proposals to tackle food-related emissions at all, even though the food and farming sector is the source of 20-30% of emissions globally. 

    Sustain will be repeating the exercise this year and hope to see some substantial improvements.

    “I don’t think we would have published that report without your website”, says Ruth. “It’s hard to say how we would have gathered together all 400 or so action plans in one place – we simply don’t have the resources to do this!

    “Once we’d compiled the report, it allowed us to drive awareness with councils and get them to register on our Every Mouthful Counts toolkit.”

    Resources for councils and citizens

    Every Mouthful Counts helps councils identify where big emissions savings can be made through food, with links to helpful resources. If you’re from a council yourself, you can register and record all the actions you’re taking in this area – see this page for the councils already doing this. 

    On the other hand, if you’re an interested citizen, you can check the map to see whether your own local council has signed up — and what strategies or projects they’ve already put in place.

    Can’t see your own council? Then you might consider dropping an email to your councillor to ask them to register and report what they are doing around food and climate change.

    Many thanks to Ruth for explaining how CAPE was employed to get this project underway — we hope that by writing about it, we might inspire projects in all sorts of sectors to use the climate action plan data in similar ways. Subscribe to the mySociety Climate newsletter and you’ll be the first to know about other such innovations.

    Image: Rasa Kasparaviciene