1. New in CAPE: Five different ways of finding similar councils

    One of the things we want CAPE,  the Climate Action Plan Explorer, to do is make useful comparisons between different councils, and help surface where councils are similar and might be able to learn from each other. 

    The first go at this was a physical proximity tool, which highlighted neighbouring councils, but this can miss that adjacent councils might well have some different circumstances. As announced in December’s month notes, we’ve now expanded this tool so that it offers five possible ways of seeing which councils are similar to each other. 

    New CAPE page showing similar councils

    One of the approaches we’ve been exploring is the use of BEIS carbon emissions data to provide an alternate lens, where councils can be shown to be ‘similar’ on the basis of the overall profile of their different kinds of emissions. 

    As part of this process we created a prototype using binder and wrote a public blog post to gather feedback (and had a few good Twitter conversations about problems with specific comparisons). We showed the tool to climate officers directly, and also asked a larger group of climate officers and other participants at a session in NetZeroLocal about what aspects they would find useful in comparisons. We also talked to Connected Places Catapult, which is exploring a very similar approach in its Net Zero Navigator

    Generally people were supportive of the idea of making comparisons based on emissions, but raised the point that it might be less or more useful depending on the kind of policy that was being compared.  

    In the NetZeroLocal session there was broadly a lot of support for urban/rural splits and physical proximity and population size, with then lower support for a range of other options. This included low interest in the abstract idea of the carbon comparison, although in practice this effectively works as an urban/rural split classification. 

    People also suggested additional datasets for specific kinds of problems. For instance, the rural and urban divide is useful across a whole range of factors, but housing stock would be useful for understanding a comparison of specific policy areas. 

    The lesson from this is that one single ‘similar’ measure was not going to be good enough. Different kinds of problems require different kinds of comparisons, so we need a framework that can let people choose the comparison they want to make, and datasets that help them make good comparisons.  As such, CAPE now works with an improved version of the emissions comparison, but also three other measures, and a composite measure that uses all of these to give an impression of general similarity. This can be used to explore councils, or to limit a text search of plans just to similar councils. 

    Improving emissions comparison

    When we first started looking at emissions data, it quickly became clear there was a set of questions around understanding what the data meant in the first place, whether there was a “correct” way to manipulate it, and then how to describe what it meant at the end. 

    The original uncertainty about whether it is correct to use ‘per person’ emissions is especially clear for industrial emissions – which have no clear relationship to the number of people in an area. Adjusting by the number of people leads to mid-industry but low-density areas being seen as comparable to very high-industry, high-density areas, which did not seem correct for comparisons.  In general, very high- and low-density areas make outliers and for odd clustering. Small authorities in Scotland ended up paired with the centre of London. This affects a small number of councils, but probably reflects patterns that are less obvious (and probably unhelpful) throughout the approach. 

    There are several approaches to this problem. Connected Place Catapult uses local GDP rather than population as an alternative way of comparing industrial emissions between areas. Another approach would be to explicitly include population density as a dimension of the clustering. This should generally do little for most councils (as it is indirectly reflected in emissions), but should drive a wedge between incorrect comparisons in per person measures. Another option is to cap (winsorization) the population used to calculate per person. This should stop extreme outliers presenting bizarrely in comparisons without excluding them completely. 

    For v2, we tested a few approaches and in the end used versions of all of these. The raw emissions data is adjusted in the following ways:

    • Domestic emissions are adjusted to be per person
    • Commercial and industrial to be per unit of GDP
    • Transport and Public Sector are per person, but winsorized.
    • A weighted down version of population density is used as an extra factor to push dissimilar councils a little bit further apart.

    This produces clusters that are broadly similar to V1, but passes the test of not grouping a set of councils that seemed incorrectly grouped in the original. 

    We also took a different approach to labelling these groups. Feedback was positive for the urban/rural distinction in V1, but this is now being taken care of more directly through a different approach. 

    Given this, the labels for emissions data focus on which aspect of emissions the grouping has a higher than normal distribution of. While there are also times where a grouping has a below average amount of emissions for a particular type, this was hard to condense into a quick label (below average is not ‘low’) and is expanded on in the description.

    Label Description
    Industry/domestic/transport Above average for industry/domestic/transport, below average public sector emissions.
    Public sector Well above average public sector (government, education, health), below average in other areas.
    Urban mainstream Below average for most emissions scores.
    Domestic Slightly above average in domestic emissions, below average public sector emissions.
    Industry/commercial/public sector Above average industry/commercial and public sector.
    City of London The City of London does not have a comparable emissions profile

     

    Map of UK local authorities showing different emissions groups

    For the moment we are not displaying these labels in the interface, but may use them as the basis for other forms of comparison in future.  In general, this process is inherently throwing away data to make comparisons easier, and so will always break down at some level of analysis. The solution to this is not to make the approach perfect, but to present multiple options that meet different use cases. 

    New options

    From feedback we learned that we couldn’t solve everyone’s problems with the same measure of similarity, so we’ve gone away and created a few new measures, and a framework where we could add more in future. 

    This includes the previous measure of which councils geographically border or overlap with the selected council and introduces three new measures, deprivation profile, rural/urban profile and a composite overall comparison.  

    Deprivation profile

    The similarity between authorities is calculated by the proportion of the population living in high deprivation (1st quintile), medium deprivation (2nd-3rd quintile) and low deprivation (4th and 5th quintile) neighbourhoods. The population density is also used to help distinguish between authorities with very similar profiles of deprivation. 

    This UK-wide comparison is based on a Composite Index of Multiple Deprivation system.

    Rural/Urban profile

    The similarity between authorities is calculated by the proportion of the population living in urban, rural, and highly rural neighbourhoods in an authority. The population density is also used to help distinguish between authorities in entirely urban areas. 

    This UK-wide comparison is based on a Composite Rural Urban Classification system.

    Overall comparison

    There is also an overall comparison, which is the default view. This takes all of the above, and calculates which councils are nearest to each other along all these measurements. Councils may be shown as overall highly similar because they are very similar in one degree, or because they are slightly similar across several.

    Our thinking in this was to create a single measure that was likely to be slightly useful in most cases, while giving more advanced users additional tools to dig into specific comparisons. 

    The underlying datasets and code are available on Github

  2. Call for proposals: Public understanding of local authorities and climate

    Important links

    Download as PDF.

    In one sentence

    mySociety is looking for an individual, organisation or joint team to research public understanding of what local government does, and especially its role in combating climate change, primarily through conducting a literature review, to be completed by the end of March 2022.

    About mySociety

    Established in 2003, mySociety is a not-for-profit group, based in the UK but working with partners internationally. We believe that people can and want to work together to build a fairer society, to tackle the most pressing crises of our age. mySociety’s role is to use our digital and data skills to help this repowering of democracy. We build and share digital technologies that help people be active citizens, across the four areas of Democracy, Transparency, and Community and Climate. Our projects include TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow, and FixMyStreet. We also conduct and commission research in our areas of interest, which includes our new Climate programme. Our research programme is concerned with ensuring we are producing tools and approaches that are a good fit for the problems the organisation is trying to address. 

    About mySociety’s existing work in this area 

    The starting point for mySociety’s Climate programme is that around a third of UK greenhouse gas emissions are within the power or influence of local authorities and their communities. Through the deployment of data and digital services, we are helping councils, community organisations, campaign groups and individual citizens to take faster, more informed and effective action to cut emissions at the local level. Our initial project is a website that makes local authority climate action plans more discoverable and searchable. Our Climate programme seeks to support engagement from citizens, action from local government, and better information for all. You can read more about mySociety’s Climate programme here.

    Other areas of our work have involved local government and local democracy. Previous mySociety work of relevance to this project includes Participation vs representation: Councillor attitudes towards citizen engagement and Assessing success in Civic Tech: Measures of deprivation and WriteToThem.

    About this project

    We want to decrease UK carbon emissions that are either directly controlled or influenced by local government (see Climate Change Committee report on role of Local Authorities). Our hypothesis is that people know relatively little about local government, relatively little about the idea of Net Zero, and even less about the intersection of the two. If this is true,  there are opportunities to improve public/campaigner knowledge that would help align public pressure and campaigns with the biggest opportunities for emissions reduction through local government. But, similarly the reasons for low understanding of local government may present barriers to this approach that need to be addressed. 

    We want to understand what people know about what local government does, what actions people think “the government” in general needs to take to reduce emissions, and where there is alignment/mismatch between where people put responsibility for changes, and the reality of local government areas of responsibility. 

    We would like a short literature review to clearly summarise existing work on these questions. We may also commission some polling (up to three questions) on this topic during the course of the project. If so, we would hope the research could help us shape the polling questions, and that the results would be included in the review (polling costs themselves should not be included in the budget).  Useful sources are likely to include public opinion work conducted by polling companies, organisations like NatCen, and specific projects such as the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement. Work by organisations focused on local government, such as the Local Government Association and New Local, may also be helpful.

    The available budget for this work is up to £5000-8000 (inclusive of VAT), and the project would need to be completed by the end of March (around 4-6 weeks from end of commissioning process).

    The main audience for this work will be mySociety, as we seek to understand how best to develop our Climate programme. However, we would hope it would be of wider use to other researchers and the interested public, and in line with our general approach, would plan to make the outputs public. Our default assumption is that the main output is a single written report, that will be edited to our style, and published on our research site, with a short 500-1,000 word summary that can stand alone from the document. We are open to proposals on the length and form of the outputs (for instance, if you believe the problem is better solved by a series of linked shorter pieces). We are also open to variations on the approach/research method if you believe it might provide a useful answer to our problem.

    What we are looking for in and from a partner

    Expertise/ skill set

    While all projects benefit from subject expertise, we believe this project could be completed without a huge amount of prior experience with the local government/net zero problem, with knowledge of local government being more important.

    Being able to understand our problem, effectively summarise available information, and work productively with us are also key factors. We will especially be looking for clarity of written communication. The proposed output should be focused on informing future decisions mySociety makes and so should be simple, concise and well-written. We will provide access to the mySociety research style guide which the project will eventually be edited to. 

    Alignment with values and aims

    Our Repowering Democracy strategy puts a special emphasis on embedding equity and inclusion in our work practices and services, and our work aims in general to fulfill values of equity/justice, openness and collaboration

    Applicants should consider if this presents any obstacles to a working relationship, and think about how these values should be reflected in the project plan, either in terms of subject matter to investigate, or research approach. For instance, within the bounds possible given what has been written, we would be interested in strategies for ensuring a reasonable gender balance in authors cited.

    Working practices

    mySociety works flexibly and remotely, and there is no requirement to work from or visit an office. Applicants can distribute their work as appropriate over the time available, but we would expect regular check-ins on progress to be arranged over that period. A shared slack channel and a specific contact person will be used to help coordinate and quickly share questions and information between mySociety and the researcher. 

    Successful applicants would be expected to abide by the mySociety Code of Conduct in mySociety communications channels and events. 

    Outputs and deliverables

    The production of a literature review in around 4-6 weeks (deadline by the end of March 2022), a summary of this research and an internal presentation of the research to mySociety staff.  To be discussed: the usefulness of public polling, and any specific areas there is a lack of evidence. 

    Q&A and contact details

    The application timeline includes a Q&A event, which you can sign up at the link at the top of this document.. The Q&A session will include an element to help individual researchers coordinate to form a joint submission (applications are also welcome from individual researchers). Answers will be made available in a video on this page for applicants who cannot take part. Questions can be emailed to the contact address below. 

    Please send any queries or questions to research-commissioning+call1@mysociety.org and mention which project it is in regard to. Questions in advance are preferred and will be prioritised in the session. 

    Your application

    Applications can be submitted by individuals, organisations, or joint teams of individuals/organisations. These should be sent to research-commissioning+call1@mysociety.org by the closing date. 

    You should submit a short application, of up to 4 pages of A4. A template for the response can be download at the link at the top of this page, and covers: 

    • Who you are (whether an individual, organisation, or joint team).
    • A description of your previous experience/previous work and why you want to take on this project.
      • To the extent that this is possible, this should be anonymous and not include names (to help with anonymous stages of the recruitment process)
    • How you would approach and deliver this project – a short project plan with approximate timings. 
      • This could include discussion of whether the suggested approach – a short literature review – is the right one for what we want to achieve, and any possible alternatives.
    • The total value (£) of your proposal (including VAT), and high-level breakdown of costs  (perhaps an indication of days per person, any other expenses). This does not need to include production costs of the report. 
      • Given the cost of the project, we will not be giving a great deal of weight to budget plans so please keep this short and high-level – we can dig into further details during interviews, if necessary.
    • A short description of the individuals or team who will do the work, including biographies

    A separate equalities monitoring form, which can be filled out online and is processed separately  from the main application (there is a link to the form in the application form). This is for understanding the reach of our method of distributing the call for proposals. 

    If you are interested in joining a ‘researcher pool’ mailing list that we will contact with details of future projects, please see the link at the top of this document. 

    Application timeline

    If there are changes during this timeline, the table on the website version of this form will be updated. 

    Stage Date Description
    Call for proposals published 6 January 2022  
    Q&A Webinar 14 January 2022 An open, online public event for interested bidders to learn more about the project and ask questions. This will be recorded and available afterwards. You can submit questions in advance to research-commissioning@mysociety.org. Questions in advance are preferred. 
    Questions answered 17 January 2022 Video of the webinar to be made available to all potential bidders, in addition to answers to any other questions submitted via email
    Deadline for applications 21 January 2022 (end of day)  
    Initial decisions 27th January 2022 Applicants to be informed whether they have made it through to a short panel interview (and may be asked for a sample of existing work). Applicants not progressing past this stage to be offered written feedback
    Interviews w/c 31 January 2022 Format to be decided, but this will likely be a one-hour panel interview with several people involved in the climate programme, towards the end of the week (3rd, 4th Feb)
    Final decision w/c 8 February 2022 Remaining applicants to be informed of the final decision. Applicants not progressing to be offered feedback
    Project briefing/kick-off meeting End of w/c 8 February 2022 To include a brief introduction to mySociety, discussion of any onboarding required and approach to project management, communication and catch-ups
    Project deadline 31 March 2022 End of project

     

    What happens after the project 

    We intend to publish the report you produce, credited to you, on the mySociety website, licensed under a Creative Commons licence (see recent publications on research.mysociety.org for details). 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. 

    We will convene a short ‘lessons learned’ session to discuss how the project went – what went well and anything that could have been improved. We will also discuss any future work based on the delivered project (eg if you are an academic and might want to co-author an article) and our ongoing relationship. We would also like to arrange a presentation on the project to mySociety staff, and there may also be an opportunity to promote the work in a public event held by mySociety (budgeting for this would be separate to the project above). 

    Terms and conditions

    Interested parties must be UK-based individuals or organisations.

    Work must be completed by the end of the financial year (31 March 2022). 

  3. Climate monthnotes: December 2021

    Another month, another chance to share progress from the Climate team. And this time, you get to hear it from a different person too – Hello! I’m Zarino, one of mySociety’s designers, and Product Lead for the Climate programme.

    Over the last month, we’ve moved the programme on in three main areas: Adding some much-anticipated features to our headline product, the Climate Action Plans Explorer; continuing full steam ahead on development of Climate Emergency UK’s ‘Council Climate Plan Scorecards’ site, and setting up a research commissioning process that will kick in early next year.

    New features on CAPE

    Just barely missing the cut for Siôn’s mid-November monthnotes, we flipped the switch on another incremental improvement to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans:

    CAPE showing climate declarations and promises for a council

    CAPE now shows you whether a council has declared a climate emergency, and whether they’ve set themselves any public targets on becoming carbon neutral by a certain date. We are incredibly grateful to our partners Climate Emergency UK for helping us gather this data. Read my earlier blog post to find out more about how we achieved it.

    As well as displaying more data about each council, a core aim of the CAPE site is enabling more valuable comparisons with—and explorations of—the plans of similar councils. Previously, we’d done this by allowing you to browse councils of a particular type (London Boroughs, say, or County Councils), and by showing a list of “nearby” councils on each council’s page.

    Old CAPE page showing nearby councils

    However, we’re now excited to announce the launch of a whole new dimension of council comparisons on the site, thanks to some amazing work by our Research Associate Alex. To try them out, visit your council’s page on CAPE, and scroll down:

    New CAPE page showing similar councils

    These five tabs at the bottom of a council’s page hide a whole load of complexity—much of which I can barely explain myself—but the upshot is that visitors to CAPE will now be able to see much more useful, and accurate, suggestions of similar councils whose plans they might want to check out. Similar councils, after all, may be facing similar challenges, and may be able to share similar best practices. Sharing these best practices is what CAPE is all about.

    We’ll blog more about how we prepared these comparisons, in the new year.

    Council Climate Plan Scorecards

    As previously noted, we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to display the results of their analysis of council climate action plans, in early 2022. These “scorecards”, produced by trained volunteers marking councils’ published climate action plans and documents, will help open up the rich content of council’s plans, as well as highlighting best practice in nine key areas of a good climate emergency response.

    As part of the marking process, every council has been given a ‘Right of Reply’, to help Climate Emergency UK make sure the scorecards are as accurate as possible. We’re happy to share that they’ve received over 150 of these replies, representing over 50% of councils with a published climate action plan.

    With those council replies received, this month Climate Emergency UK’s experts were able to complete a second round of marking, producing the final scores.

    Meanwhile, Lucas, Struan, and I have been working away on the website interface that will make this huge wealth of data easily accessible and understandable – we look forward to sharing more about this in January’s monthnotes.

    Research commissioning

    Finally, as Alex recently blogged, we’ve been setting up a research commissioning process for mySociety – primarily to handle all the research we’d like to do in the Climate programme next year. Our main topics for exploration aren’t yet finalised, but we’re currently very interested in the following three areas:

    1. Public understanding of local authorities and climate
    2. Public pressure and local authorities
    3. How local authorities make decisions around climate

    Watch this space for more details about these research opportunities, and how to get involved.

  4. We know it’s not perfect, but we’re carbon offsetting: here’s why

    Back in December 2020, we blogged about how we track mySociety’s carbon footprint in order to understand our impact and to monitor whether climate policies we’ve implemented are having the desired effect of reducing our emissions. 

    In that blog post, we said: ‘having learned of disturbing failings in even the most-recommended [carbon] offsetting services, we are researching where we might be able to make direct payments to mitigate the carbon we produce’. As you can tell from the title of this blog post, we’ve now settled on a different approach, for the time being at least!

    After many discussions within our Climate Action Group, we’ve decided for now to purchase carbon offsets from atmosfair.

    This blog post aims to explain why we’ve made the decision (for now) to offset all mySociety’s carbon emissions, and how we’re doing it. This is part of our policy of talking openly about our climate actions, in the hope that these types of conversations become more normal and widespread in our sector and beyond — and that we can all learn from each other.

    Doing something is better than doing nothing

    It’s important to emphasise that our main priority is to reduce mySociety’s carbon footprint, and as you can see over on our Environmental Policy, we’ve set in place various strategies to do this. However, it’s undeniable that our work still produces carbon emissions, and by its very nature, no matter how much we succeed in minimising them, inevitably will continue to do so at some degree.

    We don’t want to shrug and say that there’s nothing we can do about these emissions, and we want to emphasise that carbon has a cost, so mySociety’s Climate Action Group (a internal policy group comprising around six staff members) has been (and still is!) on a bit of a learning journey about what to do.

    We spent quite a bit of time discussing the pros and cons of offsetting as a concept, and exploring other avenues we could take — more about which, below — and it was beginning to feel like we were letting perfect be the enemy of any progress whatsoever.

    Enter atmosfair

    So when atmosfair was recommended to us as “historically the most responsible and environmentally conscious provider of offset credits” — their projects are verified by both the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism and Gold Standard — we decided to offset with them for now, while still actively exploring other options. 

    According to atmosfair, the Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations requires considerably more from carbon-offsetting projects than the Gold Standard, including written consent to the project from the government of the host country, liable auditors, on-site audits of each individual project, and recurring audits of each project by an elected body of representatives with equal rights from industrialised and developing countries (the CDM Executive Board). 

    This additional level of scrutiny on their projects resolved some of the doubts we’d had around offsetting, giving us that extra confidence to purchase from them. Nonetheless, as we’ve previously said we know this is not a perfect solution and we will review our decision on offsetting every year at a minimum, as well as continually keeping an eye out for news articles and innovations in the area. 

    When we come to review our decision to offset next year, we will take into account whether companies include representatives from the Global South on their board or executive team.

    We think this representation is important when implementing offsetting projects directly in the region, as is the practice of many offsetting companies. We have written to atmosfair to ask them if they are considering diversifying their board and/or executive team, and we’re keen to learn about Global South-led carbon offsetting/removal organisations we could support in future. 

    The winding path to our decision

    Over the last year, we considered a few different options for mitigating the carbon our activities produce, including: donating to high impact projects for climate change action; paying for trees to be planted; investing in local community energy organisations in the UK; and purchasing carbon offsets from non-profit certified providers. 

    What we’ve realised about mitigating carbon is that there really isn’t a ‘perfect’ solution and every idea/scheme seems to have its controversies or counterarguments that, if you’re not climate change experts, are pretty difficult to assess and view comparatively. However, as a group we felt that trying to do something to mitigate our carbon is still better than doing nothing.

    • When it came to donating to high impact projects for climate change action, we learned that even organisations like the NewClimate Institute are still figuring out which projects are the most beneficial to support, and we haven’t felt confident enough in their efficacy to support projects that are still very new. 
    • As for paying for trees to be planted, we’d heard from a few sources that it’s not as effective as other offsetting projects, and takes longer for benefits to arise. 
    • We loved the idea of investing in local community energy projects in the UK, but as a charity ourselves there are strict legal requirements we must meet when investing charity money, and as a small organisation we don’t currently have the resources to administer that without letting other aspects of our work suffer. 
    • We had initially decided last year to offset by purchasing credits directly from Gold Standard, but after hearing from investigative journalists at the Dataharvest conference that Gold Standard projects are potentially not reviewed as well as they could be, we decided to have a rethink.

    So atmosfair it is for now – which, along with all the safeguards mentioned above, also has the additional appeal of being a nonprofit, like us.

    To reiterate, just because we’ve chosen to offset in this way for now, doesn’t mean we will do so forever. On that note, we’re really keen to hear from others about if/how they are mitigating their carbon emissions, so please do get in touch if you have any thoughts you’d like to share.  The latest idea we’ve heard of is carbon budgeting, and if you know anything about it we would love to chat.

    Image: DFID (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

     

  5. New on CAPE: headline pledges from councils

    The Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) is gathering together every Climate Action Plan from every UK council that’s published one. We’re actively adding more functionality on an ongoing basis; most recently, we’ve extracted the ‘headline pledges’ from each plan, like this:

    screenshot showing Glasgow’s climate pledge

    Pledges like this give an idea of the council’s overarching priorities, but often have not been presented in isolation before, even by the councils themselves.

    Why we did this

    A core aim of our Climate programme is to improve the information ecosystem around local responses to the climate emergency:

    “We’re improving the information ecosystem to allow local and national campaigns, policymakers and other stakeholders to undertake better scrutiny and analysis of local climate action, and develop evidence-based policies and solutions.”

    We’ve already written about how we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to collect and score Climate Action Plans for every local authority in the UK. Providing people with an easy way into their local authority’s action plan will give them an unprecedented opportunity to gauge their council’s level of ambition in facing the climate emergency, and how they’re planning to turn those ambitions into actions.

    But plans can be complex, and time-consuming to read. Another, faster way people can understand their council’s level of ambition is by finding any targets that it might have set itself for decarbonising either the entire area, or just the council’s own operations, by a particular date.

    We call these ‘pledges’, and they’re typically not all that easy to find – they can be buried in council meeting minutes, or slipped somewhere into an unassuming page on the council’s website or action plan.

    Knowing what date your council is working towards, and what they believe they can achieve by that date, fundamentally sets the scene when it comes to understanding and contributing to the council’s climate actions.

    That’s why we decided to collect these pledges and share them on CAPE. Here’s where you’ll find them on each council’s page, setting the scene before you dig into the full action plan:

    Screenshot of Glasgow’s page on the Climate Action Plan explorer

    How we did this

    Collecting these pledges from scratch would be a mammoth task. Luckily, we were able to build on two partial datasets that gave us a headstart.

    An important thing to note is that we wanted to collect not only the scope (that is to say, whether the plan covers council operations only, or the whole area) and target date, but also the exact wording of the pledge, and the source where it was found.

    We found that local authorities often use terms like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘net zero’ interchangeably, and the scope of pledges can sometimes be ambiguous. The most objective approach, therefore, was to present the entire pledge, as it was originally worded, and leave it up to the viewer to interpret the council’s intent. Collecting and exposing the source of the pledge would allow them to dig deeper and view the pledge in context, if they wanted to.

    Our partners, Climate Emergency UK, had already been collecting climate target dates as part of their ongoing monitoring of council responses to the climate and biodiversity emergencies. But since the target dates were just one small part of a much wider database, they hadn’t collected the direct quotes that we wanted to present.

    Still, in the Climate Emergency UK dataset, we effectively had a wide but shallow starting point, covering most councils in the UK, from which we could then proceed to fill in the detail by revisiting the sites, scanning them for anything that looked like a pledge, and pasting them into our database.

    We were also incredibly grateful to receive a smaller, but much more detailed, dataset of climate commitments from the National Audit Office, which covered 70% of the principal local authorities in England, some of which had made no commitments. They themselves had manually gathered these commitments from public sources—council’s minutes, websites, and action plans—over April to June of 2021.

    Combined with the Climate Emergency UK dataset, this data from the National Audit Office got us 75% of the way towards a full dataset of climate pledges from every council in the UK.

    With the help of Climate Emergency UK volunteers, we filled in the gaps on this combined dataset, collecting direct quotes for both council-only and whole area climate pledges, for 341 of the 408 councils in the UK.

    For the remaining 67 councils, we were unable to find a public climate pledge, or at least one with a concrete target date – but we’re hopeful that we might yet find this information, and the CAPE website includes a link on these councils’ pages through which visitors (or maybe councillors or council officers!) can contribute the data, if they’ve found a source elsewhere.

    Screenshot of the council list page

    The data was collected via an online spreadsheet, making it fairly easy to import into CAPE, as part of the website’s existing data processing pipeline. This feeds the pledges through to both the individual council pages, and also the all councils page, where you can now filter the list to show only councils with a target in a given five-year period, or no target at all.

    We will soon also be exposing these pledges via the CAPE API, so third parties can programmatically access and reuse the data in their own services. If this sounds like something you might find useful, do get in touch or subscribe to our Climate newsletter where we’ll be sure to share any news.

     

    Image: Romain Dancre

  6. Climate monthnotes: Nov 2021

    Time flies when you’re having fun, and the past month has passed in something of a blur. Maybe part of that can be explained by my being a relatively new recruit. But it’s also been thrilling to whizz towards the COP26 climate talks on a wave of enthusiasm and excellence emanating from the inspiring crew with whom I’m now working.

    We’ve done a lot this month. Running a virtual event at the COP26 Coalition’s People’s Summit for Climate Justice allowed us to understand a range of perspectives on our Climate Action Plan Explorer. We also took the opportunity to test two differing approaches to promoting our new Net Zero Local Hero landing page, which was rapidly whisked into existence by the magnificent Myf, Zarino and Howard. 

    Giving money to tech giants makes us increasingly uneasy, but we set up advertising on three social media platforms so that we could fully understand, in a ringfenced test, what the benefits are and how these weigh up against the negatives. At the same time, we gave Kevin at Climate Emergency UK a stack of stickers (suitably biodegradable and on sustainable paperstock) to dish out in Glasgow. When we have time to analyse the results, we’re hoping to understand which method is most effective – digital ads or traditional paper.

    Although we decided not to attend COP26 in person we followed from afar, aligned with those most at risk of exclusion by signing up to the COP26 Coalition’s Visa Support Service Solidarity Hub, supporting the coalition’s communications and amplifying marginalised perspectives on Twitter.

    Myf has been following Act For Climate Truth’s bulletins on climate disinformation and mySociety signed the Conscious Advertising Network’s open letter asking for climate disinformation policies on the big tech platforms to be one of the outcomes of COP26. And we joined another broad, diverse group of organisations with a shared goal to encourage the delegates of COP26 to deliver more urgent action on climate change via https://cop26.watch/.

    Myf also wrote up a case study on how Friends of the Earth used our work to fuel a recent campaign action (see previous month notes) and Louise presented to Open Innovations’ #PlanetData4 event, which I joined to dip into a discussion about Doughnut Economics.

    And all the while our Climate Action Plan Explorer (CAPE) has been quietly evolving. We got some great feedback – especially from local authority representatives – at our #NetZeroLocal21 conference session on 30 September. Since then we’ve added some pretty serious bells and whistles. 

    Chloe consolidated data from Climate Emergency UK and the National Audit Office on headline promises (a full blog post explaining more about this soon), and this data was deployed by Zarino and Struan alongside more information on climate emergencies, guidance on council powers and ways in which they could be put to use.

    Zarino enriched user experience and boosted the climate information ecosystem’s health by migrating data from Climate Emergency UK’s website to CAPE. Digging deeper, Sam improved CAPE’s integration with our production deployment and management systems, fixing a few small bugs along the way that occasionally interfered with code deployment.

    Our sights are now set on making the most of the heroic assessment of local authority Climate Action Plans being led by Climate Emergency UK. The right of reply period has ended and the second marking is underway. If you’d like to know more please check out this explanation of the process and get in touch with any thoughts – we’re really keen to understand how best this can be used to accelerate climate action in the wake of COP26.

    Image: Ollivier Girard / CIFOR

  7. Friends of the Earth: how Climate Action Plan data informed a campaign

    In collaboration with Climate Emergency UK, we’ve collected local councils’ Climate Action Plans into one searchable online database we’re calling CAPE, the Climate Action Plans Explorer. Work continues on adding more features to make this resource as useful as possible.

    From the start it was clear that such a project would benefit several different stakeholders: councils can see what their counterparts in other regions are doing, and pick up good ideas from them; journalists and researchers can query the data to find nationwide trends and comparisons. And for concerned citizens and climate campaigners, CAPE provides a one-stop shop to see whether or not their council has a plan, and what exactly it contains. Coming soon will be new functionality to help laypeople to understand the quality of the plans, which can be quite complex, too.

    As with most tools that we build at mySociety, CAPE is not only useful as a website in itself; its underlying data can also be used to inform developers’ own apps and websites, which can of course be useful for larger campaigning organisations. 

    This aspect played an important part in a recent campaign from Friends of the Earth, who ran an email action asking supporters to contact their local councillors to ask for an ambitious Climate Action Plan. This campaign is still up and running, but the initial push gave it a strong start from their most committed supporters.

    Friends of the Earth campaign page on asking your councillor to support an ambitious Climate Action Plan

    A simple but crucial piece of data

    FoE knew that it was important to tailor the messages they were asking their supporters to send: if the council being contacted had no Climate Action Plan at all, then the email needed to ask for this first step to be taken; while if there was a plan in place, the request was for rapid and ambitious implementation. 

    And so, CAPE data played a small but vital part in the FoE action, simply informing the automated email builder whether there was a plan for the user’s council or not, so that it could modify the text accordingly.

    Shaan Jindal, FoE’s Digital Mobilisation Officer, led this campaign, and also conducted a thorough assessment of its effectiveness afterwards. He explains that the action had several main aims:

    • To educate Friends of the Earth supporters on the role councils can play in addressing climate change
    • To empower them to engage with their local councillors about their local Climate Action Plan
    • To support the work of those FoE local groups and climate action groups campaigning for action plans, while  educating the wider supporter base about the activity of these groups and encouraging them to join one.
    • To demonstrate a high level of local support for action to councils, putting pressure on them to improve, enact and create ambitious plans.

    The simple request to ‘ask your council for strong climate action now’ does however hide some fairly complex challenges, as Shaan explains:

    “Climate Action Plans might be a fairly new concept to many of our email list supporters. They may have come to the action page from our email hoping for more information on how CAPs are important, the theory of change behind them or why campaigning at the local government level is as important as getting national-level change. 

    “But that said, the supporter email performed well for an ‘email your representative’ style action (7.4% of recipients clicked through to the action page), suggesting that supporters did find this a compelling way to create change and take climate action themselves.”

    Engaging with councillors will, of course, ideally result in a response, and perhaps a bit of a longer back-and-forth, so FoE followed up with resources to guide supporters on how to reply back to their representatives, especially if these replies were pushing back on the very idea that any action needed to be taken by the council. They plan to keep up communications with every supporter who took the action, emailing them to provide further support where needed.

    Coverage and new members

    Practically every council in the UK, with the exception of just three, received at least one email from FoE’s action. Some councils received over 150 emails, and others only a handful. 

    It’s worth saying at this point that mySociety’s own WriteToThem service is built to explicitly prevent mass sending of similar or identical emails, in the belief that they are more easily ignored than personal communications and can be an irritant rather than changing the minds of representatives. But of course this was not our campaign, and indeed, since one of the aims of this action was to show councils that they have mass support from their residents to take ambitious steps towards Net Zero, it can be seen that a wave of consistent messaging is actually desirable in this case.

    FoE detected additionally that about 140 people had made contact with their local branch to find out more after taking this action, prompted by a ‘find a group near you’ link in an automated thank you email, so it had a secondary effect of potentially creating new activists in the space.

    Impact

    While it’s too soon to comment on the wider impact of this action, there are definitely some encouraging results, says Shaan:

    “The majority of supporters who completed our survey (79%) said that their councillor responded positively to their email, and only a small minority said they replied negatively (4%) or indifferently (9%). The remainder of supporters said they weren’t sure how to interpret their councillor’s response (8%). 

    “This is a positive initial indicator, but more time is needed to see whether this translates into councillors speaking up or taking action on creating, implementing or improving CAPs.”

    Shaan goes on to explain that there are potential knock-on benefits, too:

    “The action may have also helped to clarify with councillors what exactly a CAP is, and what a strong plan should look like. A couple of councillors got back to supporters saying that they already had a CAP, when in fact they just had a Climate Emergency declaration. 

    “Our follow up email to supporters with tips on how to respond to common councillor replies helped supporters to clarify this. Conversely, one councillor got back to us saying they directly used our template CAP in a council motion, as a result of receiving it from a constituent via our action.”

    Shaan puts much of the action’s success down to the long lead time that was built in, and good all-round communications:

    “We got in touch with groups early, gave them plenty of notice and resources to get involved with their own version of the action, and plenty of time to opt out of our wider supporter base emailing councillors in their area if that would hinder their campaign or implicate their relationship with the council.”

    How CAPE helped

    And how did that data from CAPE make a difference?

    “The ability to send a different message to councillors, based on whether they had a CAP, was invaluable in increasing the chances of having a real impact. Climate Emergency UK and mySociety’s up-to-date data was vital for supporters to be able to accurately send councillors the correct version of the email.”

     We’re really pleased that CAPE data was able to provide help to a campaign that is so aligned to our initial aims when we started this project, and we hope there will be many more opportunities to work together with FoE in the future, as councils’ activity moves on from plans and on to tangible action.

    Top image: Danist Soh

  8. Be a Net Zero Local Hero

    Ahead of COP26, everyone’s talking about the climate and what we can do to keep global temperature raises below 1.5°. But when world leaders are discussing huge global policies around industry, fuels and energy, it’s easy to feel that there’s very little that you can do as an individual.

    This week, we’ve launched the ‘Net Zero Local Hero’ campaign, to show that there’s one very effective channel to making change around the climate, and that’s engaging with your local council’s Climate Action Plan (if they have one, that is. If they don’t, the quickest and most effective thing you can do is ask them to implement one!).

    If you’re in Glasgow for COP26, look out for our stickers with their QR code and URL; you might also come across our ads on social media. Any of these will lead you directly to our Net Zero Local Hero page. No need to wait though; you can visit the page right now.

    As you’ll see, and on the further materials we link to from there, a third of all reductions to the UK’s emissions are within the power of local councils.

    It’s our local authorities who will oversee areas such as how we heat our homes, how we get around our local communities, and what features can be put in place in our towns and cities to mitigate the worst excesses of climate change. Low traffic neighbourhoods, urban regreening, sustainable public transport and electric vehicle charging points are all examples of the types of intervention we’ll see from councils… but they’re a lot less likely without enthusiastic support from residents.

    Local councillors and council climate officers need the support of their constituents if they’re to take bold and effective action. That’s why we’re encouraging everyone to check whether there’s a Climate Action Plan in place for your area, and start reading it!

    We’ll soon be rolling out new tools and features to help you engage in a meaningful way – for example, we’ll be showing how to understand whether your council’s plan is a good one; and giving you tips on how to make effective engagement with your local representatives.

    If you’d like to come along for the ride, sign up for our mail-outs now. We’ll only use them for these purposes: to tell you about new tools we’ve made to help you take action on the climate; to help you make meaningful contact with your local council; and, sometimes, to ask your opinion about how well those tools are working for you. Here’s where to subscribe.

  9. Climate Action Plans: what’s the score?

    One of the aims of the Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) is to help make better-informed citizens: people who understand how their local council is planning to reach Net Zero targets, and who have the ability to assess whether or not those plans are adequate.

    An online database of plans is a first step towards that, but there’s no escaping the fact that Action Plans can be long, dense documents full of technical language, difficult for the novice to wade through. And plans vary, from the short and vague to the in-depth and precise. As a citizen, how can you tell whether your council’s plan is really up to the challenges ahead?

    There’s no escaping the fact that Action Plans can be long, dense documents full of technical language, difficult for the novice to wade through.

    The answer came in the form of an impressive mobilisation effort from our partners at Climate Emergency UK (CEUK), who are in the process of applying scores to every council’s Climate Action Plan (or every council that has one, that is — currently around 81%), with the eventual aim of creating a ranked league table.

    We heard all about the undertaking from CEUK’s Campaigns and Policy Officers, Isaac Beevor and Grace McMeekin, who told us how and why they approached this challenging task. First of all, we were keen to understand where the concept of scoring the plans began.

    Comparing plans

    “Once the database of Climate Action Plans was in place, it became obvious how widely they differed in quality and in the level of commitments that each council has made”, explained Grace.

    “We started to wonder if it was possible to systematically compare plans and make a reliable assessment on which ones stood up to scrutiny.

    “We’d already developed a checklist, detailing 60+ points that an ideal plan should contain, and so, to test the water, I used this to assess Nottingham’s Climate Action plan. At that point, Nottingham had the most comprehensive plan that we knew of, so it seemed like a good place to start.”

    “So we were already thinking about scoring”, Isaac adds, “but the concept of comparing only came about when we were approached by Annie, a campaigner, with the idea of creating a “Council Climate League”, based on the People & Planet’s  tool that ranks universities according to their environmental and ethical performance.”

    Right to reply

    The need for scoring was quite clear: it would help citizens understand the context around their own councils’ plans — but would councils themselves see it that way? It’s possible that some of them wouldn’t take too kindly to having their action plans assessed, especially if they were near the bottom of the league.

    That’s why CEUK decided to get in touch with councils well ahead of time, to work transparently and to give fair notice that the scoring process was to occur. Additionally, once the plans had been scored, every council would have a right to respond and their remarks will be taken into consideration in the final score.

    “Ultimately it’s all about lowering the barriers to engagement and providing citizens with the information they need to be confident when they do talk about their councils’ action plans.”

    “If you give the right to respond, with the whole conversation happening in public, then the overall quality of the assessment is improved, as you ensure that no information is lost,” says Isaac. “It allows councils to have their voice heard and correct any mistakes.

    “There are just over 400 councils in this country. Some of them have multiple plans and updates: we may not have been looking at the very latest version. Some plans aren’t published front and centre on the council website, but may be embedded in meeting minutes… so we may well have missed a number of plans that were, theoretically, at least, available to the public by our cut-off date of September 20th.

    “We also know that despite our best efforts to make the questions objective and to train scorers to mark consistently, people will approach plans differently. They might miss information or make mistakes. It’s just human nature and you have to allow for it.”

    Once councils have all had their chance to reply, the initial scoring will then be audited by a small team. Taking into account the initial assessment and the council’s response, they will confirm and finalise each score. The whole process is expected to be complete in early 2022.

    Many hands

    CEUK have managed the arduous first round, in which they have scored more than 300 Climate Action Plans, by training up a cohort of volunteers. Was this the plan from the very beginning?

    “Yes: the number of action plans, the fact that councils often don’t publish them in places that are particularly easy to find, and the fact that they’re not just static documents but might be frequently updated — all these complications made it clear that we’d need to call on others for help.

    “However, what wasn’t obvious was whether we could really expect volunteers to trawl through plans that are often boring, confusing or just plain unsexy! It’s a lot of work when you’re not even being paid, so we had to think about what we might be able to give back in return.”

    “If you give the right to respond, with the whole conversation happening in public, then the overall quality of the assessment is improved.”

    CEUK cunningly made this potentially tedious task into a more enticing prospect that would have benefits for people taking part. They wrapped the scoring project within a training process that would leave participants better informed and with some new skills under their belt: “The idea was that if we offered people an opportunity to learn then they would be interested in scoring a higher number of plans”, says Grace.

    Since not everyone can give the same amount of time and commitment, they decided to offer two different tracks.

    The Local Climate Policy Programme was a course for anyone involved with or interested in local climate policy. It involved 15 hours of webinars and training over three weeks, and included the scoring of three to six action plans.

    Participants on this track heard from experts such as council climate officers, analysts, project managers and prominent figures in climate policy, including Louise Evans, who wrote the Local Authorities and Sixth Carbon Budget Report, Judi Kilgallon, Climate Change Transformation Manager from the Scottish Improvement Service and Dr Anthony Hurford, Project Manager of Zero Carbon Britain Hub and Innovation Lab at Centre for Alternative Technology.

    Volunteer Assessors: This simpler offering involved a more traditional model of volunteering, with a single session of training on how to score, and ongoing support via instant messaging and CEUK’s documentation as plans were marked. For this model, participants were expected to score just one or two plans within a month.

    For both tracks, volunteers were recruited via websites like Charityjob and Environmentjob. “We didn’t know what sort of response to expect, and when there was an enthusiastic takeup, we were just blown away,” says Grace.

    “In fact there were so many applicants — 137 of them — that the challenge became more about whittling them down rather than finding enough people. We conducted interviews to ensure that we were only recruiting the keenest people.

    “In the end we maxed out our capacity for two cohorts of the Local Climate Policy Programme, involving 65 participants”.

    Meanwhile the Volunteer Assessor programme attracted almost 170 applicants. Again these were trimmed down to a total of 65 who actually took part in the scoring.

    Climate Action Plans Explorer inner page (Thurrock)Isaac says, “They were a mix of people with a mix of motivations. Some were considering jobs in policy and wanted to learn more about it, while others were just interested to scrutinise their own council’s Action Plan. Across the board there was also the very strong motivator of wanting to be involved in something bigger than yourself.

    “What was nice was the diversity of the applicants in terms of age and background. The majority were a mix of students and recent graduates, but about 40% were people looking to change careers, and then there were people who had retired. They were based across England, Scotland and Wales, although there was a bit of a skew towards Londoners”.

    Everyone who had completed scoring on at least three plans was offered a certificate at the end of their course.

    What it’s all for

    We asked Grace and Isaac to summarise what CEUK hope to achieve with all of this industrious effort. They mentioned four desired outcomes.

    “First, of course, it gives councils the motivation to ensure that their plans are the very best they can be, meaning they’ll be more effective and more likely to actually meet the challenges of the climate emergency.

    “We hope it’ll open up conversations between people and their council representatives.”

    “Then, and this is a slightly more nuanced point — one really good outcome would be more standardisation of what’s expected from a council’s Climate Action Plan. At the very least that means that they’ve calculated their baseline and included a breakdown of where emissions currently arise. Once plans are held to the same standards, it’s so much easier to compare them, but also, this is the bare minimum of what we should be able to expect from our councils.

    “The third thing is visibility. If we want everyone to be able to understand Action Plans, the first step is being able to find them in the first place, so if we make that at all easier, that’s a positive step as well.

    “And then finally, and most importantly, we hope the whole project will result in more awareness from citizens and more action around the climate emergency from councils.”

    Working together

    mySociety and CEUK have worked closely during the creation of the Climate Action Plans Explorer, and we’ll continue to do so as new features and analysis like this are added throughout the project.

    It’s proving to be a felicitous partnership that allows each organisation to play to its strengths: CEUK has indepth climate knowledge, sector contacts, interns and volunteer capacity; while at mySociety we can provide technical development and data wrangling.

    “mySociety has just been incredibly useful,” says Isaac. “We couldn’t have done any of this alone.”

    And what’s next, once the councils have all been given the right to reply and the final audit is over?

    “We’ll be publishing the league table,” Grace says, “so that everyone can easily see how their council is doing, and how they compare to, say, neighbouring councils. We hope it’ll open up conversations between people and their council representatives.

    There was the very strong motivator of wanting to be involved in something bigger than yourself.

    “Ultimately it’s all about lowering the barriers to engagement and providing citizens with the information they need to be confident when they do talk about their councils’ action plans.”

    But, once that’s done, it’s not as if CEUK will be putting their feet up — in fact, they’ve already got the next steps mapped out, as Isaac explained:

    “Well of course, all these climate action plans are all just that — plans! Most of them came out in 2020 and some are still being published now. They’re lists of intended actions, and generally the councils will have provided a date – commonly 2030 or 2050 – by which they want to realise those actions.

    “That’s a long period of time to keep on track, and is likely to involve several changes in council make-ups and majorities, so it’s absolutely vital that there’s a regular assessment of progress, and so the next step is to figure out the best way to manage that.”

    Sounds like CEUK have guaranteed themselves work to do for a good long while. We’re really glad to be playing our part and helping to make it happen.

    Banner image: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu
    Hands image: Daniel Thomas
    Working together image: Alexis Brown

  10. Climate programme: new season, new cycle

    Joining mySociety as the Climate Programme’s Delivery Manager a couple of months ago, it soon became clear I had walked into a super-organised, passionate and able team. What was there left for me to do? Turns out the answer is to variously support, organise, communicate, enable, help them look ahead, let them get on with it and occasionally help them to say ‘no’ or ‘not right now’ to the things that aren’t top of the list. I led the team through cycle planning last week. This is a particularly favorite part of the job for me: it gives us a chance to look back and see how far we’ve travelled; and then think big for the future.

    The last six weeks has seen Climate Emergency UK (CEUK) steam ahead on the analysis of councils’ climate action plans, recruiting around 140 volunteers, developing and delivering training, and designing subsequent stages to the process which will include a ‘right to reply’ by councils and second marking by a smaller group. mySociety has supported CEUK by developing technical systems that enable them to carry out this work – from robust spreadsheets that minimise the risk of scores being overwritten by other volunteers, through to automatically tracking the number of plans started and completed. We expect the results to go live in January 2022.

    mySociety developer Struan joined the Climate team full-time in early August and, along with designer Zarino, he has been working on improvements to the Climate Action Plan Explorer (CAPE) including better search, a zip download of all plans, and the basics of an API.

    Our new Outreach and Networks Coordinator Siôn Williams started in mid-August and hit the ground running, helping the team think through its approach to outreach while bringing fresh perspectives and considerable relevant experience. Several relationships are already bearing fruit including Friends of the Earth asking all their supporters to ask their Councils for stronger Climate Action Plan commitments, using CAPE as their main source of information. Myf meanwhile has developed a set of ‘explainer resources’ to help people understand how to use CAPE to maximum effect; as well as forming key relationships and building up a database of ‘who’s who’ in a range of sectors.

    We’ve also been starting to explore our assumptions about how we can best support local communities and local authorities to act quickly and effectively, laying out our Theory of Change for the programme, encouraging us to pan out and think about what change we want to see in the next few years. CAPE is a start, but we are hungry to achieve more.

    Looking forward, we will develop this further over the next few weeks, using it to lead into some longer-term planning. We have also been working on mechanisms to ensure we can work emergently, and hope to detail this out in next Climate month notes. Watch this space. And enjoy the crunchy autumn leaves when they come.

    Image: Andrew Ieviev