1. Climate month notes #2: kind of tedious, kind of magical

    This past month, we’ve been laying some more of the groundwork for our climate work, and getting stuck into some finer details. The recent recruitment drive is starting to pay off — we’ve had four new members of staff join mySociety this week, and in the climate team we’re delighted to be joined by Emily Kippax.

    As Delivery Manager on the programme, Emily’s going to be working with us on getting the right balance between planning and acting — and making sure that we align the work to play to our different skillsets and roles.

    Researcher Alex and designer Zarino have been figuring out the best ways to learn more about how and why people are using the Climate Action Plans explorer site. This should help us understand how to improve it, particularly as we start to share it with more people.

    First of all, we’re thinking about a pop-up asking visitors to click a few buttons and let us know who they are — what sectors they work in, what they’re trying to find, et cetera. Zarino is working on the hunch that if we add our friendly faces to this request, showing the real people behind the project, it might get a better take-up. I’m looking forward to finding out whether he’s right.

    Meanwhile Alex has been doing some work on the other end of that request. He’s seeing how to make it easy for the team to understand the inputs and use them to measure our progress.

    He also took a quick diversion into non-contiguous cartograms (courtesy of the templates produced by the House of Commons library), to map the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.

    Map showing the creation of climate action plans by local authorities in a way that accurately reflects the population covered by those plans.

    Mid-month, we co-hosted a webinar along with Friends of the Earth and Climate Emergency UK: ‘How can local councillors help to meet UK climate targets?’.

    This was particularly aimed at newly-elected councillors wanting to understand what they can do around the climate emergency, and what resources are available to help them (a video of the session is available). It was really exciting that the session was so well attended, with an audience of more than 200.

    Finally, our colleagues Grace McMeekin, Isaac Beevor and Suzanna Dart over at Climate Emergency UK have produced a set of questions to ask about climate emergency action plans that will illustrate what the differences are between them. This builds on previous work with Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth  to produce a checklist for the plans.

    We’re really keen to see if we can work together to turn what can be quite dry documents into something a bit more accessible and comparable that we can share openly, with other councils, citizens, action groups…anyone who wants to see it.

    As the team embarks on the hard work it takes to make simple services, it reminded me of what the journalist Zoe Williams wrote about civic technology a few years ago:

    “Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions […] collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”

    Image: Tim Rickhuss

  2. Climate month notes: May 2021

    It’s been a busy couple of months for our climate work. We’ve been setting up our programme in earnest, recruiting for some exciting new roles, and getting new team members up to speed with the work we’ve done so far.

    One of the things we always try to do across all our projects is work in the open. That feels particularly important here, where we know there are so many other organisations doing work to support communities in local climate action that we can learn from, and that we want to support. So one of the things we’re going to try as a way of letting people know what we’re doing is writing a blog post like this each month, on what we’ve been doing, and what we’re thinking and talking about.

    Two weeks, three months, a year

    For an organisation that has a lot of well-known and long running services, it’s scary and exciting to be at the beginning of a big piece of work that’s new and relatively undefined. We know what we want to achieve, and at a high level, how we want to do that, but there’s lots to figure out in terms of how we get there, and who we should be working with.

    One question, when you’re starting a piece of work, is how much to plan. As Gareth, our Transparency Lead, has written about in more detail, we want to build to learn at this point, and that means being open to changing our ideas of what to do next, based on what we find out. We’re also working closely across different areas: service development, data, research, events planning, and communications, so we need to be able to map out some options for what we could do in each area, in order to knit together work across those different disciplines as we go along.  To that end, it feels useful to have a set of time horizons in mind, with the details of what you want to accomplish looser as the horizon gets further away. At the moment we’re actively thinking and talking about plans for the next two weeks, six weeks, three months, and a year at different levels of resolution.

    At the beginning of April, we finished writing up the initial discovery and prototyping work around climate action plans we did last autumn, and Zarino’s been picking up the early service development work and thinking about what we can do over the next three months to smooth out some of the rough edges to make it clear what the service is and to learn more about who’s using it so far, and what they’re using it for. Myf’s been thinking about how we’ll share it with people who could find it useful.

    Meanwhile, at Climate Emergency UK, our partners on the climate action plans service, Chloe Lawson has been meticulously going through the database behind the service, updating it with new climate action plans and excitingly, adding some progress reports from councils who are moving forward!

     

    Image: Nik Shuliahin

  3. Kicking off for the climate

    We’re looking for a Delivery Manager to join our new Climate programme.

    Last year, we added Climate to mySociety’s existing programmes of Transparency, Democracy and Community — you can read more about our activity in this area here.

    We dived in to the programme with work to support the UK’s national Climate Assembly; close on the heels of that has come our project to collect and share the Climate Action Plans of every local council across the country, a service that we’ve now launched at data.climateemergency.uk.

    The Climate Action Plans site allows citizens to see what their own council is doing around carbon reduction, and simply by making the plans public and searchable, all in one place, it opens up a multitude of opportunities for councils to learn from one another.

    The service is in its early stages. We already have feedback from early users that it’s useful in its current form — but there’s lots more we want to do with it, and it stands as a good signifier of the plans we have for our Climate programme over the next few years.

    Now we want to expand on this use of data, and increase our outreach to key stakeholders such as climate action groups, councils, journalists and researchers to help accelerate and improve action on climate at the local level, where it is estimated that 30% of the progress towards net zero can be made.

    Thanks to funding from Quadrature Climate Foundation, we’re now in the process of scoping this work and scaling up our team: if you’re interested in being part of what looks like it’s going to be some of the most rewarding and crucial work mySociety has been involved in to date, do check out our current job vacancy for a Delivery Manager.

    We’ll also be looking for a Network and Outreach Coordinator soon, so sign up for our Jobs mailout right at the foot of this page if you’d like to know when that vacancy goes live.

    Image: Vadim Kaipov

  4. A guide to working from home, sustainably

    We’ve created a guide giving some tips on how to lower your carbon footprint when working from home — and we think it might be useful to others as well, especially now so many are using their living space as a temporary or permanent office due to lockdown. We’re inviting you to share and adapt it for your own use, if you want to. You can download it here. Don’t print it out 😉


    Last year at mySociety, we started an internal Climate Action Group: the underlying aim is to explore and propose ways in which we, as an organisation, can work more sustainably.

    We started with the low hanging fruit of our travel impact (suddenly diminished in this era of lockdowns, of course: but we now have policies in place for when they are needed again) and calculating our existing carbon footprint; and we’re continuing to research into offsetting and reducing our server emissions, working with more environmentally-friendly suppliers, etc.

    But when we turned to our own work environment, we realised that of course most of the guidance for businesses assumes they operate out of a shared office — which mySociety doesn’t.

    For bricks and mortar businesses, the responsibility for emissions during working hours would belong to your employer: they’d be the ones thinking about recycling, or sustainable stationery suppliers, or keeping heating economical and eco-friendly. But as a remote organisation, mySociety doesn’t have an office building, and now that we’re in lockdown, none of us even use coworking spaces.

    So here we all are, working in our own individual homes across the UK. Does that mean we should forget about our workplace carbon footprint?

    Certainly there’s an argument to say that once you’re working from home, it’s up to you what you do, and your climate impact is your own responsibility. It’s a fine line for sure; and there’s an additional risk of patronising our colleagues who might all know perfectly well how to go about heating their homes or recycling office supplies in a sustainable manner.

    These are fair enough considerations, but we reckon we can still collate good practice — the document’s open for comment among staff and we’ll continue adding everyone’s ideas and resources to it. There’s bound to be something that’s new, or at least a good reminder, in there for everyone.

    And if you are reading this from outside mySociety, but have suggestions for additions, please do get in touch.

    You can download the guide here. We hope you get something useful from it.

    Image: Egor Myznik

  5. February 12 is Good News Day

    The climate emergency is, of course, a massive concern, and that’s why we often urge you to contact your MPs and councillors to demand faster, better, greener progress.

    And that’s important — but also, we really should take the time to give positive feedback, thanking those councils and politicians who are doing the right thing.

    This year, we’re taking part in the Climate Coalition’s Good News Day which, since 2015, has asked “organisations, institutions, household names and millions of people to use the power of green hearts to join together and ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis.”

    Here’s how you can get involved

    1. On Friday February 12, use our Climate Action Plans database to search for your local council and see if they have a plan in place.
    2. If they have, drop your councillors a line on our WriteToThem service to let them know you appreciate it.
      Local authorities and councillors who are taking action need to know they’re supported in their actions, some of which may be radical or taking them into new territories — so let’s thank them for everything they’ve done so far, and maybe give them the support to go further, too.
    3. If they haven’t? Let them know you care about any climate-related action the council have taken, and urge them to get a wider plan approved.
    4. Maximise the power of your action by shouting about it on social media. Use the hashtag #ShowTheLove, and use a picture of a green heart (we’ve added links to some royalty-free images below you can download or copy and paste) to join in with the national Good News Day movement. Or, if you want to go all out, make your own crafty green heart: there are some ideas on the Climate Coalition’s worksheet and on cafod.org.uk.
    5. If you’d like to do more, see the Climate Coalition’s collection of downloadable resources.

    If you’re on a roll…

    There are other ways you can #showthelove, too.

    We think the prompt to ‘ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis‘ is a particularly important one, so:

    • You could also use WriteToThem to email your MP with this message…
    • …or go public and tweet them!

    And finally, there is encouragement to share everything your own organisation is doing to help the climate. With that in mind:

    Green heart pictures

    Pictures on Unsplash are free to use and you don’t even have to credit the photographer, although if we’re talking about showing the love, we should of course do the same for the creative people whose work we benefit from!

    Top row L-R: Ronak Valobobhai, Siora Photography, Adithya Vinod.
    Bottom row: Volodymyr Hryshchenko, Patrick Fore, Bekky Bekks.

  6. Tracking carbon for mySociety

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

    Our wider environmental policy can be read on our website.

    Image: Providence Doucet

  7. How you’ve been using our services to help the climate

    mySociety services help people be active citizens, whether by speaking truth to power, communicating directly with politicians, or demanding change on your doorstep —  and that’s true for the area of climate activism as much as it is for any other burning issue.

    By listing some of the ways you’ve been using our services to help the climate, we hope to inspire others to do the same, and to consider new ways in which you might be able to use them to push the climate agenda even further.

    At the beginning of 2020, mySociety made a commitment to the planet, adding Climate to our existing workstreams of Transparency, Democracy and Community.

    There are many experienced and knowledgeable organisations already working to fight the climate crisis. Accordingly, much of our work in this area has involved teaming up with these existing institutions, to offer the skills we do have and which they are often lacking: data wrangling, service design, site development, research and so on.

    But there’s another way in which we can be useful, with no extra development or resource required from us: thanks to our established suite of services, we can help individual citizens to take action. mySociety’s UK websites are already set up to help people find out facts, ask politicians questions, check how MPs are voting, and demand better for their local communities — all useful tools when you want to tackle climate change.

    We’ve had a look at the ways in which you’ve been using our websites in service of the climate, and we’ve found a huge variety of examples. Take a look through, and you might be inspired. And, if you’ve taken another type of climate action through our websites, do let us know so that we can add it to our list!

    Changes in your neighbourhood

    On FixMyStreet, we’ve seen people pointing out eco-unfriendly practices to the council, and asking for new amenities that would help locals to pursue a greener lifestyle.

    Trees filter air pollution, absorb carbon and provide shade, so it’s possible to argue that every tree is a benefit to the community. As Friends of the Earth advise, that’s all the rationale you need to lodge a request for a Tree Preservation Order, which means that an existing tree cannot be removed without reason. 

    Or perhaps there simply aren’t enough trees where you live? Then you can write to your council and request that new ones are planted.

    We know that climate change is driving bees away, so those who ask their councils to leave roadside verges unmown and allow wildflowers to grow are also doing their bit to help offset the damage. 

    Campaigning

    Meanwhile, WriteToThem can be used by any campaign which wants its supporters to email their politicians, and there are many with an environmental or climate agenda who have done just that. 

    Hyperlocal groups are campaigning against the loss of green spaces; the Possible organisation regularly rallies its supporters for innovative climate issues such as ground source heat from parks and better spaces for walking or cycling

    Badverts wants to stop the advertising industry from pushing high-carbon products, and Power For People is pushing for non-profit clean energy companies.

    And it’s not just campaigns that use WriteToThem, of course — tens of thousands of you use the site every month to tell your politicians what is important to you, how you’d like them to vote, or to alert them to wrongs that need to be set right. 

    Emails sent through WritetoThem are private between you and your representative, though, so unless you tell us about it, we can’t know what you’re writing about. All the same, we can say with absolute certainty that many of you are expressing your concerns about the climate — it’s such an important topic that you must be. 

    Requesting information

    Many councils declared a climate emergency in 2019 — but what does that mean in real terms, and what comes next? If your council hasn’t published its Climate Action Plan, and you want to ascertain whether they actually have one (or are perhaps working on it) then a Freedom of Information request might yield answers, and plenty of people have used WhatDoTheyKnow for just this purpose.

    Or, if the plans are already written and available to the public, there’s still lots more that might need disclosing: are they being adhered to and working as intended? And are the budgets accurate and adequate? How is money actually being spent? 

    This request enquired whether the commitment to the climate went as far as divestment from fossil fuels, and this one dug into whether a council was using renewable energy sources.

    FOI can be used in a huge variety of ways: for example, to collect disparate data from multiple authorities to make up a coherent dataset showing a nationwide picture — like this one, on behalf of Amnesty International, finding out how local authorities were reacting to childrens’ climate strikes.

    Thanks to our Alaveteli software, organisations all over the world are running sites like WhatDoTheyKnow that allow their citizens to ask for information. In Hungary, the KiMitTud site uncovered a river pollution scandal; and on AskTheEU the VW emissions misconduct was hinted at long before the story hit the public consciousness.

    Holding politicians accountable

    FOI requests can take a while to be processed by authorities, so while you’re waiting you might like to do something a bit more immediate and look up your MP’s voting record on TheyWorkForYou

    Each MP’s voting record includes a section on the environment, containing all parliamentary votes since 2010 that we’ve identified as relevant. The data — on policies from selling state-owned forests to higher taxes on air fares — comes from the Public Whip website, where votes are analysed and categorised. 

    In the interests of stressing the importance of the climate emergency, we’re keen to give this Environment section more prominence and detail, but of course we can only include the votes that have been held, and even then only the votes that were recorded in Parliament — not those that were just ‘nodded through’ (see more about this here). However, we’ll be keeping a keen eye open for the key climate-related votes of the future.

    Data

    The open data accessible through our sites can often be useful for researchers: one example of this is the TheyWorkForYou API, which allows for the analysis of everything said in Parliament, among other uses. 

    As examples of what can be done, Carbon Brief analysed Hansard to see which politicians mention climate change the most; and the Guardian, using TheyWorkForYou, gave a more rounded score to each MP which also took into consideration their votes and interests.

    So – that’s quite a long list, and just goes to show the breadth and diversity of the possibilities afforded by our various online services.

    If you’ve been feeling helpless about the climate crisis, perhaps this will give you a little hope, and inspire you to take a few small online steps yourself, in service of the planet and our future. Please do let us know how you get on.

  8. Council climate action plans: try our first service

    Last week, I wrote about our project collecting council climate action plans, and making them easier for anyone to explore in a public, open database. 

    Today, I’m happy to say that the first version of this service is now at https://data.climateemergency.uk.

    You can enter your postcode to quickly see if your council has an action plan, browse and compare different councils’ plans, and search over the text of all the plans. We’ve also added some headline emissions data for each council’s area, to start to put the plans in context.

    There’s a lot more that could be done here, and we’ve got some ideas we’re really excited about, but given the urgency of the need to act, we want to make this service available right now, so that people can start using it, and so that we can learn from feedback, and have more informed conversations about where to take it next. 

    We’ll also be demoing the service at 2pm today at the Climate and Ecological Emergency: Taking Action Together online conference – at 2pm in Room 3 (Action Plans). You can sign up for the session here.

    So please do join us there or go and take a look at the service yourself and let us know what you think by emailing us at climate-councils@mysociety.org.

    Additionally, do join us at our upcoming TICTeC seminar where we’ll be discussing what civic tech’s role in mitigating the climate crisis should be.

    Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

  9. Making it easier to explore council climate action plans

    Next Friday (13 November), two years after the first climate emergency declaration by a UK council, we’ll be demoing a new online service to help people find and understand councils’ climate action plans at the Climate Emergency: Taking Action Together online conference. 

    The conference will explore how councils, other public organisations, businesses, charities and communities can all work together to develop radical action plans to deliver on their climate commitments. 

    Back in March, we kicked off a small crowdsourcing project gathering councils’ climate action plans in an open spreadsheet. A lot has changed since then, but the urgency of responding to climate change becomes ever more acute. With the pandemic providing proof that we can change our behaviour in extraordinary ways, and now that many of us have, of necessity, narrowed our focus to the world on our doorstep, this work seems more important, more challenging, and yet more possible than ever. 

    Three guiding principles

    In September, Climate Assembly UK, the citizens’ assembly commissioned by the UK parliament to answer the question of how should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, produced its final recommendations. We were proud to be part of the team working on the assembly, and particularly happy to be able to make the comprehensive report available in readable, navigable, accessible and mobile-friendly HTML online

    The randomly selected people from all walks of life and all across the UK who made up the assembly chose and agreed a set of principles to guide their work. The top three were: 

    • Informing and educating everyone (the public, industry, individuals and government) 
    • Fairness within the UK, including for the most vulnerable (affordability, jobs, UK regions, incentives and rewards) in actions, not just words 
    • Leadership from government that is clear, proactive, accountable and consistent 

    We’re committed to a climate response that follows these principles, and believe that local government and local communities – individuals, institutions, and businesses – have a key and difficult role to play together.

    As the recent Institute for Government report on getting to Net Zero noted, 

    “The local level has become a key outlet for public enthusiasm to address climate change. This is one reason why it is important to address the co-ordination and capability problems that are holding back local efforts – or else this enthusiasm will turn to disillusionment as aspirations cannot be achieved.”

    This is a huge challenge, and getting the right information is part of it. We’re hoping to use our data and service design skills to play a part in helping councils learn from each other’s ideas and successes, and in helping citizens find and engage with their councils’ climate plans. 

    An open dataset of action plans

    With your help, and working with ClimateEmergency.uk, we’ve created a first basic dataset of all the council climate action plans that are publicly available. The headline is that 269 out of 414 councils we researched (around 65%)  have a current public plan outlining their response to the climate emergency. 

    In the last few months of this year, we’re doing research to better understand the challenges of producing and improving these plans, and of understanding, discussing and scrutinising them. 

    Helpful for councils  — and citizens

    We know that people working inside councils to produce plans are looking for inspiration – “What’s worked in other places like ours? How do you do it on a budget? How do I persuade my colleagues that it can be done? How do I talk to residents about the options?” 

    Citizens who want to have a say in their council’s plan may struggle to find it in the first place, or to understand what the council can and can’t do, how to influence them, or how their plan compares to others. 

    We’ve also been working on a minimal viable digital service that will meet some of the basic needs that people have around these challenges – one that supports quickly finding plans and starts to put them in context. 

    How to find out more

    So if you can, join us at the Climate Emergency UK: Taking Action Together online conference next week on Friday 13th November. We’ll be giving the first public demo of that service, which will allow anyone to quickly and easily find out if their council has a plan, and to filter and search within all these action plans. 

    We think that will be useful in itself and we’re really excited to be putting it out into the world – but we’re also going to be developing our ideas on how to sustain and expand the service. This is still an early stage project for us, but we think it’s one where we believe our skills can play a part in catalysing action and enabling people to come together to make these plans reality.

    Image: Master Wen

  10. Our commitment to the environment starts with ourselves

    Working around the climate emergency, you can’t get far before realising that you must look to yourselves. And so, our environmental policy has been added to this site — you’ll see a link in the footer of every page.

    We’ve blogged previously about the work mySociety is doing within our Climate practice — the website we created for the UK’s Climate Assembly hosted an important milestone today as the final report launched; and we’re still collecting local councils’ climate plans to better allow for national analysis. Then, the third in our series of TICTeC seminars, this November, takes as its subject the climate crisis.

    But of course, every organisation also has its own responsibility towards the climate. To this end, we’ve been working on the first version of our environmental policy. It’s the outward reflection of the work we’ve been conducting internally over the past few months, to examine how we can best cut mySociety’s carbon emissions.

    You can see the policy here. We will keep working on it. If you’ve been doing the same work within your organisation, or have ideas for other ways for remote-working tech organisations to cut carbon, we would very much welcome your input.

     

    Image: Bill Oxford