1. Climate monthnotes: January 2024 and a look back over 2023

    January 2024

    It’s full steam ahead in the mySociety Climate team for January 2024, with two chunky pieces of work occupying much of the team’s attention:

    First, our preparations for a public launch of the Local Intelligence Hub we’ve been building with The Climate Coalition. The Hub brings together data from public sources like government, Parliament, and the ONS, as well as—most excitingly—datasets on climate movement presence and activity from members of The Climate Coalition, to help Coalition members (and soon, members of the public) plan and coordinate action at a parliamentary constituency level. Having soft launched to Climate Coalition members in April last year, we’ll soon be opening up most of the data on the Hub to public access, and we’re looking forward to sharing some examples of how organisations are using it in due course.

    Secondly, Siôn, Alice and I have been putting lots of effort into shaping the next few years’ work on community-led home energy actions via our Neighbourhood Warmth platform. We’re really excited about the prospect of testing Neighbourhood Warmth with retrofit organisations and community groups in 2024, to see how a digital service might be able to facilitate and encourage neighbours and communities to explore home energy actions like retrofit and energy flexibility, together. You can read more about our plans in Siôn’s series of monthnotes from 2023.

    A look back over 2023

    Before I sign off for the month, I wanted to also take a moment to recognise the amazing work my colleagues have done in mySociety’s Climate programme over 2023. Here are a few of the highlights I’m particularly proud of:

    In April 2023, we first soft-launched the Local Intelligence Hub to Climate Coalition members. The feedback was massively encouraging, with users from organisations like Green Alliance and The Wildlife Trusts already excited about how the service could help them plan engagement and advocacy activities in 2024 and beyond. As mentioned above, we’ve since spent much of this year adding more datasets, support for the upcoming 2024/2025 constituencies, and free public access, which will be launching in a few weeks.

    In July, Alex and Julia published our Unlocking Fragmented Data report, in partnership with the Centre for Public Data. While the report isn’t specific to climate data, we used our experience of trying to collect data on local climate action as a case study into how poor interoperability and poor transparency of public data can turn into a major blocker to public action. A few months later, we were encouraged to see many of our Fragmented Data recommendations adopted into Chris Skidmore’s ‘The Future Is Local’ report.

    In September, in part as a recognition of mySociety’s work campaigning for more transparent and democratic climate action, we were accepted into the Blueprint Coalition – an influential group of local government organisations, environmental groups, and research institutions working to join up local climate action in the UK. A few months later, in November, we ran a joint event with Blueprint, exploring how the public sector can make local climate data more useful for everyone.

    October saw the launch of the Council Climate Action Scorecards, in partnership with our long-time collaborators, Climate Emergency UK. This year’s Scorecards represented a step change in complexity over the 2021 Plan Scorecards, and saw us develop “GRACE”, an online system for crowdsourcing data on councils’ climate actions, as well as joining CE UK’s advisory board to shape the methodology for the year, and supporting CE UK volunteers in using WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to gather extra data from every local authority via FOI requests. The Action Scorecards were featured in over 150 national and local news stories around the launch, including an exclusive on the EPC ratings of council-owned social housing, in the Financial Times.

    In early November, we attended Business Green’s Net Zero Festival. Louise delivered a barnstorming talk about how mySociety’s services (including CAPE, Scorecards, WhatDoTheyKnow, and WriteToThem) support public action on Net Zero, and I attended a number of interesting sessions, which I blogged about here.

    A few weeks later, in mid-November, we were back in London for mySociety’s 20th Anniversary awards. Food campaigning group Sustain won our award for best use of mySociety services to accelerate climate action, in recognition of how they’d used CAPE to track local authority action on food emissions. If you couldn’t make it to the anniversary awards, I highly recommend you read Louise’s opening speech about mySociety and the history and future of digital democracy in the UK. I’m not crying, it’s just raining above my desk.

    And finally, in December, Alex blogged a round-up of a number of improvements we’d made to CAPE over the year, including a massive upgrade to the discoverability and searchability of plans in the database, using AI / machine learning. The future is here, and turns out it eats climate PDFs for breakfast.

    Thanks to everyone who’s followed along with our progress over 2023! If you’d like to be kept informed about all these projects, and more, sign up to our climate updates newsletter.

    Image: ANIRUDH

  2. Event recap: How can we make local climate data more useful for everyone?

    At the end of November, we were delighted to be joined by over 80 people at our webinar about making local climate data more useful. The recording is now available on YouTube, but we also wanted to capture the key messages from our speakers.

    Anna Powell-Smith, from the Centre for Public Data, highlighted the key recommendations from the Unlocking Fragmented Data report, published jointly with mySociety earlier this year. These are:

    1. A collaborative (but required) data standard to agree the data and format that is expected. 
    2. An online central repository of the location of the published data, so that data users can find it easily.
    3. Support from the data convener to make publication simple and effective.

    Alex Parsons, mySociety’s Senior Researcher, gave the example of trying to build a comprehensive database of council home EPC standards. This data is already published by all local authorities, but because it is published in a variety of formats and locations, it can’t be easily joined up. This data was compiled by volunteers through FOI requests (in order to get standard formats) for the 2023 Council Climate Action Scorecards, and the results were covered in the Financial Times. It was not ‘new’ data, it was just the first time it had been collated and compared.

    Eoin Devane from the Climate Change Committee stressed that data is essential for their work, and that their recent reports highlight the many data gaps that still exist in assessing the UK’s progress towards our 2050 net zero target. Contextualising the need for this data, Eoin also pointed to the CCC’s calls for more clarity on the role of local government, and on bodies like the Local Net Zero Forum.

    Julia Cushion. This then led onto my section, highlighting the types of climate data we need, which we have covered in a previous blog post. I also spoke about the supporting factors for these:

    • Echoing Eoin, more clarity from on the powers of local government for net zero delivery. This is also a key ask of the Blueprint Coalition
    • More transparency around the Local Net Zero Forum and how this acts as a connection between national and local government 
    • Greater coherence around the role of Oflog, especially how they prioritise their metrics
    • More involvement from the Central Digital and Data Office, who could play an important convening role 

    Next, we had our first councillor – Joe Porter, District Councillor for Brown Edge and Endon – who emphasised the importance of local councils as key players in climate action. Reflecting on Staffordshire Moorlands’ efforts, he discussed their annual Climate Change Report, emphasising the significance of monitoring progress, engaging with communities, and setting ambitious targets for carbon neutrality and nature restoration.

    Minesh Parekh, a Labour and Cooperative councillor from Sheffield, echoed the sentiments on the imperative need for councils to lead in addressing the climate crisis. He emphasised the criticality of data in guiding decision-making at the local level. Minesh pointed out the disparity in information available to local councils compared to Members of Parliament, stressing the need for more localised data and resources to support informed decision-making on climate initiatives.

    We rounded off the hour with a quick Q&A, which brought out the importance of sharing best practices, expertise, and data among councils through platforms like the Environmental Data Network. The councillors highlighted the significance of collaboration and the exchange of information to address challenges, bridge data gaps, and achieve more substantial climate action goals.

    Thanks to those who joined us, and we hope to see you at a future event soon. To stay updated on our climate programme, you can sign up to our newsletter.

    Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

  3. How we improved CAPE this year

    CAPE is our data-packed website that makes it easier for everyone to track and improve local action on climate change, built in collaboration with Climate Emergency UK.

    When CAPE launched, it was basically a list of councils’ climate action plans — but we’ve continued to make regular improvements and additions, and it’s better, and more useful, than ever.

    If you’re a council officer with climate duties; a researcher looking for climate data; an activist needing facts to back up your climate campaign; or simply an interested citizen, you’ll find some truly invaluable facts and figures on CAPE.

    And if you haven’t visited for a while, you’re in for a surprise. Here’s what we’ve added this year:

    Improved search

    Search results for 'flooding' - these include terms such as 'drainage' and 'river'

    Now you don’t need to think of all the different ways that councils might have described the concept you’re looking for. We’ve integrated machine learning into the search function, to help surface your search term even in documents that use different words for the same concept. Interested to know more? We wrote it up in detail here

    Updated for new councils

    In April, a set of UK local authorities was abolished and merged into new unitary authorities.  When this happens, we do work to update the data that CAPE depends on. You can make use of it too!

    We’ve updated:

    And this has all fed back into CAPE to make changes of local government structure transparent in the site. 

    Local polling

    We wanted to make it easier to see where there is support for climate action, so we took a few sets of MRP polling on people’s attitudes to net zero and energy sources and converted it from per-constituency to per-local council.

    For each local authority (except in Northern Ireland) – see Croydon, for example – you can now see estimates for support for net zero (even when it is described as expensive), and for different kinds of renewable energy project.

    Support for net zero in Croydon

    Not sure what MRP polling is? We wrote something up about that

    Climate Assemblies

    Local climate assemblies at CAPEIn 2019, we were part of the UK-wide Climate Assembly, and we’ve kept an interest in citizens assemblies about climate change. There’s been one held for the whole of Scotland, and more widely we’ve found 17 (so far) held by local authorities across the UK.

    We’ve uploaded the final reports of those assemblies into CAPE. It is now easy to see which authorities have held climate assemblies, and to search the results of those assemblies. Find all this at cape.mysociety.org/assemblies.

    Hundreds of new documents have a fresh coat of paint

    Thanks to people telling us about new plans, and us conducting an extensive search for new documents across council domains, we’ve updated and added hundreds of new documents to councils’ pages. 

    With all that content, we’ve gone back and tidied up the design of our council page layout, giving us more space to add explainers and summaries to each section. Why not take a look for your area?

    Council Climate Action Scorecards

    Let’s not forget that while all this activity has taken place on CAPE, we were also helping Climate Emergency UK with the Council Climate Action Scorecards. At the time of their launch in October, we wrote about the part we played in building the site, wrangling the data, advising on the methodology and building a scoring interface.

    The result of all this is, of course, that whatever your climate interests – be you council staff, researcher, journalist, campaigner or interested member of the public – you can dive in to any council’s page to see how they’re doing against several markers of climate action.

    Since launch there has also been the significant addition of Question Pages, allowing a never before seen view of how each council scores on every individual action point. Julia wrote about that in detail, in this post.


    Your donations keep our sites running.
    Donate now

  4. New feature! Scorecards Question Pages unlock hundreds of brand new datasets

    This year’s Council Climate Action Scorecards involved thousands of hours of volunteer time, hundreds of FOI requests and a lot of scrolling through local authority websites. Now we’re excited to launch a brand new filtering tool that lets you unlock the value of all of this amazing new data: question pages

    These individual pages allow anyone — from campaigners to council officers — to unlock the most interesting data from the Scorecards. You can now view a dedicated page for each question, which is itself a brand new and comprehensive dataset of local authority action. This will filter by type, rank all the councils from highest to lowest scoring, show the evidence for why councils scored point(s), and will tell you how many councils achieved each of the possible available marks.

    Find these pages by clicking through from the question you’re interested in from any council’s page.

    screenshot of a question page on Scorecards - Does the council use peat free compost or soil in all landscaping and horticulture?

    This allows anyone to:

    • Get a sense of where best practice is happening in the country, by policy area
    • Share examples of best practice, so that more councils can more easily access the policy solutions they need
    • Evaluate trends in where local authority action is succeeding or stalling across the country.
    List of councils with their scores for the question 'Does the council use peat free compost or soil in all landscaping and horticulture?'

    Not sure where to start? Below, we’ve pulled out three really interesting brand new datasets. And, because these illustrate some of the gaps that we identified in our Fragmented Data report, we hope they’ll show just how useful this kind of nationwide picture would be if they were being published as standard.

    3.1 Is the council’s area wide net zero target a strategic objective of the Local Plan?

    socrecards question page: Is the council's area wide net zero target a strategic objective of the Local Plan?Local Plans are the key piece of local authority policy that guide how a council will run its operations. We want to see climate action and net zero move beyond siloed ‘Climate plans’ and into day-to-day local planning. On Scorecards, councils scored the one available point for this question if the Local Plan included reaching net zero as a strategic objective, and if the council’s net zero target date is a) area wide and b) also found within the Plan. See this question page here.

    Through volunteer research, we now know:

    • 44 out of 186 single tier councils got full marks for this question.
    • 31 out of 181 district councils got full marks for this question.
    • 0 out of 24 county councils got full marks for this question.
    • 0 out of 11 Northern Ireland councils got full marks for this question.

    This is a great example of something you can ask your local council to do that doesn’t cost them any money, but will make a huge difference to day-to-day climate policy in your local area. Using the questions page, we can highlight councils of the same type that score well, in order to surface the evidence, allowing them to share it as best practice.  

    In this case, you may wish to share Wakefield’s recent local plan with your council

    4.3a Is the council reporting on its own greenhouse gas emissions?

    Scorecards question page: Is the council reporting on its own greenhouse gas emissions?Our Fragmented Data report details why we think it would be useful for central government to support local government in compulsory and collaborative reporting standards for local councils, especially on climate action. We can’t know the progress made and the progress yet to happen without better data – and the Scorecards project would certainly be a lot easier if we had more data published in more useful formats! See this question page here.

    A council got a point on this question if it is reporting its own emissions and fulfils all of the following:

    • the council states whether they are using the Environmental Reporting Guidelines from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the GCoM Common Reporting Framework (CRF), the Greenhouse Gas Accounting Tool (from the LGA), the Greenhouse Gas Protocol for Cities (Community Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories) or for Corporate Standards to develop their inventory.
    • the inventory covers a continuous period of 12 months, either a calendar year or a financial year
    • there is data from 2019 and 2021 (or the financial year 2021/22)
    • the council is measuring their own scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions

    Thanks to hundreds of hours of volunteer time, we now know:

    • 69 out of 186 single tier councils got full marks for this question.
    • 48 out of 181 district councils got full marks for this question.
    • 11 out of 24 county councils got full marks for this question.
    • 1/11 Northern Ireland councils got full marks for this question.

    We have lots more on why climate data is so essential, and the sorts of climate data we need, in this blog post

    If you’d like to share best practice with your council, take a look at Westminster City Council. You may also want to encourage your council to participate in the CDP reporting programme, a brilliantly in-depth reporting framework that is used across the globe, and published in the open.

    6.3 Has the council lobbied the government for climate action?

    scorecards question page - has the ouncil lobbied the government for climate action?This is such an interesting question — the results of which have been uncovered through FOI  — because it gets at the often-obscured links between local and national climate action. Local authorities are undoubtedly limited in their ability to act by budgets and resources handed down by national government, but they too have a voice in asking national government to prioritise climate spending. See this question page here.

    Councils got a point in this question if they:

    •  sent a letter or had a meeting with national or devolved governments calling for the government to take further action, 
    • or asked for councils to receive more funding, powers and climate resources to take climate action.

    Through FOI requests sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, we know:

    • 86 out of 186 single tier councils got full marks for this question.
    • 59 out of 181 district councils got full marks for this question.
    • 11 out of 24 county councils got full marks for this question.
    • 5 out of 11 Northern Ireland councils got full marks for this question.

    Across the board in this question, about half of councils have lobbied national government for climate action, with district councils lagging slightly behind. 

    Once again, this is an example of an council action which requires no additional cost and very little resources. If you’d like to email your council to ask them to start lobbying national government, or to do more, you could point to the great example from Chorley Council.


    Your donations keep our sites running.
    Donate now

    Image: RMHare (CC by-sa/4.0)

  5. Climate monthnotes: November 2023

    Following their launch in October, we have continued to improve the Council Climate Action Scorecards site — for example, the scores for all councils on any one question can now be seen on one page (like this). Find these pages from any individual council’s page, or via the section pages

    Meanwhile, CE UK have continued to network, influence and promote the site and their work around the Action Scorecards. They have created significant media interest, especially at the local level (just where it’s needed!) and also attracted coverage from ITV, the Independent, and specialist press such as LGPlus. They’ve been invited to speak to a variety of audiences from an LGA event to Mobility Ways. Having already trained up 110 local residents/campaigners since the launch, the last of CE UK’s How to use the Council Climate Action Scorecards’ training sessions will run today (7th Dec) at 5.30pm, and bring people together to learn about how to use the Scorecards in their campaigning, and network with others doing the same.

    A key learning point from CAPE and our Scorecards work has been to see just how fragmented the data around local authorities’ climate planning and action is, and how much of a barrier this is to data transparency and therefore to improvement: it can be highly ineffective, and a waste of (paid) people’s time, to compare metaphorical apples and pears.

    As such, this month we were proud to run an event focused on Fragmented Data, with support from our partners in the Blueprint Coalition. Julia Cushion, our Policy & Advocacy Manager, chaired the webinar which saw Anna Powell-Smith introduce key findings of our report Unlocking the value of fragmented public data, while a variety of speakers provided perspectives around the potential and practical application of de-fragmenting data and answer questions from a 80+ strong virtual audience.

    It was encouraging to see influential people grasping the significance of what might be seen as a bit of a dry, obscure issue to the untrained eye. This, we hope, is just the beginning of this story and I suspect we’ll see it move into the mainstream over the next few months / years, with more ‘next steps’ from Julia and our Senior Researcher, Alex, sooner. The recording is available here (with subtitles) on our YouTube channel.

    We are a month closer to launching the Local Intelligence Hub (LIH) to the public (in early 2024) with our partners the Climate Coalition. November saw more groundwork going into this, with new datasets uploaded, the ‘new constituencies’ work continuing, and functionalities enabled. Our developer Struan moved across from handling the Scorecards’ site development to double our developer capacity on LIH for the next while, and give our other developer, Alexander, someone to work alongside. Planning has also ramped up beyond the site itself, including around communications, and how it fits into the Climate Coalition’s broader plans for 2024.

    Partnership has been a solid theme for mySociety’s Climate team from the word go, but it has been particularly noticeable this month with a number of the team scoping out, listening and learning from each other and potential partners to help bring our Neighbourhood Warmth plans together. 

    As we prepare for a retrospective on our latest year in partnership with CE UK, I find myself reflecting on how vital trust, mutual respect, care and good will are for enabling people to achieve, as is learning to recognise and rise above one’s ego. Achieving with others can also be, in my experience, deeply rewarding, as we join with the best of others to achieve more than we could alone. It is a pleasure and an honour to work in a team, and with partners, who work hard to put the needs of the planet, society and the sector before themselves.

     

    Image: Hannah Domsic

  6. You can use WhatDoTheyKnow for the good of the climate

    As we look back on a million public requests, we’re also looking to the future and how WhatDoTheyKnow might be leveraged for the most important issue of our generation — the climate.

    The climate emergency is a “wicked problem,” that is to say that it is a challenge with incomplete, contradictory, and often changing requirements. When you add misinformation into the mix, with politically-driven narratives that seek to derail progress (indeed, question the need for progress), it is easy to see why the release of factual information might be a vital tool in our journey to decarbonisation.

    There is, as it happens, a legal mechanism that was designed specially for requesting information about the environment. The Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) are similar to FOI in that they allow you to request information from authorities, and they can be used when requesting anything — broadly — to do with the environment. 

    Happily, they cover more authorities and have a higher bar for refusal than FOI. Equally happily, you can submit an EIR request on WhatDoTheyKnow, just as you can with FOI requests. Find out more about EIRs on WhatDoTheyKnow.

    With that in mind, no matter who you are — a company, a campaign or just a concerned citizen — there are ways in which you can put the EIR to the service of the climate. Here are just a few of them.

    • If you’re a startup in the climate sector, you might ask authorities about contract renewals, research whether any competitors exist, or request data that will inform your product development. There are many more such uses, but hopefully that’s enough to get you started!
    • If you are running a climate-related campaign, you may also find EIRs helpful. You can get the facts and figures that underline your arguments; find out richer data about your issue; or even get minutes from meetings where decisions have been made about your cause.
    • If you’re an individual who would love to do something for the climate, but don’t know where to start, how about holding authorities to account, for example over divestment from fossil fuels in their pensions? Ask a question, get the facts  — and then maybe write to your councillors, or even ask a question at a council meeting to get the point home.
    • If you’re a journalist, you can use WhatDoTheyKnow (or WhatDoTheyKnow Pro if you want to keep your findings private until your story goes out) to uncover the truth  — or even corruption — around climate issues. For inspiration, take a look at what journalist Lucas Amin found out with a series of dogged requests.
    • If you’re a researcher, or just someone who loves stats, remember that you can fill in any gaps in your information with WhatDoTheyKnow. Just see what Climate Emergency UK did when they needed information from every council in the country, to inform their Scorecards project. That was a massive endeavour, but the principle can be applied to any quest for information.

    Yesterday we considered what the world would look like if WhatDoTheyKnow had never been launched. Come back tomorrow for thoughts about what’s in that massive archive of requests and responses, and how society as a whole can benefit from it — beyond the obvious utility of simply accessing useful information.

    Image: Matjaz Krivic / Climate Visuals Countdown (CC by-nc-nd 4.0).
    Startup Climeworks uses Co2 from an incineration plant in their greenhouses.

  7. Thoughts on community-led climate action at Net Zero Festival 2023

    Last week, Louise and I attended the Business Green 2023 Net Zero Festival, in London.

    We were there to talk about public mobilisation on climate—in the space between direct action, on one hand, and government ‘business as usual’ on the other—and to share examples of how citizens are already using mySociety’s services like CAPE, the Climate Action Scorecards, and Local Intelligence Hub to track, challenge, coordinate, and collaborate on local climate action. You can read Louise’s slides and notes here.

    It was also a great opportunity to connect with both existing contacts and partners (hi Climate Coalition, MCS Foundation, and Anthesis!) and new organisations we could potentially collaborate with in the rapidly approaching fourth year of our climate programme.

    But it was also interesting to see how mySociety’s democratic, citizen-led approach to climate action compares with—and fits alongside—the festival’s strong focus on business actors.

    Many of my fellow attendees have already shared their highlights from the festival, but here are two challenges that struck me in the days after the festival, and how I think mySociety’s work could contribute to solving them.

    The role of local authorities, local businesses, and local residents in taking climate action together

    With the festival being hosted in the beautiful Business Design Centre in Angel, it was particularly interesting to hear from a number of local, Islington-based organisations on how they’re addressing the climate emergency. I sat in on a particularly good pair of talks with representatives from organisations like Islington Council, Caxton House Community Centre, a number of London BIDs, and Anthesis, who recently launched a Net Zero Strategy for Angel Islington, and who we already know through their support for our and Climate Emergency UK’s Council Climate Scorecards project.

    Islington Sustainability Network in particular was a great example I’d not come across before, of coordination between a huge number of private, public, and third sector organisations in a local area. I think it was Simeran from Anthesis who reiterated her experience that building trust between businesses and residents is crucial, and I expect networks like these, while not a silver bullet for citizen engagement, at least encourage a holistic climate response from all of the local institutions a citizen might engage with. (This is something PCAN has been exploring with their very exciting Climate Commissions in places like Leeds, Edinburgh, Belfast, and Yorkshire.)

    I was also reminded of an example given by one participant in our Neighbourhood Warmth prototype testing last year, where the owner of a local corner shop had become a sort of trusted demonstrator/influencer of climate action, because they’d installed solar panels on the shop’s roof. Utilising these trust-based networks to encourage faster, more regret-free home energy action from citizens, is something we’re particularly interested in exploring at mySociety.

    In one of these sessions, I asked the panel for any examples of resident power, or residents signalling demand for home energy services like retrofit and energy flexibility. Sue Collins from Caxton House Community Centre, which has run workshops for local residents on topics like energy saving, said they’d seen a lot of residents asking about funding for measures like insulation, heat pumps, and solar panels. Islington councillor Rowena Champion added that, while many people in the area might have the means and the interest to undertake works like this, complication around planning permissions, Victorian housing, and conservation areas is a big blocker. It sounds like Islington Council is looking at producing guidance on net zero actions—how you do retrofit, how you do double glazing in a conservation area—to overcome this, as well as setting up regular panels where residents can raise issues and find out more about actions the council is taking. It’d be interesting to see how a service like Neighbourhood Warmth could tie into hyperlocal advice like this, or even become a source of new knowledge sharing and advice, as groups of neighbours progress through the retrofit journey together and want to share their findings.

    There’s still lots of talk about climate, not so much action

    The music-themed title of the second day’s opening keynote was, fittingly, “A little less conversation, a little more action”. Speakers in a number of sessions noted that both national and local governments seem to be discovering that it’s easier to talk about climate policies than to implement them. The rallying cry of the festival’s organisers is that business leaders need to lead – to show that there is both commercial and public support for (and demand for) climate action.

    I thought it was particularly interesting that both Chris Stark of the CCC, and climate activist Farhana Yamin, forecast that the threat of litigation from citizens/customers will be a growing motivator for businesses (and, I’d add, local and national governments) to address their climate impacts. “There will be a reckoning,” in Farhana’s words. Chilling!

    We’re now less than a month away from the start of COP28. This year’s COP is a critical one, because it marks the start of the global stocktake – participating countries will essentially be “handing in their homework” on their climate actions over the last few years, and experts are already bracing themselves for disappointment.

    Giving citizens, campaigners, and even local authorities themselves, open, actionable data about the progress local authorities are making, and the barriers to faster action, has obviously been a core strand of mySociety’s climate programme, and will continue to be so. We’ve also been campaigning for not only the quantity but the quality of local climate data to be improved. Without rigorous, open, standardised data, we cannot exert the level of scrutiny on local and national climate action that we need as a country. We hope that through projects like CAPE, the Council Climate Action Scorecards, and the Local Intelligence Hub, we can provide some of that data.

    I also found it interesting that contracts came up a few times over the festival, as a tool for enforcing climate action – turning a business or local authority’s voluntary commitments into something legally binding. Fans of mySociety’s Climate programme will be aware that, last year, we ran a prototyping week on the potential for greater transparency of local authority contracts with high climate impacts. Our Contract Countdown prototype aimed to give citizens and campaigners advance warning of contracts that are approaching renewal, so that conversations could be had—for example, with local councillors through WriteToThem—on strengthening the climate requirements in those contracts’ upcoming replacements. We were particularly interested in folding in the amazing work that The Chancery Lane Project has been doing on pre-written climate-friendly clauses ready to drop into contracts.

    As the Procurement Bill (which introduces some significant changes around the scale and quality of procurement/contracts data available from public bodies) was still working its way through the Houses of Parliament at that time, we put Contract Countdown to one side. The Bill has now passed, as the Procurement Act 2023, and it’ll be particularly interesting to see whether this has an effect on local authority decision-making, and whether a tool like Contract Countdown could once more give citizens greater influence over the decisions made in their name. If you’re interested in exploring the role of contracts and climate action together, please do get in touch!

  8. Climate monthnotes: October 2023

    As the seasons change and the leaves start to fall, grab your big scarf as we sum up what the climate team have been up to recently.

    We’ve been talking about scorecards for much of the year, and this month the work has fallen into place and the Climate Action Scorecards have launched. There was a load of work done, not least by our designer Lucas and the team at CE UK in the lead up to this, to get the site polished and all the data finalised and published.

    Since the launch we’ve been making tweaks and sanding off the odd rough edge. While we’ve been doing this, CE UK have been promoting all the hard work they and the volunteers have done with the result that there’s been a lot of press coverage. You may have seen some in your local paper.

    If you want to see how your local council did then check out the site. If you’re an organisation or researcher interested in using the data underlying this then it’s available to buy from CE UK in a handy, easy to process format.

    We, for Alex values of we, wrote a bit about some of the tech behind the Scorecards crowdsourcing effort.

    On the Local Intelligence Hub front we’ve been making progress on supporting multiple versions of constituencies. For those of you who don’t breathlessly follow political boundary news there was a review of the size and shape of Westminster Parliamentary constituencies which has resulted in many of these changing.

    The changes will take effect at the next general election, whenever that happens, so we need to support them, while also supporting the existing ones. Alexander has been working away on enabling the Local Intelligence Hub to display data for multiple versions of a constituency. This will also help if we want to add data for other types of area in the future. This is all working towards the new public launch date of January 2024 so you can make using local climate data part of your New Year’s resolutions.

    Should you be in a position where you need to care about constituency changes, we have some potentially helpful data and code for making the transition from the old to new boundaries. If you don’t have to care but are interested there’s also some background on the hows and whys of the changes there too.

    On the Neighbourhood Warmth front Siôn is continuing to talk to potential partners and funders, while sharpening up our plans for the next stage of development. As always more details on everything Neighbourhood Warmth can be found in its very own monthnotes.

    On the policy side Julia has been lining things up for an event about Fragmented Data which is part of our work to explain how better data will help reach climate targets. Look out for more news on that in the coming weeks. Scraping in under the spooky decorations as I write this on All Hallow’s Eve, Zarino is at the Net Zero Festival where our CEO Louise will be, or indeed was, talking about the work we do to help involve people in matters climate related.

    Image: Aaron Burden

  9. Shortlist announced for mySociety’s 20th anniversary awards

    The ways in which people and organisations have used mySociety’s services through the lifetime of the organisation have been impressive, inspiring and sometimes astonishing.

    So, to celebrate our 20th anniversary, on 15 November we’ll be presenting awards in five categories, showcasing impactful usage of their services through the years.

    • Driving Institutional Change
    • Accelerating Climate Action
    • Exposing Truth
    • Impactful International Reuse
    • Campaigning for Justice

    The shortlist is as follows:

    Driving Institutional Change

    • The Give Them Time campaign used WhatDoTheyKnow to get the law changed over funding for nursery care in Scotland.
    • John Graham-Cumming In 2009, John used the petitions website that mySociety had built for 10 Downing Street, resulting in Gordon Brown apologising on behalf of the British Government for its treatment of the computer scientist Alan Turing.
    • Richard Bennett used WhatDoTheyKnow, coupled with the Equality Act, to make pathways more accessible for wheelchair users, sharing his methods so that others could do the same.
    • Privacy International The ‘Neighbourhood Watched’ project used WhatDoTheyKnow to reveal the unchecked use of surveillance technology by police forces across the UK.

    Accelerating Climate Action

    • Zero Hour Using mySociety’s WriteToThem software, they’ve garnered the backing of over 150 MPs for their draft Climate and Ecology Bill.
    • Sustain used data from CAPE, our Climate Action Plans Explorer, to analyse the degree to which local authorities are including food within their strategies to cut emissions. 
    • Save the Trees of Armada Way Plymouth’s grassroots campaign fought against the removal of much-loved trees in the city centre, using WriteToThem to send emails to the local councillors — apparently, the most emails they had ever received on a single subject. 

     Exposing Truth

    • Jenna Corderoy Jenna is shortlisted for her investigation — using WhatDoTheyKnow — of the Cabinet Office’s controversial Clearing House, a secretive unit that screened  and blocked FOI requests made by journalists and campaigners, often on matters of serious public interest.
    • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Their Sold From Under You project used crowdsourced and FOI data to reveal how much publicly-owned property was sold off by councils across England, in an attempt to fill funding gaps caused by austerity measures. 
    • Lost in Europe worked with people running FOI sites on our Alaveteli platform, in 12 different countries, to uncover previously unknown statistics around how many children disappear at borders

    Impactful International Reuse 

    • Dostup do Pravda/Access to Truth The Ukrainian Freedom of Information site continues providing access to information even in the difficult circumstances of war.
    • vTaiwan, Public Digital Innovation Space, and the Taiwanese Ministry of Digital Affairs The Taiwanese government uses mySociety’s SayIt software to make deliberations on difficult subjects public and accessible to citizens.
    • DATA Uruguay The organisation has built both FixMyStreet and Freedom of Information sites on mySociety’s codebases, changing the way their governments  communicate with citizens at both local and national levels.

    Campaigning for Justice 

    • Doug Paulley is a lifelong campaigner for rights for disabled people, using FOI to fight against access discrimination, especially around public transport.
    • Eleanor Shaikh has dedicated hours and hundreds of FOI requests to finding out the truth behind the Post Office Horizon scandal, with her findings making front page headlines.
    • After Exploitation use Freedom of Information to uncover the failings of the government’s measures to protect vulnerable detainees.

    Of course, every single user of our services is a winner in our eyes – but watch this space to find out who takes home the award in each category!

    Image: Rene Böhmer

  10. Providing tech for effective crowdsourcing

    An important idea in mySociety’s history and work is that combining people-power and technology is a powerful method to make change.

    Recently we’ve had the chance to work with Climate Emergency UK on the council climate scorecards. As part of this we’ve been learning from how CE UK works with volunteers, and thinking how best we can be a technical partner to crowdsourcing projects.

    But we’ve also been thinking how we can better incorporate crowdsourcing into our core services. This has led to improving our approach to crowdsourcing within WhatDoTheyKnow, and developing a new platform (GRACE) to help volunteers crowdsource information for the scorecards.

    Developing our technical approach

    In the first round of the Council Climate Scorecards,back in 2021, the process was managed on a big Google Sheet. Each answer to a question has a line, which tracks the answer from a dropdown and keeps track of notes, and we use macros to populate and move information around. This worked and let us get started at the pace we wanted, but introduced a lot of room for error, and meant more work was needed at the end of the process to validate the data.

    For the second round of scorecards, with a more complicated set of questions, we wanted to move away from the spreadsheet approach, into something that could validate the data as we went, and integrated the right of reply process into the same platform.

    Working with CE UK, we built a crowdsourcing platform GRACE (named after CE UK’s first volunteer) to replace the old spreadsheet approach.

    The overall process worked like this:

    • Working with their advisory group, CE UK created questions across a range of different areas, with different sections for different kinds of councils.
    • These questions and data from FOI responses were uploaded into the platform.
    • Volunteers were given access to the platform, and could answer questions in the topic areas assigned to them. This would include an answer from a dropdown, a public “evidence” field, and a private notes field to share between volunteers.
    • Overall progress across all areas could be seen by the volunteer coordinators.
    • Local authorities were given a right of reply per question. Emails were sent to all local authorities, giving them access to the platform to review the scores and evidence for their section. This gave them the opportunity to submit new evidence where they felt the score did not reflect their actions. 74% submitted responses to the right of reply.
    • Responses from the right of reply were reconciled with the original answers by a group of volunteers and CE UK.
    • This data could then be reviewed and loaded into councilclimatescorecards.uk

    How did CE UK find the tool? Isaac Beevor, Co-director of CE UK:

    GRACE – our online data collection system was incredible. We would not have been able to collect the thousands of data points on local authorities’ climate action without it. It was simple to use and effective so all of our volunteers were able to use it, with minimal training. Furthermore, it allowed us to coordinate and track progress. This meant we were able to encourage volunteers who needed it and track progress in sections allowing us to plan ahead for staff and volunteer capacity. We then used it to allow access for councils in the Right of Reply and all of the feedback from officers, particularly its ease of use, was positive. The best thing is we can now use this for every Scorecards, which saves us so much time and energy.

    Effective crowdsourcing

    As we wrote in our report about public fragmented data the issue with the idea of ‘armchair auditors’ is not that they do not exist, but that they were thought about in the wrong way. People can and do use their time to support civic accountability through looking at spreadsheets. But they need to be given support and structure to work effectively together.

    Reflecting on the CE UK process and other crowdsourcing approaches we admire, like Research for Action and Democracy Club, what these projects have in common is that they involve knowledge sharing and collaboration across the country, with volunteers themselves contributing a local or specialist focus. “Armchair auditors” aren’t atomised individuals, but work together as a community.

    The Effective Crowdsourcing diamond (below) describes the aspects we think are key to successful projects, and helps us shape our thinking about future crowdsourcing/citizen science projects.

    A blue diamond with the following text "Effective crowdsouricng: working together to answer big questions". The four points of the diamond have: Volunteers: A pool of motivated supporters break the problem up Expertise: Experts and advisors to frame the questions to ask Technology: specialist tools streamline information gathering and quality assurance steps Impact: clear paths form gathering data to making change.

    In this framework, an effective process will have four features that all interrelate and reinforce each other:

    • Expertise – Helping move from high level principles to concrete questions and approaches that inform how work can be split up for volunteers, and the technical tools needed.
    • Volunteers – People who care about an issue, with the skills to contribute to answering questions.
    • Technology – Technology makes it easier for people to work together, and validation and cross checking improves the accuracy of the process, enabling more complex approaches.
    • Impact – What is the path from the result of a project to change the world? Clear routes to impact means clearer benefits of engaging to experts and volunteers.

    For Scorecards and other projects, we have provided the technical side of the diamond. But there is lots of potential for us to run crowdsourcing projects that improve our core Democracy and Transparency services. Starting with the tools we now have, we’re thinking about how we can strengthen our skills and approaches across the diamond – and how we might partner on projects to bring in other expertise and skills.

    GRACE screenshots

    Initial volunteer screen showing sections assigned:

    Screenshot of a page showing the assignments and completion rates assigned to a specific indivudal. A series of progress bars next to sections.

    Screen showing councils and progress

    Screenshot of a pages showing the overall progress for a section. It shows by council the number of questiosn completed for this group of questions

    Marking screen

    This shows the marking screen - which is a form capture the answer to a question, with boxes and links for evidence

    Right of Reply screen

    This is the right of reply screen that will be visible by councils - it shows the answers to the question in uneditable boxes -while providing options to agree/disagree with response and submit further evidence

    Admin screen so you can check that how much has been assigned to volunteers

    Volunteer management screen - showing how many sections are currently assigned to volutneerws

    Admin screen to show progress on an authority level

    Progress screen, showing the number of questions completed by council, and the overall progress

    Or on a section level

    Progress screen by question section, showing the number of councils with a complete set of questions for that section.

    Image: Clay Banks on Unsplash.