1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. Climate month notes #3 – some early experiments

    In June, I wrote about planning using the horizons of two weeks, six weeks , three months and a year as we build up our climate programme. At the end of July, we reached the end of our second chunk of six weeks of work.

    During this six week ‘cycle’ of work, Alex and Zarino completed their goal of setting up tracking on who’s using the site and how – we now have an automatically generated report to look at each time we plan our next two weeks of work that shows us how many local authorities have climate action plans, who is using the Climate Action Plans Explorer and what they’re looking for – it’s early days for this, but it’s already given us some ideas for little improvements.

    Zarino’s been hard at work making the site itself a bit more self-explanatory, so that Myf can start sharing it with groups who might make use of it and we can get some more feedback on the most useful next steps.

    Mid-month, the National Audit Office released their report on Local Government and Net Zero in England. We were very happy to have been able to share an early version of our climate action plans dataset with them to cross check against their own research, and in turn now benefit from their analysis, which has prompted a call for evidence from the Environmental Audit Committee who commissioned the NAO’s report. This feels like a small validation of the idea that open data on local climate action is going to help inform better policy.

    We also recruited for a new role in the programme – an Outreach and Networks Coordinator – to ensure that other organisations learn about and can get the maximum benefit from our work, and that we scope projects that complement and support them. More on that next time.

    Meanwhile we’ve been supporting our colleagues at Climate Emergency UK with some technical help as they train their first cohort of learners in local climate policy, who will be helping their communities and other people around the UK understand how well councils are tackling the climate crisis by analysing action plans. It’s been really inspiring to see this work come together, and we’re excited about the potential of the national picture of climate action that we hope will emerge.

    Finally, Alex has been working on an early experiment in applying some data science to the challenge of identifying which communities in the UK have similar challenges around climate change, so that people inside and outside local government in those communities can compare climate action across other relevant communities across the country. We think that in the longer term this might offer a good complement to case studies, which are quite common as a way of sharing knowledge, and we’re keen to get any early feedback on this approach. I’ll hand over to Alex for a more in-depth post on where he’s got to so far.

     

    Image: Austin D

  8. Identifying councils with similar emissions profiles

    One goal of our Climate Action Plans Explorer is to make it easier for good ideas around cutting carbon to be shared and replicated between local areas. For this to happen, the service should be good at helping people in one area identify other areas that are dealing with similar situations or problems.

    Currently the climate plans website shows the physical neighbours on a council’s page, but there’s every chance that councils are geographically close while being very different in other ways. We have been exploring an approach that identifies which authorities have similar causes of emissions, with the goal that this leads to better discovery of common approaches to reducing those emissions.

    The idea of automatically grouping councils using data is not a new one. The CIPFA nearest neighbours dataset suggests a set of councils that are similar to an input authority (based on “41 metrics using a wide range of socio-economic indicators”). However, this dataset is not open, only covers councils in England rather than across the UK, and is not directly focused on the emissions problem.

    This blog post explores our experiment in using the BEIS dataset of carbon dioxide emissions to identify councils with similar emissions profiles. A demo of this approach can be found here (it may take a minute  to load).

    Using the ‘subset’ dataset in the BEIS data (which excludes emissions local authorities cannot influence), we calculated the per person emissions in each local authority for the five groupings of emissions (Industry, Commercial, Domestic, Public Sector and Transport). We calculated the ‘distance’ between all local authorities based on how far they differed within each of these five areas. For each authority, we can now identify which other authorities have the most similar profile of emissions.

    We also wanted to use this data to tell more of a story about why authorities are and are not similar. We’ve done this in two ways.

    The first is converting the difficult to parse ‘emissions per type per person’ number into relative deciles, where all authorities are ranked from highest to lowest and assigned a decile from one to ten (where ten is the highest level of emissions). This makes it easy to see at a glance how a council’s emissions relate to other authorities. For instance, the following table shows the emissions deciles for Leeds City Council. This shows a relatively high set of emissions for the Commercial and Public Sector, while being just below average for Industry, Domestic and Transport.

    Emissions type Decile for Leeds City Council
    Industry Emissions Decile 4
    Commercial Emissions Decile 7
    Domestic Emissions Decile 4
    Public Sector Emissions Decile 9
    Transport Emissions Decile 4

     

    The second story-telling approach is to put easy-to-understand labels on groups of councils to make the similarities more obvious. We’ve used k-means clustering to try and identify groups of councils that are more similar to each other than to other groups of councils. Given the way that the data is arranged, there seemed to be a sweet spot at six and nine clusters, and as an experiment we looked at what the six clusters looked like.

    How ‘Urban Mainstream’ Industrial emissions differ from other local authorities using a raincloud plot.Raincloud plot of Industry Emissions 

    Using tools demonstrated in this jupyter notebook, we looked at the features of the six clusters and grouped these into three “Mainstream” clusters (which were generally similar to each other but with some difference in features), and three “Outlier” clusters, which tended to be smaller, and much further outside the mainstream. Reviewing the properties of these labels, these were relabelled into six categories that at a glance gets the broad feature of an area across.

    Label Description Authority count Lower Tier Land Area % Lower Tier Population %
    Urban – Mainstream Below average commercial/industry/transport/ domestic emissions. High density. 165 14% 45%
    Rural – Mainstream Above average industry/transport/domestic emissions. Low density. 122 44% 26%
    Urban – Commercial Above average commercial/public sector, below average domestic/transport. High density. 66 4% 22%
    Rural – Industrial Above average transport/ industry/ domestic emissions. Low density. 43 37% 7%
    Urban – High Commercial Very high commercial/public sector emissions. 7 1% 2%
    High Domestic Counties Very above average domestic and transport emissions in county councils. 2

     

    Map of different labelled clusters of Emissions profiles in the UK

    This data is not tightly clustered, and the number of clusters could be expanded or contracted, but six seemed to hit a good spot before there were more clusters that only had a small number of authorities. The map below shows how these clusters are spread across the country. This  map uses an exploded cartogram approach, where authorities with larger populations appear bigger. The authority is then positioned broadly close to their original position (so the blank space has no meaning).

    Joining these different approaches allowed us to build a demo where for any local authority, you can get a short description of the emissions profile and cluster, and identify councils that are similar. This demo can be explored here (it may take a minute to load). The description for Croydon looks like this:

    Screenshot of demo interface

    This is not the only possible way of crunching the numbers.

    For example, the first thing we did was adjust the emissions data to be per person. This helps simplify comparison between areas of different sizes, but how many people are in an area is information that is relevant in helping councils find similar councils.

    The BEIS data also breaks down those five categories by more variables (which might better separate agriculture from other kinds of industry for instance): an alternative approach could make more use of these.

    We are considering using multiple different measures to help councils explore similar areas. This could include situation features like flood risk, deprivation scores and EPC data on household energy efficiency, but could also include, for example,  that some councils are more politically similar to each other, and may find it easier to transfer ideas.

    If you have any feedback, positive or negative, on this approach, please email me at alex.parsons@mysociety.org, make a comment below or raise an issue on the GitHub repo.

    The datasets and processing steps are available on GitHub.

    Image: Max Böttinger

  9. 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