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.
Our second Innovations in Climate Tech grantee was im23 (previously known as Better Futures), working in collaboration with Sandwell Council. They put forward a proposal for researching and scoping a database to share climate projects from councils across the UK.
We were excited by the possibilities of this project, which is all about councils learning from one another so that the best ideas can be copied and implemented elsewhere — a theory of change which has some parallels with our work in collaboration with Climate Emergency UK on CAPE and the Council Climate Scorecards.
In principle it sounds reasonably simple — find the case studies; publish them! But how have they been getting on? Rob Hale gave us this update:
“We set out to build a website that could bring together real examples of climate adaptation work to act as a knowledge hub for local government and communities.
“Our idea was that by showing what others had done, it could act as both a catalyst for the adoption of climate adaptation solutions, in the form of a searchable project database, but also bring people together to share ideas and challenges.”
So, have there been any surprises along the way?
“We knew from the outset that building a way for people to access key information quickly and easily would be really important, so we focused a lot of effort on making the site really clear and easy to use.
“What we found interesting is that the need for a way for council officers to share info openly and candidly seems to be as important as the projects database. To respond to this we’re adding a form and chat tools to the site from the outset so that we have a mix of projects and a place for the community to talk to each other!”
Part of the project was to scope the landscape. Has it become clear that there is a need for the site?
“Over the course of the project we’ve received nothing but positive reactions and support,” says Rob. “This has been from the local government teams – infrastructure, transport and climate – and also from trade bodies such as the Local Council Roads Innovation Group (LCRIG). Along with mySociety, LCRIG have added resource to the project and enabled us to get further and much closer to a sustainable project going forward.”
And have there been any stumbling blocks?
“So far the biggest challenge — or rather surprise — has been the difficultly in sourcing examples of varied climate adaptation projects.
“From the outset we knew that there was a need for a site like this to showcase projects to act as a guide for others, but we genuinely thought there would have been a far bigger resource to draw on and pull together.
“It may be that we’ve been looking in the wrong places — and we’re certainly asking everyone we can — but the response has been far more of “This is a great idea and just what we’ve been looking for!” rather than “Great, we’d love to share what we’ve done!”.
“Still, either way it’s good to know that what we’re building will be useful, and even if it starts with fewer projects then at least these are shared and we can play a small part in helping accelerate the takeup of workable climate adaptation solutions.”
Rob tells us the website will be live soon, so keep an eye on our social media and we’ll be sure to share it when it is. And one more thing — if you’re a council with a great climate adaptation project you could share, do let im23 know.
“We’re still very much looking for projects,” says Rob, “and will always be going forward, so please let us know if you’d like to share your knowledge with the community!”.
Thanks to im23 for the update — we can’t wait to see this project in all its glory.
Our fifth Civic Tech Surgery discussed the question of how the civic tech community can learn from, and contribute to, climate action, to drive impactful societal change. The subsequent working group commissioned The Democracy Project to establish Maai Makwa (indigenous Kikuyu language for My Water): a water quality and quantity monitoring project integrated with practical civic education to empower individuals, households and communities in Kenya to participate in freshwater conservation and sustainable water resource exploitation.
Kenya is classified as a chronically water-stressed country by the United Nations. Population growth, growing agricultural water use, frequent droughts and mains supply disruptions all increase the difficulties of accessing and preserving water.
Through this project, the Demography Project have developed:
- An interactive Water Cost Calculator to enable Kenyans to understand the full cost of water services from all 81 water companies in the country
- A compilation of national and local water laws and regulations
- In-person forums in vulnerable communities to help them understand water rights and contribute to water conservation
- A real-time Water Distribution calendar
- Collaborations with higher education institutions, recruiting eight student climate champions who conducted field research on water supplies in their regions and authored stories on their findings
- The deployment of low-cost, compact, modern meteorological kits and water monitoring devices to communities
The project was showcased at World Wetlands Day celebrations, and collaborations with local youth groups recognised by a visit from the President of Kenya, Dr William Ruto.
As a result of this work the Demography Project have entered into fourteen partnership/ membership agreements with local and global organisations working in freshwater conservation and youth networking. They continue to develop the project, with plans in progress to translate the content and tools into local languages.
We’re impressed by this extensive set of outcomes and we hope that it will help bring about solutions for the water issues of the region.
To find out more about Maai Mawka:
Last year, mySociety provided technical support to Climate Emergency UK (CE UK) for their Council Climate Scorecards project, which marked every UK local authority’s climate action plan across 78 different areas. The resulting data made clear where plans were adequate, and where there was still work to do. It has informed campaigns, researchers, news stories and councils themselves, as well as feeding into government-level policy.
But plans are one thing, and putting them into action is quite another — not to mention, rather more crucial. So this year, CE UK have set themselves the task of scoring councils on the progress they’ve made on climate action.
To do so, they’ll be using many of the same methods they put to such good effect in the Action Plan Scorecards: they’re currently assembling teams of volunteers (want to get involved? See the end of this post) that they’ll train up with the research skills needed to scrutinise such a huge body of data accurately and with a good understanding of the issues at hand.
Scoring the plans may have seemed like a big task, but at least they are documents which were — to a greater or lesser extent — possible to find online. Action, of course, happens in the real world, so some different methods are required.
CE UK’s methodology for the Action Scorecards can be seen in detail here; it relies not just on the councils’ own reporting, but on a number of different documents and news reports. And where the information can’t easily be found in the public arena, they’ll be submitting Freedom of Information requests.
Of course, this is an area in which we at mySociety have long experience, so our Transparency team is helping out. CE UK will be using our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service to send the large batches of FOI requests and manage the responses; once the Action Scorecards are launched, the data will, of course, be made public for everyone to access.
With our help, the requests have been refined to provide minimum disruption to busy council officers; at the same time, we hope that these requests, which are all for information that really should be available — energy standards for council-operated housing, for example, or numbers of staff members in climate-related roles — will encourage more proactive publication of data, so that it won’t need to be requested in future years.
We’ve also been able to advise CE UK on forming good FOI requests that will surface the required information.
Because of CE UK’s training strategy, we’re delighted that this knowledge will be passed on to their cohorts of volunteers, effectively informing a new tranche of citizens on how and why to use FOI responsibly. They’ll be helping to classify the responses and compile useful datasets through our early-stage FOI collaboration tool.
We’re proud to be supporting this important work from a climate perspective, too: councils have a crucial role to play in cutting emissions, and there’s an obvious public interest in how they go about doing so — how they allocate public funds, how effective their interventions are, and whether they are on track to reach carbon zero by their self-set deadlines.
All in all, the small team at CE UK have embarked on a massive but vital task. Can it be done? Their approach, as always is: there’s only one way to find out, and that is to try it!
If you’re interested in helping out, there’s still time to apply to be a volunteer — closing date is this Thursday though, so hurry! You’ll be working from home, trained up via online webinars and then helping to collect data as part of this huge effort. Sounds good? More details are here.