1. Climate: an update

    Back in January, we announced that the climate would be mySociety’s main focus this year.

    A few months on, how are we doing with that?

    One easy way to check is our new Climate page on the mySociety website, where we’re listing projects as they launch. Meanwhile, here’s a quick rundown as of now.

    Climate Assembly 

    In a practical piece of support for the environment, we created the digital platform for Climate Assembly UK.

    This citizens’ assembly was run by Involve and Sortition Foundation, with mySociety handling the online element – which became increasingly important during the lockdown.

    This has allowed for the publishing of information including a background to the assembly, agendas and livestreams of presentations, keeping the nation informed while the 110 assembly members learn, debate and vote.

    When the covid-19 pandemic meant that the final weekend couldn’t run as normal, the project pivoted to a virtual assembly running over additional weekends.

    Once it’s over and a final report has been produced, that will be available on the Climate Assembly site, too.

    Tracking climate action 

    Many local councils in the UK have now declared a climate emergency, recognising the seriousness of the climate situation and commit to taking action.

    However, there is no one place where these can all be seen and assessed. And while the declarations are welcome, what we really need to address the climate emergency, both at a national and local level, are concrete plans.

    So, working closely with Friends of the Earth UK and other groups active in this space, we’re working towards a site that will allow campaigners, councils and members of the public to see what councils have said they’ll do about the climate emergency.

    As a first step, we’re crowdsourcing a list of councils’ Climate Action plans. You can help by having a quick search for the ones that are missing.

    Looking to ourselves

    If we’re holding others up to scrutiny of course, we really need to also be making sure that we’re doing everything we can to reduce our own environmental impact.

    So we’ve set up an internal Climate Action Group to research, report back, and recommend changes to company policy.

    The first thing we did was start gathering data, so that we know our baseline carbon output for a year. That way, we have something to benchmark against and see if we’re making progress.

    While travel is obviously halted for the moment, it has always been fairly extensive at mySociety. Here’s where we got to, to be picked up again if and when things return to normal:

    • We agreed to join the Climate Perks scheme, which gives staff members additional days of paid leave if they use sustainable transport for their holidays.
    • We drafted a policy around work-related travel, which must be for essential purposes only. Where a trip would be under a set number of hours, it must be by sustainable transport.
    • We’ve agreed to carbon offset all flights that mySociety pays for (in practice, this means staff flights and the flights of TICTeC travel grantees). While recognising that offsetting isn’t the perfect solution, we’ll do this until we can find a better solution.
    • Where flights are part of a project’s grant funding, we’ll include offsetting as a cost.
    • We created TICTeC’s environmental policy.

    Our other big area of concern is around hardware, from our own computer equipment to the server farms pumping out emissions on our behalf. In this area we’ve:

    • Drafted policies that extend the expected lifespan of staff computers, and suggest sustainable ways to recycle or repurpose them when they’re no longer in use.
    • Started researching our hosts’ environmental policies with the aim of considering these as equally important to cost when we decide whether to renew contracts or to take business elsewhere.

    More widely, we’re ensuring that we make it clear to all suppliers that we’d like to know their environmental policies — and that these will be a key consideration when we choose who to go with. We believe that this simple step helps create a commercial imperative that companies make progress in this area.

    Similarly, we intend to keep talking about this within our sector, so that it becomes a norm. Just now, it doesn’t feel right to be plotting out our travel plans for the year ahead, but we hope we’ll be able to share our thinking in plenty of detail soon.

    Image: Andy Falconer

  2. Can you help us collect councils’ climate action plans?

    If you’re looking for a quick and simple thing you can do from home to support meaningful action on climate change, help us make a list of councils’ Climate Action plans

    In the past 18 months, there’s been a spate of climate emergency declarations from local councils, in which they recognise the seriousness of the climate situation and commit to taking action. 65% of District, County, Unitary & Metropolitan Councils and eight Combined Authorities/City Regions have now declared a climate emergency. Many of these declarations commit to a date for getting to net zero, ranging from 2025 to 2050. 

    These declarations, and the commitment from central government to reach net zero by 2050, represent much needed progress.  Commitments are good. But what we really need to address the climate emergency, both at a national and local level, are concrete plans.

    As councils develop their plans for addressing the crisis, many individuals and groups need to be able to easily access, discuss and contribute to them to make sure they’re ambitious and high quality. 

    Councils can also learn and draw encouragement from each other’s efforts. At the moment, we think that’s harder than it should be. 

    Lots of people who want to take action on the climate locally are having to do the same work of finding their council’s plan, or finding out where they are in developing it, or finding other plans to compare it to. There’s no central place to find all the Climate Action plans that have been developed, or to track the process of developing them (or not!)

    The climateemergency.uk site has been collecting those climate action plans they can find, but we think we can help them get a fuller picture, and create a resource that will help us all — and we’d like your help! 

    In the spirit of ‘start where you are’, we’ve made an open spreadsheet for collecting council climate action plans, and kicked it off with the ones from climateemergency.uk, to see if we can help improve what’s available. At the very least we’ll maintain this as a simple open resource, and share it wherever we think it might be useful. If you have thoughts about people who ought to know it exists, to use it or contribute to it, please do share them in the comments or drop us an email

    The key piece of information we want to collect at this point for each council is the URL where their Climate Action Plan can be found. But we’ve added some extra columns for anyone who wants to start looking at the details.

    So, if you have five minutes, please have a look for a council’s Climate Action Plan and add it to the sheet

    If this works out well and seems useful, we’ve got some ideas about how to extend it and start to turn it into a more detailed and useful dataset or service. For example, tracking how the plans develop over time, how councils make progress against them, or breaking them down into a more detailed and comparative dataset  — there seem to be key questions that would be useful to answer, for example around things like whether the plans only address emissions under councils’ direct control, or whether they’re focused on the area as a whole. So if you’d like to partner with us or support us to turn these ideas into reality, we’d love to hear from you! Email us at climate-councils@mysociety.org.

  3. Friends of the Earth’s Climate tool and MapIt

    What is your local authority doing about the climate emergency?

    Of course, we all want to see action, and fast. Several authorities across the UK have declared a climate emergency, while others are bringing climate-friendly propositions to the table. But how do you know the actual concrete outcomes of these?

    Fortunately, Friends of the Earth have put together a tool which helps you see just that — and we’re glad to say it makes use of our MapIt API.

    We spoke to Joachim Farncombe, FoE’s Digital Delivery manager, to find out more about what they built, how it works, and how exactly MapIt fits in.

    How climate-friendly is your area?

    “The Climate Tool invites people to tap in their postcode, and then discover how their local authority is performing on a number of measures, including renewable energy, transport, housing, waste and tree cover.”

    Joachim explains that in fact, they’ve produced two tools: “There’s one highly detailed version which we think our existing supporters will use, and another which provides a summary of the data for those newer to Friends of the Earth and the whole area of councils’ climate responsibility. 

    “Both tools reveal data from local authority areas, around key issues that are impacting our climate. The ultimate aim was to create an engagement opportunity that would drive new and existing supporters to take climate action locally.

    “The whole project is designed to highlight that there are different ways of addressing the climate emergency. One of the key drivers of change is for communities to put pressure on their local authorities to make urgent changes to reduce emissions”.

    Taking action

    So — once you’re all clued up on how your local area is doing, what then?

    “Once you’ve absorbed the data, there’s the option to click on ‘What can I do to help?’.

    “We’re asking people to add their name to support a climate action plan in their area. We’ll also be introducing those who sign up to our climate action groups, a network of community groups working to make our communities more climate friendly.”

    Where does MapIt fit in?

    The MapIt API allows developers to include a postcode input box anywhere on a web page. When a user enters their postcode, MapIt checks which administrative boundaries it sits within. The developer can choose what type of area they need — for example, if the site wants to encourage people to write to their MP, MapIt will return the constituency; or, in this case, as users will be contacting their local authorities, it returns the relevant council.

    Joachim says that FoE already knew of MapIt as they’d used it in their campaign for more trees. “It was very straightforward. The JSON response was easy to parse and the API speed was impressive.”

    Once the user has been matched to the right council, the climate tool dips into its store of data to show them the current climate performance in their area, across key topics.

    “We developed an internal API called FactStore which indexes whatever sets of data you need. In this case, this was data collated from approximately fifty different external datasets. This data was all pulled from open data sources, mostly released by the authorities themselves.”

    The tool was well received, and was shared across social media by supporters and new users alike. “Actually”, says Joachim, “it was a bit more popular than we’d anticipated, and we hit our initial quota on MapIt very early after launch, but there was a quick fix (we just upgraded our quota!)”.

    In short? “MapIt has been invaluable. Without it, we’d be unable to connect the users location with the datasets we’d collated”.

    We’re looking forward to working with Friends of the Earth more in the coming months — watch this space.

    Image: Alicja-ab

  4. Follow along with the UK’s Climate Assembly

    The UK’s first national Climate Assembly kicks off this weekend, and mySociety have played a small part in its logistics, building the website which will enable everyone to follow along with the proceedings.

    The Assembly will bring together 110 randomly selected citizens representing the UK population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, education, location and views on the climate, to take in balanced evidence from experts and then agree what needs to be put in place to achieve net zero carbon emissions for the country by 2050.

    From Saturday, you’ll be able to watch a livestream of the Assembly as it progresses in Birmingham. The site also provides information on how the Assembly has been set up and who is involved — and afterwards will act as a permanent home for videos and transcripts of the presentations and the conclusions the Assembly comes to.

    While we manage the website, the actual Assembly is being run by Involve, and will take place over four weekends. The Sortition Foundation are responsible for recruiting a representative set of people. The end product of the Assembly will be a report, containing the recommendations that have been agreed by the assembly members. This will go back to the six select committees who commissioned the Assembly, in the hope of informing parliamentary legislation — and you’ll also be able to see it on the website once it’s completed.

    Image: Antenna

  5. Looking at our own climate impact

    As Mark announced in his first blog post of 2020, we’re currently focusing our work on the climate crisis, with a particular emphasis on how those in power can be held to account over the world’s need to achieve net zero carbon emissions.

    But you can’t start challenging others, of course, without ensuring that your own house is in order — which is why we have been working out what we, as an organisation, can be doing to minimise our own impact. A small Climate Action team within mySociety have taken on this task.

    Taking stock

    The first thing we realised was that it’s not as simple as it seems! It’s a big area; there’s not always consensus on what is genuinely impactful; and it’s easy to get taken up with the small details while losing site of the big picture.

    Plus, one obvious hurdle was that we had no idea what our current carbon footprint looks like. That being so, how can we measure whether we are making improvements?

    With all those things in mind, we decided on this approach:

    1. To first concentrate on just a few areas where we believe we’ll be able to make the biggest changes for the better; and
    2. To spend some time calculating our current carbon emissions in two areas that we know to be significant: that’s travel, and our web servers.

    Oh, and one more thing…

    We decided to talk about it.

    Doing it in public

    As you can tell from the above, we’re in no position yet to confidently announce what measures we’re putting in place to minimise our climate impact.

    But we believe that by talking in public about our efforts to get to that point, we’ll be able to share what we find, learn from others, and — crucially — help normalise carbon reduction as a topic of conversation within our sector. We’re thinking about this; have you been too?

    So over the course of a few blog posts we’ll share where we’ve got to so far, and where we still have questions, starting with a look at our travel.

    We’d love it if you could let us know what you’ve been doing, as well, especially if you are a similar organisation to mySociety: small in size, mostly remote, working online with digital services, maybe running events and with some need for travel, both domestic and international.

    Image: Markus Spiske