1. Climate month notes: April 2022

    mySociety’s Climate team is used to grappling with the big questions, but this month the one at the forefront of our minds was something along the lines of ‘Where did March go!?’ – Still, there’s a lot to report on for the last few weeks, including our first two prototyping weeks, new research outputs, and further improvements to the Climate Action Plan Explorer.

    Working in the open

    Unsurprisingly, our first two prototyping weeks have been top of the agenda this last month.

    First, an exploration of council procurement as a lever for local climate action kicked off with a day of workshops on Monday 4th April, including a ‘Lightning Decision Jam’ exercise (aka rapidly writing thoughts on digital Post-It notes) on the challenges around climate and procurement, as seen in the picture at the top of this post).

    All the discussions, input and ideas culminated with us building a mock-up of a service that would help notify journalists and local climate action groups about council (re-)procurement activities so they could act on them before it’s too late. We’ve summarised the week’s findings in a short report here, where you can also see screenshots and even a link to the prototype where you can click around a bit to see how it would work.

    Thank you to all of the wonderful participants who joined us throughout the week, collaborating in our workshops and testing out our prototype.

    Our second prototyping week—looking at conditional commitment as a model for addressing challenges around home energy—is already underway, and has provided a fascinating insight into how local collective action could help with the challenge many people around the UK are currently facing with fuel pricing and energy efficiency.

    We’re in the final stages of building and testing a prototype service that helps neighbours act together to book thermal imaging of their houses, and then make small and large improvements to their homes, benefiting from group activity. We’ll have another write-up about this prototype ready in a week or so.

    If you’re interested in joining our upcoming prototyping weeks (the next one, starting 9th May, is on access to nature) then get in touch.

    Researching, measuring, understanding

    But we haven’t just been prototyping: there’s other exciting stuff going on, too. This month we were happy to finally publish a fascinating review of public understanding of local government and its role in combatting climate change, prepared for us by Tom Sasse.

    Amongst Tom’s findings were: a marked rise in public concern over climate change, and continued support for stronger action on climate issues; a general agreement across society that local councils have a high degree of responsibility for tackling climate change, and that central government should provide more funding to enable local action; and signs that the most effective way to promote climate action will be by framing it around local—rather than national or global—concerns. Read Alex’s blog post for more details.

    Alex also did some experimentation into how we can categorise local government services. His dataset is already shaping our outreach with local authorities, and our policy work. It could also form the basis for improved comparisons on CAPE, the Climate Action Plan Explorer.

    Meanwhile, Pauline, our Policy and Advocacy Manager, combed through all 305 pages of the government’s Levelling Up whitepaper, to extract the policy implications for local authorities trying to reach net zero. The whitepaper’s proposal to establish a new independent body for gathering, enhancing, and making available public data is really encouraging, especially in a field like local climate response, where a lack of timely, high quality data is already hampering local authorities’ abilities to plan and measure climate initiatives. You can read more about this in Pauline’s blog post.

    Everything else

    Our developer, Struan, took advantage of the lack of an Easter Monday holiday in Scotland to deploy a number of improvements to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans and emissions data. You can now, for example, filter the list of councils by English regions (like the North West, or South East) and also quickly compare district or borough councils inside a given county. This filtering is also available on CAPE’s sister site, Council Climate Plan Scorecards.

    We also improved the way we decide whether a council “has a plan”, so that draft plans, or other types of documents no longer count. As a result, the figure on our homepage of “councils with a plan” dropped from 88% to 77%, but we think you’ll agree that this is a more accurate reflection of the real number of councils with a real climate action plan or climate strategy. Of course, new plans are released every week, and we’re doing work behind the scenes to make it easier for council officers to notify us of these changes, and get their CAPE pages updated quickly.

    We also had our first six-month check-in with one of our funders, the National Lottery Community Fund. We’re really excited to see how we can work with them over the next two years, to enable local climate action that both involves and respects communities that wouldn’t normally be active on climate. As part of this, Gemma and I, in particular, have been thinking about how we can use public events to convene a community of practice around climate and other complementary sectors of society. For more on that, watch this space!

     

  2. Public understanding of local authorities and climate: starting the research

    A month ago we wrote a blog post looking for outside researchers to do some research to keep our climate work well rooted in the evidence base. The goal of this first piece of work is to research public understanding of what local government does, and especially its role in combating climate change. 

    After a really strong set of applications, we are delighted that we’ll be working with Tom Sasse on this project. Tom is an associate director at the Institute for Government and is taking this work on in a freelance capacity.

    As he starts on this research, he’s interested in any material (especially that may be off the beaten path) that could be relevant to that question. He can be reached on Twitter or through email at research-public-understanding@mysociety.org.

    We’ll be reflecting on what we’ve learned from this process to make improvements to both the application process, and the design of our future research briefs. If you’re interested in hearing about those future calls for proposals, you can join the mailing list

  3. 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.

  4. A guide to working from home, sustainably

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Image: Egor Myznik

  5. Making it easier to explore council climate action plans

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

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

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

    Three guiding principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    An open dataset of action plans

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

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

    Helpful for councils  — and citizens

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

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

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

    How to find out more

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

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

    Image: Master Wen

  6. 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

  7. Save the trees with FixMyStreet

    Friends of the Earth are on a mission to double the number of trees in the UK: we’re sadly lacking on this front compared to our European neighbours, and of course, we’re all well aware of the part that trees play in helping safeguard the climate and encourage wildlife diversity.

    As they point out, it’s not all about planting new trees: it’s just as important, and perhaps more economical, to preserve the ones we have. And we were delighted to see that FoE highlight FixMyStreet as a way to do so.

    They suggest that you make a report to request a new TPO — Tree Preservation Order. If granted, this will make it a criminal offence to damage or cut down the tree without written consent from the local authority.

    Generally, TPOs are used for trees that are providing a particular benefit to the local community (although it is, of course, possible to argue that pretty much every tree is doing this!). FoE guide you through the report-making process in the section of their page titled ‘How to request a TPO’.

    As they make clear, not all councils are the same. Categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. So for some, you will find ‘trees’ as a category  (and some even mark every tree on the map, making it very easy to pinpoint the one you are referring to). For others, you may have to choose a wider category such as ‘highways’. If all else fails, there’s always the ‘other’ category.

    Once you’ve requested your TPO, it might help to get some support from your representatives. We’re glad to see FoE also suggesting the use of WriteToThem to contact local councillors and bring them onside. Maybe even your MP as well?

    It might seem like a small thing, but we think if more people requested TPOs up and down the UK, it could make a real difference. So, if there’s a tree you really appreciate in your local area, you know what to do. Fire up FixMyStreet and get requesting!

    Image: Bert Sz