1. Food, farming and climate action plans

    Sustain's logoSustain is the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, working to create a better food system for people and the planet.

    Like mySociety, the charity has identified local government as an area where meaningful change can be achieved — and they’ve been using CAPE, our climate action plans explorer tool, to help them bring it about.

    Councils have a role in the sustainable food transition

    We spoke to Ruth Westcott, Climate Change Campaign Coordinator at Sustain, to find out more about the organisation, and how CAPE has been of use to them. To kick things off, she explained why they’d been looking at councils’ climate action plans in the first place:

    “One of our aims at Sustain is to tackle the enormous environmental hoofprint of food and farming. We need, as a country, to transition to agroecological farming, using sustainable methods that work in harmony with nature.

    “And we need to reassess our diets so that they reflect the climate and nature emergency — as well as to tackle injustice and exploitation.”

    Of course, we can’t argue with that — but where does local government come in?

    “Councils have a huge role to play in making climate-friendly food the norm,” says Ruth. “They buy a lot of food for schools, care services and events. Lots of councils have planning power, and can support sustainable farming and food growing — in fact, some councils even own farms and farmland.”

    And those aren’t the only ways that which councils can contribute to their net zero targets through the areas of food and farming. “Food runs through so much of where councils have influence. They can help minimise food waste and the emissions that come out of it; educate citizens on sustainable diets and support good food businesses in their area.”

    Climate action plan data

    When Ruth spells it out like that, it is indeed clear just how much sway local authorities have over food and farming-based emissions. But she says that back in 2020, Sustain had the impression that not many councils were seeing it that way, nor had many included food in their climate action plans.

    That’s where CAPE came in: Ruth used the data on the site to produce a report, An analysis of UK Local Authority plans to tackle climate change through food. This sought to depict how well councils are considering action on food in the context of the climate and nature emergency — and if you want a spoiler, “not at all well” is Ruth’s succinct summary.

    “Using CAPE, we were instantly able to see which councils have declared a climate emergency, which had released an action plan, and (amazingly!) find all the action plans in one place. That allowed us to do an analysis of how many councils were including food in their action plans, recognise and congratulate some leaders, and identify those that could do more.”

    Some of the standout findings were that only 13 out of 92 climate emergency plans released by UK councils at that time included policies to tackle food emissions at the scale needed; and two thirds (67%) of climate action plans contained no new or substantial proposals to tackle food-related emissions at all, even though the food and farming sector is the source of 20-30% of emissions globally. 

    Sustain will be repeating the exercise this year and hope to see some substantial improvements.

    “I don’t think we would have published that report without your website”, says Ruth. “It’s hard to say how we would have gathered together all 400 or so action plans in one place – we simply don’t have the resources to do this!

    “Once we’d compiled the report, it allowed us to drive awareness with councils and get them to register on our Every Mouthful Counts toolkit.”

    Resources for councils and citizens

    Every Mouthful Counts helps councils identify where big emissions savings can be made through food, with links to helpful resources. If you’re from a council yourself, you can register and record all the actions you’re taking in this area – see this page for the councils already doing this. 

    On the other hand, if you’re an interested citizen, you can check the map to see whether your own local council has signed up — and what strategies or projects they’ve already put in place.

    Can’t see your own council? Then you might consider dropping an email to your councillor to ask them to register and report what they are doing around food and climate change.

    Many thanks to Ruth for explaining how CAPE was employed to get this project underway — we hope that by writing about it, we might inspire projects in all sorts of sectors to use the climate action plan data in similar ways. Subscribe to the mySociety Climate newsletter and you’ll be the first to know about other such innovations.

    Image: Rasa Kasparaviciene

  2. A transparency success in Belgium

    Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?

    Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.

    This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.

    If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.

     

    Wallonie: votre commune est-elle transparente? A static image of the heatmap: Walloon districts in red, green or amber

    “The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.” 

    And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.

    Informing citizens

    Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.

    The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.

    And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.

    This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.

    This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.

    Gathering data

    So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?

    Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).

    It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.

    The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.

    Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.

    Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”

    Divide and conquer

    So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”

    And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”

    Breakthrough

    So things were looking positive and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”

    Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:

    Text in French saying 'just a word tolet you know that the decree has passed and thanks for the help you gave in getting it through'

    (Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)

    We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.

    Image: Pierre André Leclercq (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  3. Climate month notes: February 2022

    February proved to be a month of relative calm for the mySociety Climate team, positioned as we were, between our previous whirlwind of activity delivering the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, and the imminent beginning of our ‘prototyping weeks’, introduced in last month’s notes by Lucas.

    That’s not to say we didn’t get a lot done! Here’s a run-down of everything we managed to pack in this February, and some hints of what’s on the horizon.

    Full steam ahead on our first two prototyping weeks

    As mentioned before, over the first half of this year, we’ll be exploring some of the topics from our ‘hopper’ of ideas that have come out of all our research and development so far.

    In a process inspired by Design Jams and the GV Design Sprint, we’ll be inviting external subject matter experts—council officers, tech and open data practitioners, local government suppliers, citizens, campaigners—to work with us for a week, on a topic they have experience of, so that we can quickly identify, prototype, and test services that will really move the needle on enabling a faster, more informed and more collaborative local response to climate change.

    This month, we planned out exactly what these prototyping weeks will look like—for us, and external participants—and began approaching potential partners and stakeholders that we feel could contribute the most on our first two topics:

    1. Climate and local government procurement
    2. Enabling local climate action through ‘conditional commitment’

    If either of these two topics interest you, fill in our signup form and Siôn will get in touch with more details.

    Research on public understanding of local authorities and climate

    One of mySociety’s key strengths has always been our ability to combine research and action, to make a difference on the problems that matter. Over the last few months, Alex has been working on beefing up our research capacity, so that we can understand more about the role local government plays in combating climate change.

    After interviews earlier this month, our research comissioning process is now complete, and we are excited to have engaged a really excellent external researcher, Tom Sasse, to take on this important piece of work. More from them in due course!

    Two new features for CAPE

    This month we dramatically improved the way that CAPE displays emissions data, to help people picture which sectors (industrial, commercial, domestic, transport, etc) the most emissions are coming from in each part of the country.

    a colourful graph showing CO2 emissions breakdown by sector

    We also introduced a new ‘Browse by feature’ page, allowing you to see councils whose plans scored particularly well in key areas we’ve identified as being of most interest to officers, campaigners, and community groups – from councils with the best approaches to adaptation and mitigation, or the best communicated plans, to the fairest plans for communities most directly harmed by climate change.

    Browse by Feature page on CAPE

    If you missed my blog post last week about bringing these two long-awaited features to CAPE, give it a read now.

    Header image: A technician makes adjustments to a wind turbine, Dennis Schroeder / NREL.

  4. Climate month notes: January 2022

    Another productive month for the Climate team: Climate Emergency UK’s launch of the Council Climate Plan Scorecards project is very close. We’ve been providing them with technical help, designing and building the website, and it’ll all finally come to life very soon.

    I’m happy to mention that this is my first contribution to mySociety’s blog. Hi everyone, I’m Lucas, one of the recent acquisitions on the Design team, and I’ve been working on the design and front-end aspects of the Council Climate Plan Scorecards for the past few months.

    Without further ado, let’s see what we’ve been up to this month.

    Council Climate Plan Scorecards

    We have some exciting news regarding the Climate Scorecards. The CEUK team has led their teams of motivated, trained volunteers and consulted with local authorities to complete the right to reply followed by the second marking process. We’re now super close to launch.

    CEUK have also been busy securing press coverage – it looks like at least one major national will be carrying the story in detail, and there’ll be a co-ordinated effort, again, made possible by those amazing volunteers – to ensure that regional press know the stories around their local councils’ scores, too.

    Ideally this website will reach as many people as possible, hopefully then inspiring them to take further actions to combat climate change, encourage more communicative councils, and thereby strengthen local communities.

    The design for the social media infographics has been approved, ready to be used and shared on Twitter and Facebook on the launch date. We want users to share their council’s score and celebrate those councils who have performed well in the different sections and, of course, in the overall scores.

    The Scorecards design process

    I started three months ago at mySociety as a Front-end/Developer to work and provide support across the wide range of projects we manage — but the Council Climate Plan Scorecards was the first big project that I had to design from scratch.

    From the beginning, it’s been an interesting experience, getting to know key stakeholders such as CEUK, understanding their requirements for the Scorecards website and at the same time, getting familiar with mySociety’s procedures and processes.

    When we started the design process, there was an idea, a concept, a “something” we wanted to achieve. That was enough to allow us to create the Scorecards’ grey wireframe model: not so good looking, but a great help and an efficient way to understand how users will interact with the tables, while also checking whether we’d planned all the right components for the website. 

    At this stage, Zarino and I were focusing primarily on the usability aspect of the site. With feedback from the team and CEUK, we were able to improve those wireframes and give them some light and colour, for a better representation of what the final experience would look like. At this point, we were still working on some of the components and improving the user interface and the usability side of things, especially for the tables and filters.

    Weekly design/comms meetings helped us achieve the design we have now, and served as a basis for the front-end development of the website, while we could also keep up to speed on getting the word out about the launch.

    And so, here we are today, about to launch the climate scorecards project. Let’s not forget to mention the amazing help from Struan on development, Zarino on design and Alex on methodology/number crunching.

    Who’s got an idea?

    The Climate team has started the new year recharged and ready to explore new ideas on how to maximise the impact of our work.

    Zarino and Louise came up with the idea of exploring several promising ideas that we’ve had sitting in our Hopper, our list of ideas that have been sitting in the backlog waiting for the team to add some magic. This will happen via ‘rapid prototyping’ weeks – “six weeks to change the world”, as Louise put it. 

    The process we are developing leans heavily on Google Ventures’ sprint design process – albeit it will in all likelihood be collaborating to develop ideas rather than taking our solutions to partners / the ‘market’. In some weeks we might spend some time building rough versions of what they might look like, which then enable us to make decisions about whether they have the ‘legs’ to go further; in others it’ll be a looser exploration.

    We’re aware that not all ideas will fit a prototyping approach, and we’re also keen to make sure those are given equal chance at implementation, so this isn’t the only way for ideas to be considered. But our first prototyping weeks are pencilled into the diary for this spring: watch this space for more progress.

    We discussed several exciting new initiatives, some related to procurement, useful data for climate justice and tech action and finally, a pledge system to strengthen local communities.

    Research commissioning

    Some more great news this month, around the research commissioning process we outlined in last month’s notes: bids for our first commission (“Public understanding of local authorities and climate”) closed last week. We’re glad to say that there are some really good submissions.

    The team will review these in the coming days, and we’re also looking forward to releasing the next two commissions on “public pressure and local authorities” and “how local authorities make decisions around climate”.

    That’s it for this month! Lots going on.

    Image: Emiliana Hall

  5. 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

  6. 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

  7. 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

  8. Freedom of Information as a tool for making cycle routes more accessible

    The Equality Act of 2010 requires that disabled people are not disadvantaged by any ‘provision, criterion or practice’. You might be familiar with its implications in the workplace or in providing customer services, but the law also applies to the public realm.

    If we’re thinking about streets, for example, certain clauses of this Act mean that councils have a duty to ensure that access is as easy for a disabled person as it is for anyone else.

    We’ve recently become aware of people making good use of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow to challenge cycle routes that are impassable for some, for example where a cyclist would have to dismount to get past, or where an adapted bike or tricycle would not fit through the space allowed.

    “I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results”

    The request-makers identify barriers to access, and ask the relevant authorities to confirm that all requirements of the Equality Act have been adhered to in their implementation, from the carrying out of an impact assessment to the making of ‘allowances and accommodations’ for those that need them.

    It’s easy to find such requests by searching for the term “Was an Equality Impact Assessment carried out at this location” on WhatDoTheyKnow, which brings up several examples.

    These FOI requests have been inspired by  a request-maker going by the name of Heavy Metal Handcyclist, who provides a template for others to use as an example — and whose WhatDoTheyKnow account shows him using the Act to very good effect himself, as for example with this request picking up on some obstructive barriers in Warrington. And he gets results: in this case the issue was dealt with constructively by the authority concerned; and a request to Warwickshire County Council will mean that some ill-placed new barriers in Clifton upon Dunsmore, Rugby will be removed:

    Tweet from the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as seen at https://twitter.com/CrippledCyclist/status/1418242775443808257

    We came across this little seam of activism thanks to an article by Jamie Wood, in which the author writes affectingly about how cycling has returned to him some degree of the independence and mobility that his Multiple Sclerosis took away: he goes on to say, however, that there are frequent frustrations in the form of paths blocked by thoughtlessly-placed bollards, posts and barriers that he can’t navigate on his tricycle. Constructive engagement and polite letters to his local council didn’t do the trick, and so he turned to activism.

    “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”

    Describing his learning curve, Jamie pointed to the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as well as to this letter on Doug Paulley’s DART website  — which brings us full circle, as Doug is a WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer as well as an accomplished campaigner on accessibility for disabled people.

    As Doug quotes on his site, court cases have established that:

    The policy of the (Equality Act) is not a minimalist policy of simply ensuring that some access is available to the disabled: it is, so far as reasonably practicable, to approximate the access enjoyed by disabled persons to that enjoyed by the rest of the public.

    We admire the level of knowledge and clarity in these requests and we hope that they bring good results. At the same time, we recognise that this sort of work shouldn’t be left purely to the disabled people who are affected by blockades and impediments: we can all keep an eye open for where such barriers may be making paths impassible for some. And, thanks to the examples linked to in this post, it is simple enough for us all to follow their lead.

    As Jamie says, “It’s the Equality Act itself that can be only be used by people directly affected; anyone can make an FOI request”.

    He also points us towards this report from the York Cycle Campaign, released last week, identifying more than 30 places across the city where the requirements of Equality Act have not been met. Kate Ravilious from the campaign says, “If City of York Council does not step into gear and rectify the problems, they will be forced to take legal action, which could end up with the council having to fork out as much as £50,000 for every person that pursues action via the small claims court.”

    But Jamie points out that Freedom of Information is a softer and sometimes more effective first step towards getting these issues fixed: “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”

    The Heavy Metal Handcyclist agrees:

    “Whilst it is true that local authorities continue to install barriers to access despite their S.149 obligations, it is entirely possible to force almost immediate removal of barriers both new and predating the EA2010 by using a sufficiently pointy FOI request. To date, only one authority has needed further legal action, with officers in almost all the others immediately recognising the problem and addressing the issue quickly. I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results in this regard.

    “WhatDoTheyKnow has been an excellent tool to catalogue and track FOI requests, particularly with regards to time limits.”

    Image: York Cycle Campaign

  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

  10. Rewild road verges with FixMyStreet

    At this time of year, when plants run rampant, we see two common types of report on FixMyStreet: those asking their councils to mow the local verges, and those asking them why they have cut the wildflowers and grasses back.

    With increasing amounts of coverage in the press about wildflowers and the benefits they can provide, we spoke to British wild plant conservation charity Plantlife to understand more about why citizens might be using FixMyStreet to request some flower-based improvements to their local road verges.

    Not just a pretty place

    According to Plantlife, more than 700 of species of wildflower can be found alongside UK road verges. If they’ve been left unmown in your neighbourhood, you’ll know that in these summer months they really are beautiful, with poppies, convolvulus, meadowsweet, celandine, thrift, clover and harebells (to name but a few) scattering a variety of colour through the grasses.

    But there’s more than the visual appeal: these verges also improve air quality, buffer noise, and give a home to precious insect life.

    With the correct verge management, Plantlife estimates that the 313,000+ miles of rural road verges in this country could become a sanctuary for 400 billion more wild flowers, as well as providing a habitat to all the bees, birds, butterflies and many other creatures that count on such flowers to survive.

    A change of direction

    So given all these benefits, why aren’t councils already leaving their verges to grow?

    In some cases it’s the perceived expense of specialist equipment; in others it’s the fear that longer grass creates road safety issues (such as a lack of visibility at junctions) or attracts litter. Sometimes, it simply comes down to residents preferring closely mown grass.

    As Plantlife points out in their Managing Grassland Road Verges guide though, it doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. There are lots of ways that councils can easily, safely and cost-effectively manage road verges to encourage wildflower growth, without compromising on the ‘neat’ look of an area and still ensuring safety.

    Wild verges aren’t left entirely to their own devices: they just require a different regime of care, and still get cut back — just in a way that encourages biodiversity.

    The picture is changing. Freedom of Information data collected by The Press Association earlier this year revealed that 7 in 10 councils are already taking steps to encourage wildflowers on road verges.

    That being the case, giving your support by requesting a wildflower road verge in your local area could help to move those steps along and sow the seeds of better wildflower road verge management in places where opinions are still divided.

    How to request a wildflower road verge via FixMyStreet

    1. Go to fixmystreet.com or open the FixMyStreet app.
    2. Enter the area or postcode of the road verge, or if you’re making the report on-the-go and you’re (safely!) standing right by the verge, you can select ‘use my current location’.
    3. Drag the pin across the map to the exact location of the road verge and hit ‘continue’.
    4. Select a category. It’s worth noting that categories on FixMyStreet are set by each council to reflect their internal departments and their own responsibilities. For this reason, you might be able to select a specific verge-related category, such as ‘verges’ ‘wildlife verges’ or ‘grass verges’, but if your council hasn’t supplied us with a designated category for verges, you might need to select one such as ‘roads’ or ‘other’.
    5. Add a photo of the verge if you want to. If not, click ‘continue’ again.
    6. In the ‘Summarise your problem’ box, type a title such as ‘Wildflower road verge request’.
    7. In the ‘Explain what’s wrong’ box, tell your council the reasons why you would like to encourage it to manage the road verge in a way that maximises flowering plant diversity. See Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign for advice – you could even link to it to help the council get the guidance they need.
    8. Once you’re ready, click ‘continue’, fill in your details (if you’re not already logged in) and then hit ‘Submit’ to complete your request.
    9. Plantlife’s Road Verge Campaign also has posters you can print out and display in your window, if you’d like to get your neighbours on board.
    10. Experiencing pushback or (almost worse) no response from your council? Try getting your MP or local councillors to join your call, using WriteToThem.com.