1. Climate monthnotes: December 2021

    Another month, another chance to share progress from the Climate team. And this time, you get to hear it from a different person too – Hello! I’m Zarino, one of mySociety’s designers, and Product Lead for the Climate programme.

    Over the last month, we’ve moved the programme on in three main areas: Adding some much-anticipated features to our headline product, the Climate Action Plans Explorer; continuing full steam ahead on development of Climate Emergency UK’s ‘Council Climate Plan Scorecards’ site, and setting up a research commissioning process that will kick in early next year.

    New features on CAPE

    Just barely missing the cut for Siôn’s mid-November monthnotes, we flipped the switch on another incremental improvement to CAPE, our database of council climate action plans:

    CAPE showing climate declarations and promises for a council

    CAPE now shows you whether a council has declared a climate emergency, and whether they’ve set themselves any public targets on becoming carbon neutral by a certain date. We are incredibly grateful to our partners Climate Emergency UK for helping us gather this data. Read my earlier blog post to find out more about how we achieved it.

    As well as displaying more data about each council, a core aim of the CAPE site is enabling more valuable comparisons with—and explorations of—the plans of similar councils. Previously, we’d done this by allowing you to browse councils of a particular type (London Boroughs, say, or County Councils), and by showing a list of “nearby” councils on each council’s page.

    Old CAPE page showing nearby councils

    However, we’re now excited to announce the launch of a whole new dimension of council comparisons on the site, thanks to some amazing work by our Research Associate Alex. To try them out, visit your council’s page on CAPE, and scroll down:

    New CAPE page showing similar councils

    These five tabs at the bottom of a council’s page hide a whole load of complexity—much of which I can barely explain myself—but the upshot is that visitors to CAPE will now be able to see much more useful, and accurate, suggestions of similar councils whose plans they might want to check out. Similar councils, after all, may be facing similar challenges, and may be able to share similar best practices. Sharing these best practices is what CAPE is all about.

    We’ll blog more about how we prepared these comparisons, in the new year.

    Council Climate Plan Scorecards

    As previously noted, we’re working with Climate Emergency UK to display the results of their analysis of council climate action plans, in early 2022. These “scorecards”, produced by trained volunteers marking councils’ published climate action plans and documents, will help open up the rich content of council’s plans, as well as highlighting best practice in nine key areas of a good climate emergency response.

    As part of the marking process, every council has been given a ‘Right of Reply’, to help Climate Emergency UK make sure the scorecards are as accurate as possible. We’re happy to share that they’ve received over 150 of these replies, representing over 50% of councils with a published climate action plan.

    With those council replies received, this month Climate Emergency UK’s experts were able to complete a second round of marking, producing the final scores.

    Meanwhile, Lucas, Struan, and I have been working away on the website interface that will make this huge wealth of data easily accessible and understandable – we look forward to sharing more about this in January’s monthnotes.

    Research commissioning

    Finally, as Alex recently blogged, we’ve been setting up a research commissioning process for mySociety – primarily to handle all the research we’d like to do in the Climate programme next year. Our main topics for exploration aren’t yet finalised, but we’re currently very interested in the following three areas:

    1. Public understanding of local authorities and climate
    2. Public pressure and local authorities
    3. How local authorities make decisions around climate

    Watch this space for more details about these research opportunities, and how to get involved.

  2. An exemplary use of WhatDoTheyKnow by the Centre for Public Data

    The Centre for Public Data has released significant new research on property in England and Wales that is owned by individuals based overseas.

    The work is based on material released through Freedom of Information requests made to the Land Registry via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    The headline findings include:

    • Nearly 1% of properties registered in the UK are registered to individuals with an overseas correspondence address; this number has more than doubled since 2010.
    • The number of properties registered to individuals with an overseas correspondence address is now more than double the number registered to overseas companies.

    The work cites and links to the source data on WhatDoTheyKnow (and WhatDoTheyKnow in turn links back to the analysis and commentary).

    One of the benefits of making FOI requests via WhatDoTheyKnow is the ability to easily link to the source when taking action based on released information. Citing sources gives work credibility, and it also makes it easy for others to verify what has been done, build on it, or conduct their own analysis based on their particular interests. We want to encourage this kind of exemplary use of WhatDoTheyKnow for well-referenced FOI based research.

    The data obtained, and presented, by the Centre for Public Data in this case may inform debate on a range of socially important issues including how overseas property owners, who may well be investors, affect the supply and affordability of housing.

    The Centre for Public Data have provided a tool enabling searching of the data – this means local journalists (or others with an interest in a particular area) can quickly obtain localised data.

    Image: Gary Stearman

  3. 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

  4. Climate monthnotes: Nov 2021

    Time flies when you’re having fun, and the past month has passed in something of a blur. Maybe part of that can be explained by my being a relatively new recruit. But it’s also been thrilling to whizz towards the COP26 climate talks on a wave of enthusiasm and excellence emanating from the inspiring crew with whom I’m now working.

    We’ve done a lot this month. Running a virtual event at the COP26 Coalition’s People’s Summit for Climate Justice allowed us to understand a range of perspectives on our Climate Action Plan Explorer. We also took the opportunity to test two differing approaches to promoting our new Net Zero Local Hero landing page, which was rapidly whisked into existence by the magnificent Myf, Zarino and Howard. 

    Giving money to tech giants makes us increasingly uneasy, but we set up advertising on three social media platforms so that we could fully understand, in a ringfenced test, what the benefits are and how these weigh up against the negatives. At the same time, we gave Kevin at Climate Emergency UK a stack of stickers (suitably biodegradable and on sustainable paperstock) to dish out in Glasgow. When we have time to analyse the results, we’re hoping to understand which method is most effective – digital ads or traditional paper.

    Although we decided not to attend COP26 in person we followed from afar, aligned with those most at risk of exclusion by signing up to the COP26 Coalition’s Visa Support Service Solidarity Hub, supporting the coalition’s communications and amplifying marginalised perspectives on Twitter.

    Myf has been following Act For Climate Truth’s bulletins on climate disinformation and mySociety signed the Conscious Advertising Network’s open letter asking for climate disinformation policies on the big tech platforms to be one of the outcomes of COP26. And we joined another broad, diverse group of organisations with a shared goal to encourage the delegates of COP26 to deliver more urgent action on climate change via https://cop26.watch/.

    Myf also wrote up a case study on how Friends of the Earth used our work to fuel a recent campaign action (see previous month notes) and Louise presented to Open Innovations’ #PlanetData4 event, which I joined to dip into a discussion about Doughnut Economics.

    And all the while our Climate Action Plan Explorer (CAPE) has been quietly evolving. We got some great feedback – especially from local authority representatives – at our #NetZeroLocal21 conference session on 30 September. Since then we’ve added some pretty serious bells and whistles. 

    Chloe consolidated data from Climate Emergency UK and the National Audit Office on headline promises (a full blog post explaining more about this soon), and this data was deployed by Zarino and Struan alongside more information on climate emergencies, guidance on council powers and ways in which they could be put to use.

    Zarino enriched user experience and boosted the climate information ecosystem’s health by migrating data from Climate Emergency UK’s website to CAPE. Digging deeper, Sam improved CAPE’s integration with our production deployment and management systems, fixing a few small bugs along the way that occasionally interfered with code deployment.

    Our sights are now set on making the most of the heroic assessment of local authority Climate Action Plans being led by Climate Emergency UK. The right of reply period has ended and the second marking is underway. If you’d like to know more please check out this explanation of the process and get in touch with any thoughts – we’re really keen to understand how best this can be used to accelerate climate action in the wake of COP26.

    Image: Ollivier Girard / CIFOR

  5. Friends of the Earth: how Climate Action Plan data informed a campaign

    In collaboration with Climate Emergency UK, we’ve collected local councils’ Climate Action Plans into one searchable online database we’re calling CAPE, the Climate Action Plans Explorer. Work continues on adding more features to make this resource as useful as possible.

    From the start it was clear that such a project would benefit several different stakeholders: councils can see what their counterparts in other regions are doing, and pick up good ideas from them; journalists and researchers can query the data to find nationwide trends and comparisons. And for concerned citizens and climate campaigners, CAPE provides a one-stop shop to see whether or not their council has a plan, and what exactly it contains. Coming soon will be new functionality to help laypeople to understand the quality of the plans, which can be quite complex, too.

    As with most tools that we build at mySociety, CAPE is not only useful as a website in itself; its underlying data can also be used to inform developers’ own apps and websites, which can of course be useful for larger campaigning organisations. 

    This aspect played an important part in a recent campaign from Friends of the Earth, who ran an email action asking supporters to contact their local councillors to ask for an ambitious Climate Action Plan. This campaign is still up and running, but the initial push gave it a strong start from their most committed supporters.

    Friends of the Earth campaign page on asking your councillor to support an ambitious Climate Action Plan

    A simple but crucial piece of data

    FoE knew that it was important to tailor the messages they were asking their supporters to send: if the council being contacted had no Climate Action Plan at all, then the email needed to ask for this first step to be taken; while if there was a plan in place, the request was for rapid and ambitious implementation. 

    And so, CAPE data played a small but vital part in the FoE action, simply informing the automated email builder whether there was a plan for the user’s council or not, so that it could modify the text accordingly.

    Shaan Jindal, FoE’s Digital Mobilisation Officer, led this campaign, and also conducted a thorough assessment of its effectiveness afterwards. He explains that the action had several main aims:

    • To educate Friends of the Earth supporters on the role councils can play in addressing climate change
    • To empower them to engage with their local councillors about their local Climate Action Plan
    • To support the work of those FoE local groups and climate action groups campaigning for action plans, while  educating the wider supporter base about the activity of these groups and encouraging them to join one.
    • To demonstrate a high level of local support for action to councils, putting pressure on them to improve, enact and create ambitious plans.

    The simple request to ‘ask your council for strong climate action now’ does however hide some fairly complex challenges, as Shaan explains:

    “Climate Action Plans might be a fairly new concept to many of our email list supporters. They may have come to the action page from our email hoping for more information on how CAPs are important, the theory of change behind them or why campaigning at the local government level is as important as getting national-level change. 

    “But that said, the supporter email performed well for an ‘email your representative’ style action (7.4% of recipients clicked through to the action page), suggesting that supporters did find this a compelling way to create change and take climate action themselves.”

    Engaging with councillors will, of course, ideally result in a response, and perhaps a bit of a longer back-and-forth, so FoE followed up with resources to guide supporters on how to reply back to their representatives, especially if these replies were pushing back on the very idea that any action needed to be taken by the council. They plan to keep up communications with every supporter who took the action, emailing them to provide further support where needed.

    Coverage and new members

    Practically every council in the UK, with the exception of just three, received at least one email from FoE’s action. Some councils received over 150 emails, and others only a handful. 

    It’s worth saying at this point that mySociety’s own WriteToThem service is built to explicitly prevent mass sending of similar or identical emails, in the belief that they are more easily ignored than personal communications and can be an irritant rather than changing the minds of representatives. But of course this was not our campaign, and indeed, since one of the aims of this action was to show councils that they have mass support from their residents to take ambitious steps towards Net Zero, it can be seen that a wave of consistent messaging is actually desirable in this case.

    FoE detected additionally that about 140 people had made contact with their local branch to find out more after taking this action, prompted by a ‘find a group near you’ link in an automated thank you email, so it had a secondary effect of potentially creating new activists in the space.

    Impact

    While it’s too soon to comment on the wider impact of this action, there are definitely some encouraging results, says Shaan:

    “The majority of supporters who completed our survey (79%) said that their councillor responded positively to their email, and only a small minority said they replied negatively (4%) or indifferently (9%). The remainder of supporters said they weren’t sure how to interpret their councillor’s response (8%). 

    “This is a positive initial indicator, but more time is needed to see whether this translates into councillors speaking up or taking action on creating, implementing or improving CAPs.”

    Shaan goes on to explain that there are potential knock-on benefits, too:

    “The action may have also helped to clarify with councillors what exactly a CAP is, and what a strong plan should look like. A couple of councillors got back to supporters saying that they already had a CAP, when in fact they just had a Climate Emergency declaration. 

    “Our follow up email to supporters with tips on how to respond to common councillor replies helped supporters to clarify this. Conversely, one councillor got back to us saying they directly used our template CAP in a council motion, as a result of receiving it from a constituent via our action.”

    Shaan puts much of the action’s success down to the long lead time that was built in, and good all-round communications:

    “We got in touch with groups early, gave them plenty of notice and resources to get involved with their own version of the action, and plenty of time to opt out of our wider supporter base emailing councillors in their area if that would hinder their campaign or implicate their relationship with the council.”

    How CAPE helped

    And how did that data from CAPE make a difference?

    “The ability to send a different message to councillors, based on whether they had a CAP, was invaluable in increasing the chances of having a real impact. Climate Emergency UK and mySociety’s up-to-date data was vital for supporters to be able to accurately send councillors the correct version of the email.”

     We’re really pleased that CAPE data was able to provide help to a campaign that is so aligned to our initial aims when we started this project, and we hope there will be many more opportunities to work together with FoE in the future, as councils’ activity moves on from plans and on to tangible action.

    Top image: Danist Soh

  6. What do people find useful about TheyWorkForYou Alerts?

    TheyWorkForYou’s alerts service helps keep people informed on things that happen across a range of UK legislatures (The UK Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly).

    We send daily emails to subscribers about the activity of selected parliamentarians, or when defined phrases are used in debates or written questions or answers. On average, this means around 400,000 emails are sent a month. The service was originally intended to act as a way to notify people of their own MP’s parliamentary activity, but the keyword search also makes it a powerful free parliamentary monitoring tool.

    Before our redesign of the alert emails (blog post to follow), we wanted to know more about what subscribers find useful.  So in February 2021 we ran a survey of users of our alerts, receiving 1,866 replies. Going by responses to a question on the reasons for alerts, 16% of respondents can be categorised as some kind of ‘professional’ user, who use alerts as part of their role in an organisation. The largest groups were in the charitable sector (40%) and the public sector (35%).

    Generally the alerts serve their core (and largest) audience of ‘ordinary citizens’ (ie those without a professional interest) well. Most are people using the service, as intended, to follow their own MP, and are generally interested in the kind of content the alerts service provides.

    Free text answers showed general satisfaction among users.  Professional users are mainly from the charitable or public sector, and differ in making more use of keyword searches and finding vote information less useful.

    graph showing 16% of alerts users are 'professional' Professional usage is mostly by the charitable and public sector

    What TheyWorkForYou content do users have alerts for?

    Respondents were given a set of options on what their alert tracked and could pick more than one. Almost all citizens (94%) and a fair few of professional users (67%) had an alert tracking their own MP.

    Professional users were far more likely to make use of keyword/issue searches (69% to 30% for citizens) and to follow Lords (22% to 9%), which may be because Lords often focus on specific areas of interest.

    New and old users showed similar usage of alerts. One respondent was a parent of an MP, using the site to keep up with their contributions.

    Chart showing the difference between citizen and professional users. Professioanl users are much more interested in keywords.

    What content do users find useful?

    Respondents were given a tick-box question to let them select which alert content was useful.

    All options were considered useful by more than 50% of both groups. The most useful content for citizens was votes (87%), followed by written questions/answers(82%) and speeches (79%).

    For professionals, it was written questions/answers (89%), speeches (76%) and written statements (68%). The largest difference is in votes, which citizens see as useful, but professionals make less use of (although still seen as useful by 59% of professional users).

    Votes are seen as more useful by citizens than professionals

    This survey has helped us understand more about the different users of alerts and their different needs, and shaped our views on how they could be improved to be more useful. The use by the charitable and public sector is especially interesting, because they show the indirect impact of making information more accessible.

    For more information, a 2016 GovLab report explored the impact of this kind of usage of the site. While the improvements in the official Hansard site over the last five years mean there is less of a sharp divide between the official site and TheyWorkForYou,  email alerts remain a key way that TheyWorkForYou helps make Parliamentary activity more transparent for all.

    Header image: Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

     

  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. What they don’t know: “information not held” responses

    Under the Freedom of Information Act, you have the right to ask public authorities for information. If they hold the information you’ve requested, in most cases they must release it.

    ‘If they hold it’ is a key point: of course, if the body doesn’t have the data you’re asking for, they can’t provide it, and accordingly, as permitted by Section 1(1) of the Act, they may issue an ‘Information not held’ response.

    For the person requesting the information, this can feel like a blow, but we suggest stopping and thinking… is it surprising, newsworthy even, that the public body didn’t hold the information expected?  Sometimes, it’s as interesting to know that an authority doesn’t collect or store a certain category of information as it would be to obtain it.

    Often, though, an ‘information not held’ response may simply be a sign that you should re-request the information from a different body. Given the complexity of government it’s not surprising requests are sometimes misdirected to bodies that don’t actually hold the information requested. Fortunately for request-makers, in such cases Section 16 of the Act requires public bodies to provide advice and assistance and point requesters in the right direction.

    Let’s take a look at a few recent examples where the fact that information isn’t held is at best surprising and at worst a matter of potential concern.

    An NHS Trust doesn’t have data on hospital ward deep cleans

    This request to Wirral University Teaching Hospital asked how many times the wards in Arrowe Park Hospital (one of this NHS Trust’s locations) had been deep cleaned in the months March to May 2020.

    The response states that the Trust does not hold this information:

    “Wirral University Teaching Hospital (WUTH) does not electronically collate this data, ward cleanliness activity is not measured or audited in this specific manor [sic].”

    We think this is interesting information in itself, but the Trust could also have gone into more detail about why such data isn’t collected: is it that deep cleaning doesn’t happen, or is it just not noted? Looking more closely at the wording of the response, perhaps it is recorded, but on paper rather than digitally.

    The request-maker didn’t actually specify that they wanted electronic data, so it is a little surprising that this has been assumed.

    A curious citizen could issue a follow-up request to find out more, or to ask for copies of paper records if they do exist. Equally, if they felt it worth further probing, they might draw this response to the attention to the local Healthwatch, or their local councillors who could look more deeply into the matter.

    DEFRA doesn’t have data on badger cull zone boundaries

    A citizen requested maps from DEFRA to show the boundaries of ‘badger cull zones’ from last year and the proposed ones for 2021. As this was a request for environmental information, it was handled under the EIR.

    DEFRA’s response quotes the exception at regulation 12(4)(a) of the EIR “which relates to information which is not held at the time when an applicant’s request is received”.

    As required by both the FOI and EIR Acts, DEFRA points the user toward the body that it believes will have such information, Natural England, giving them a good idea of what to do next in their pursuit of this data.

    In cases like these, where a request is repeated to another authority, we recommend the addition of annotations, linking each WhatDoTheyKnow request page to the other. Anyone can add an annotation, and it helps people discovering the information through, say, a search engine, to follow the request.

    The DWP doesn’t have data on frozen pensions

    This request seeks information from the Department of Work and Pensions about frozen state pensions, the UK practice of not uprating pensions according to the ‘triple lock’ system if the recipient lives in certain countries abroad.

    It would appear that the request-maker is wondering whether it would actually cost the authority less not to administer such freezes.

    The DWP state that they don’t hold information on the number of staff working specifically in this area:

    “As of March 2021, the DWP has over 90,000 employees spread across different professions (e.g. policy, legal, finance, and operational delivery).

    Many employees deal with a range of issues and do not exclusively focus on one aspect of the DWP’s work. Accordingly, we have no recorded information on how many employees are ‘required to deal with Frozen British Pensions’.”

    They did not provide similar detail on the other questions posed by the request-maker, who has now requested an internal review, a recourse when you believe your request has been handled wrongly.

    “I cannot believe that the DWP does not know the answers to my questions”, says the user in this request for a review. They might have been more precise about where the response has fallen short, but we’ll see whether this avenue is successful, presumably within the 20 working day limit advised by the ICO for internal reviews.

    DCMS doesn’t have data on differing COVID rules for football spectators

    A request-maker wonders why the rules around watching football differed depending on where the match is taking place — apparently grassroots football matches were being denied spectators because they were held on private grounds, while matches on public grounds could welcome a crowd:

    “Please provide evidence / reasoning on what the difference to the threat of Covid there is between private and public football pitches.”

    The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport responds that it:

    “does not have information within scope of your request. This is because DCMS did not make the decisions on whether spectators may attend sporting events, but followed advice given by the Cabinet Office. This would have been a Cabinet Office decision based on evidence that they were privy to.”

    The response then provides an email address for that authority — though we are surprised that the Cabinet Office would not have consulted DCMS or at least provided them with their rationale for this policy.

    Have you had a notable ‘information not held’ refusal, or can you spot one in responses recently classified “not held” on WhatDoTheyKnow? If so, let us know, and we might cover it in a future post.

     

    Image: Nicholas Bartos

  9. WhatDoTheyKnow in Wikidata

    We were glad to see this recent tweet from Andy Mabbett:

    Andy has imported the IDs of every authority listed on our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow into Mix’n’match, a tool for helping to link a dataset with existing Wikidata entities. Once a match has been made, the URL of the body’s WhatDoTheyKnow page is available as one of its identifiers (specifically, P8167).

    This means that anyone running a project that utilises Wikidata will have the option to include WhatDoTheyKnow data in their site or app.

    Andy says, “Wikidata acts as a hub for all sorts of databases and identifier systems. For example, it can be the only way of linking (programmatically, in the linked data sense) an MP’s official parliamentary record to their IMDb entry. I do a lot of work making that happen. As a regular and satisfied user of WhatDoTheyKnow, it appealed to me to add that site’s 24.5K listings of UK public bodies to the mix.”

    The best-known site relying on Wikidata is of course Wikipedia, so in theory it would now be feasible, say, to include a template that automatically pulled the relevant WhatDoTheyKnow link into Wikipedia articles about authorities, or to build a browser extension that provided those links when the user visited such articles.

    It would also be possible for us to pull information back the other way, so for example we might consider importing the first paragraph of a Wikipedia page for a body and using it within the introduction, as a way of providing context.

    The matching of WhatDoTheyKnow authorities confirms which Wikidata URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) relates to each, meaning that these can now be used in “sameAs” metadata headers, scehma.org markup, etc. We think this might have a beneficial effect on the way search engines treat our pages in the future — something we’ll be keeping an eye on to check if that’s true.

    Additionally, this works as a nice proof of concept that we can potentially recommend to other Alaveteli sites around the world, given that the Wikidata project is, of course, international.

    But first, the bodies need to be checked with the Mix’n’match tool. At the time of writing, 1,302 bodies have been resolved, and can be seen here. Anyone is welcome to help by confirming more matches: just log in with a Wikimedia account.

    Thanks to Andy for this initiative — it’s great to see the potential of our data being widened in one fell swoop.

    There has already been a mutual benefit to this linking. WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Matt has been able to use examples of failed matches to find cases where our database needed to be brought up to date with name changes. At the same time, Andy says it has helped him and his fellow Wikidata volunteers to create new items about councils and other bodies that were in WhatDoTheyKnow but not Wikidata.

    Richard, also one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s volunteer team, says, “I’ve often thought there’s a lot of overlap between what we do on WhatDoTheyKnow and what Wikipedia volunteers are doing — we’re both maintaining lists of public bodies — so any tools for closer collaboration are great.”


    Image: Carl Nenzen Loven

  10. Exporting data from your batch FOI requests

    We’ve added a new functionality to the Alaveteli Pro codebase, allowing you to download a zip file containing all correspondence and attachments from a batch, and a spreadsheet (csv) to show the progress status of every request.

    Alaveteli Pro is our tool for professional users of Freedom of Information. If you’re UK-based, you’re probably most familiar with our local iteration WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — but don’t worry: when we talk about improvements to Alaveteli Pro, you can be sure they’re also part of the WhatDoTheyKnow toolkit.

    How to export

    You’ll find these tools at the foot of the batch container in the requests list.

    zip downloads of batch FOI requests

    Why data exports?

    Of course, we like to think Alaveteli Pro is a useful tool in its own right: there’s a lot you can do within the Pro interface, and it was built specifically to help you keep track of all your FOI activity in one place.

    But sometimes users want to use external tools – either because they’re just more familiar with them, or because they want to do something beyond the functionality we offer.

    Now there’s a simple way to get data out of Alaveteli, allowing you to analyse it with the tools of your choice, or perhaps send a progress report to a supervisor or editor.

    It’s part of a programme of work to support cross border journalism between European organisations, supported by Adessium Foundation, allowing us to refine and improve the codebase for the benefit of all Pro users.

    The technical bit

    Those with a bit of coding knowledge may be interested to hear how we approached the zip download functionality. mySociety developer Graeme explains:

    “With batch requests potentially going to as many as 500 different authorities, each request can receive several responses and attachments in return.

    “All these emails and files mean that compiling the zip for download could be a lengthy job and would normally cause the request to time out. So for this new feature we’re utilising file streaming to send chunks of the zip as they become available.

    “This means that the zip starts downloading immediately and you don’t have to sit watching and wondering whether anything is happening – you can see more and more data being transmitted.”

    We hope you find this new feature useful. Please do let us know how you’re using it and any feedback you may have.

    Image: Startup Stock Photos