1. Making councils’ climate progress easier to understand

    We spoke to Rebecca Sawyer of Brighton Peace and Environment Centre, to discover how their ReForest Brighton project interfaces with our own CAPE and Council Climate Scorecards sites.

    As it turns out, our projects have a lot in common. Both aim to make it easier for everyone to understand and assess the progress a council is making towards cutting carbon emissions, a field where the picture can be complicated and difficult for the average person to follow. That starts with data.

    Rebecca explained, “Identifying the path to carbon neutrality is not straightforward, and the data that would enable organisations to know where they currently are on this path is very weak.”

    Visualising progress

    To address this, ReForest Brighton is developing an interactive website to show in real time the progress that each local authority has made in relation to its individual carbon neutral targets. 

    Naturally, the project began by looking at the organisation’s hometown of Brighton, which has a target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2030. That’s just the start, though; the model is replicable for any other local authority in the UK, allowing their own carbon neutral targets and the actions determined by their climate action plans to be slotted in.  

    “The aim,” says Rebecca, “is to provide real time quality data that will enable decision making around policy and practice.

    “So for example, if it’s clear that maintaining the current level of action won’t bring a city to carbon neutrality by their set date, the council can refocus their efforts to reduce emissions and sequestrate more carbon.” 

    The ultimate target? “To make local authority councils more ambitious.”

    Carbon neutral dates

    So where do CAPE and the Scorecards site come in? As Rebecca explained, CAPE was useful mainly for a single datapoint amongst the many that it provides.

    “The main way we’ve been using it is to retrieve the carbon neutral dates of all the individual local authorities in the UK. 

    “Without this data being easily accessible it would’ve taken us a long time and lot of resources to go through more than 300 local authorities and dig out their target dates.”

    And as for the Scorecards site, this has been more of a sanity-check tool: “We used it once we’d completed our calculations, to check our ratings of each local authority against the Scorecards rating. 

    “For example, if our calculations rated a local authority with high climate action but the Scorecards had it as low, then we’d analyse and reassess our ratings.” 

    As well as the interactive map, their project will produce predictive data to show how much progress the council will have made by their target zero emissions date.

    Forecast formula

    For those who like the technical details, Rebecca is keen to oblige: “Our categorisation is based on a calculation of emission trends from 2016-2020. The trends allow us to predict where each local authority will be by the carbon neutral target date we downloaded from CAPE, using the ‘forecast’ formula (=FORECAST (x, known_ys, known_xs)). 

    “There is actually 15 years’ worth of emissions data available, but we chose this five-year period because climate action has only started becoming a consideration for local authorities in the last few years. 

    “Basically, we look at the predicted emissions on the authority’s carbon neutral date and categorise them accordingly — and if a local authority had no carbon neutral target or plans, it is automatically rated zero.”

    A knock-on effect

    ReForest Brighton wants to make it easier for the public to understand how their local authority is doing in achieving its carbon reduction targets — and they have another aim, too: 

    “We would like the public to push local governments to take faster, more effective action, and we’re planning to help them do this by giving them the means to write to their elected representatives, and to share the website with their friends and contacts.  

    “But even while hoping that councils will be making as much progress as possible, we’re also pushing for transparency. We’d even encourage an authority to push their carbon neutral target date further back if it gave a more honest picture of where they are at.”

    Brighton Peace and Environment Centre logoBrighton Peace and Environment Centre are a registered charity and they welcome volunteers: get in touch if you would like to know more.

    You can also make a donation to them, using this link.

    Image: Aaron Burden

  2. Innovations in Climate Tech: catch up – and bid for one of our grants

    Last Wednesday a varied audience convened online for our Innovations In Climate Tech event.

    The aim: to showcase some of the remarkable and effective projects being implemented in the UK and further afield, and to spark inspiration so that these, or similar projects, might be replicated in other UK regions.

    mySociety has three £5,000 grants to give to innovators and local councils who work together and trial something they’ve seen, or been inspired by, during the event.

    Missed the live version? Don’t worry: we have videos and notes, and you don’t have to have attended to be able to bid for a grant.

    Rewatch or read up

    Here’s where to find the various assets from the day:

    • Watch a video of all the morning presentations, followed by the Q&A. This video features:
      • Annie Pickering from Climate Emergency UK, on how they scored councils’ Climate Action Plans;
      • Ariane Crampton from Wiltshire County Council on how they tackled outreach to diverse communities with their climate consultation;
      • Claus Wilhelmsen from Copenhagen City Council on the practical ways in which they are tackling carbon cutting within construction industries;
      • Ornaldo Gjergji from the European Data Journalism Network on how visualising temperature data from individual cities and towns helps people better understand the impacts of climate change;
      • Kasper Spaan from Waternet on creating green roofs across the city to aid urban cooling and biodiversity.
    • The afternoon breakout sessions weren’t recorded, but you can read notes of the presentations and subsequent discussions for:
      • The Adaptation session (Padlet here) in which Josh Shimmin from Atamate talked about a data-driven approach to retrofitting housing;
      • The Engagement session (Padlet here) in which Susan Rodaway from Pennard Community Council presented on a community consultation tool that helped them decide what to spend budget on; and Arnau Quinquilla from Climate 2025 talked about mapping climate movements across the world;
      • The Spatial Planning session (Padlet here) in which Lora Botev from CitizenLab explained how their software enables councils to run consultations and grow an active group of residents who have a voice in decisions around climate;
      • The Equity, Diversion and Inclusion session (Padlet here) in which Emma Geen from the Bristol Disability Equality Forum explained how vital it is to include disabled people in a green transition, and the ways in which the group has taken action to make this happen.

    What’s next?

    On 19 October, we’ll be running an informal session online, explaining what we’re looking for in a grant pitch, and giving you the chance to explore your ideas with potential partners. Then, if you want to go forward and bid for one of three £5,000 grants, we’ll give you everything you need to make your pitch.

    You do not have to have attended the first event to join us at this stage. Please explore the resources above, add your thoughts to the Padlets, and sign up for this event via Eventbrite.

    What sort of projects will we be funding?

    To be eligible to bid for one of the grants, you must either be:

    • a council that wants to trial an idea; or
    • an organisation that wants to work with a council to trial your project.

    Partnerships can be between two or more organisations, but every partnership must include at least one local council (and might only consist of councils). But don’t worry if you haven’t got a partner in mind yet – you may find one at this event.

    • You might have seen an idea in the presentations that is directly applicable to your council area, and want to simply replicate it.
    • Or, in a less straightforward but equally valid scenario, you might simply have seen an organisation you’d like to work with, or had a completely new idea sparked by something you saw.
    • You might have no ideas at all, but a commitment to try something new… bring an open mind and see if anything at the event grabs you!

    Sign up for the upcoming event here.

     

  3. Publishing and analysing data: our workflow

    This is a more technical blog post in companion to our recent blog about local climate data. Read on if you’re interested in the tools and approaches we’re using in the Climate team to analyse and publish data. 

    How we’re handling common data analysis and data publishing tasks.

    Generally we do all our data analysis in Python and Jupyter notebooks. While we have some analysis using R, we have more Python developers and projects, so this makes it easier for analysis code to be shared and understood between analysis and production projects. 

    Following the same basic ideas as (and stealing some folder structure from) the cookiecutter data science approach that each small project should live in a separate repository, we have a standard repository template for working with data processing and analysis. 

    The template defines a folder structure, and standard config files for development in Docker and VS Code. A shared data_common library builds a base Docker image (for faster access to new repos), and common tools and utilities that are shared between projects for dataset management. This includes helpers for managing dataset releases, and for working with our charting theme. The use of Docker means that the development environment and the GitHub Actions environment can be kept in sync – and so processes can easily be shifted to a scheduled task as a GitHub Action. 

    The advantage of this common library approach is that it is easy to update the set of common tools from each new project, but because each project is pegged to a commit of the common library, new projects get the benefit of advances, while old projects do not need to be updated all the time to keep working. 

    This process can run end-to-end in GitHub – where the repository is created in GitHub, Codespaces can be used for development, automated testing and building happens with GitHub Actions and the data is published through GitHub Pages. The use of GitHub Actions especially means testing and validation of the data can live on Github’s infrastructure, rather than requiring additional work for each small project on our servers.

    Dataset management

    One of the goals of this data management process is to make it easy to take a dataset we’ve built for our purposes, and make it easily accessible for re-use by others. 

    The data_common library contains a dataset command line tool – which automates the creation of various config files, publishing, and validation of our data. 

    Rather than reinventing the wheel, we use the frictionless data standard as a way of describing the data. A repo will hold one or more data packages, which are a collection of data resources (generally a CSV table). The dataset tool detects changes to the data resources, and updates the config files. Changes between config files can then be used for automated version changes. 

    Screenshot of the CLI --help options for the dataset tool.

    Data integrity

    Leaning on the frictionless standard for basic validation that the structure is right, we use pytest to run additional tests on the data itself. This means we define a set of rules that the dataset should pass (eg ‘all cells in this column contain a value’), and if it doesn’t, the dataset will not validate and will fail to build. 

    This is especially important because we have datasets that are fed by automated processes, read external Google Sheets, or accept input from other organisations. The local authority codes dataset has a number of tests to check authorities haven’t been unexpectedly deleted, that the start date and end dates make sense, and that only certain kinds of authorities can be designated as the county council or combined authority overlapping with a different authority. This means that when someone submits a change to the source dataset, we can have a certain amount of faith that the dataset is being improved because the automated testing is checking that nothing is obviously broken. 

    The automated versioning approach means the defined structure of a resource is also a form of automated testing. Generally following the semver rules for frictionless data (exception that adding a new column after the last column is not a major change), the dataset tool will try and determine if a change from the previous version is a MAJOR (backward compatibility breaking), MINOR (new resource, row or column), or PATCH (correcting errors) change. Generally, we want to avoid major changes, and the automated action will throw an error if this happens. If a major change is required, this can be done manually. The fact that external users of the file can peg their usage to a particular major version means that changes can be made knowing nothing is immediately going to break (even if data may become more stale in the long run).

    Screenshot of example pytest tests, showing ensuring an authority has been assigned a nation

    Data publishing and accessibility

    The frictionless standard allows an optional description for each data column. We make this required, so that each column needs to have been given a human readable description for the dataset to validate successfully. Internally, this is useful as enforcing documentation (and making sure you really understand what units a column is in), and means that it is much easier for external users to understand what is going on. 

    Previously, we were uploading the CSVs to GitHub repositories and leaving it as that – but GitHub isn’t friendly to non-developers, and clicking a CSV file opens it up in the browser rather than downloading it. 

    To help make data more accessible, we now publish a small GitHub Pages site for each repo, which allows small static sites to be built from the contents of a repository (the EveryPolitician project also used this approach). This means we can have fuller documentation of the data, better analytics on access, sign-posting to surveys, and better sign-posted links to downloading multiple versions of the data. 

    Screenshot of data descriptions of the local authorities dataset

    The automated deployment means we can also very easily create Excel files that packages together all resources in a package into the same file, and include the meta-data information about the dataset, as well as information about how they can tell us about how they’re using it. 

    Publishing in an Excel format acknowledges a practical reality that lots of people work in Excel. CSVs don’t always load nicely in Excel, and since Excel files can contain multiple sheets, we can add a cover page that makes it easier to use and understand our data by packaging all the explanations inside the file. We still produce both CSVs and XLSX files – and can now do so with very little work.

    Screenshot of downloadable excel file showing different sheets and descriptions

    For developers who are interested in making automated use of the data, we also provide a small package that can be used in Python or as a CLI tool to fetch the data, and instructions on the download page on how to use it

    Screenshot of the command line download instructions for a dataset

    At mySociety Towers, we’re fans of Datasette, a tool for exploring datasets. Simon Willison recently released Datasette Lite, a version that runs entirely in the browser. That means that just by publishing our data as a SQLite file, we can add a link so that people can explore a dataset without leaving the browser. You can even create shareable links for queries: for example, all current local authorities in Scotland, or local authorities in the most deprived quintile. This lets us do some very rapid prototyping of what a data service might look like, just by packaging up some of the data using our new approach.

    Screen shot of Datasette Lite showing a query of authorities in Scotland

    Data analysis

    Something in use in a few of our repos is the ability to automatically deploy analysis of the dataset when it is updated. 

    Analysis of the dataset can be designed in a Jupyter notebook (including tables and charts) – and this can be re-run and published on the same GitHub Pages deploy as the data itself. For instance, the UK Composite Rural Urban Classification produces this analysis. For the moment, this is just replacing previous automatic README creation – but in principle makes it easy for us to create simple, self-updating public charts and analysis of whatever we like. 

    Bringing it all back together and keeping people to up to date with changes

    The one downside of all these datasets living in different repositories is making them easy to discover. To help out with this, we add all data packages to our data.mysociety.org catalogue (itself a Jekyll site that updates via GitHub Actions) and have started a lightweight data announcement email list. If you have got this far, and want to see more of our data in future – sign up!

    Image: Sigmund

  4. We want you to build on our local climate data. Tell us what you need!

    One of the things we want to do as part of our Climate programme is help build an ecosystem of data around local authorities and climate data. 

    We have a goal of reducing the carbon emissions that are within the control of local authorities, and we want to help people build tools and services that further that ambition. 

    We want to do more to actively encourage people to use our data, and to understand if there are any data gaps we can help fill to make everyone’s work easier. 

    So, have we already built something you think might be useful? We can help you use it. 

    Also, if there’s a dataset that would help you, but you don’t have the data skills required to take it further, we might be able to help build it! Does MapIt almost meet your needs but not quite? Let’s talk about it!

    You can email us, or we are experimenting with running some drop-in hours where you can talk through a data problem with one of the team. 

    You can also sign up to our Climate newsletter to find up more about any future work we do to help grow this ecosystem. 

    Making our existing data more accessible

    Through our previous expertise in local authority data, and in building the Climate Action Plan Explorer, we have gathered a lot of data that can overcome common challenges in new projects.

    These include:

    All of this data (plus more) can be found on our data portal

    We’ve also been working to make our data more accessible and explorable (example):

    • Datasets now have good descriptions of what is in each column.
    • Datasets can be downloaded as Excel files
    • Datasets can be previewed online using Datasette lite.
    • Providing basic instructions on how to automatically download updated versions of the data.

    If you think you can build something new out of this data, we can help you out! 

    Building more data

    There’s a lot of datasets we think we can make more of — for example, as part of our prototyping research we did some basic analysis of how we might use Energy Performance Certificate data (for home energy in general, and specific renting analysis). 

    But before we just started making data, we want to make sure we’re making data that is useful to people and that can help people tell stories, and build websites and tools. If there’s a dataset you need, where you think the raw elements already exist, get in touch. We might be able to help you out. 

    If you are using our data, please tell us you’re using our data

    We really believe in the benefit of making our work open so that others can find and build on it. The big drawback is that the easier we make our data to access, the less we know about who is using it.

    This is a problem, because ultimately our climate work is funded by organisations who would like to know what is happening because of our work. The more we know about what is useful about the data, and what you’re using it for, the better we can make the case to continue producing it. 

    Each download page has a survey that you can fill out to tell us about how you use the data. We’re also always happy to receive emails!

    Stay updated about everything

    Our work growing the ecosystem also includes events and campaigning activity. If you want to stay up to date with everything we do around climate, you can sign up to our newsletter.

    Image: Emma Gossett

  5. Climate monthnotes July 2022: Preparing for a Summer of events

    There’s lots, as ever, to report from the Climate team this month, so I’ll try to pick some highlights… this time with a Shakespearean flavour, as I (mySociety’s Liverpool correspondent) celebrate the opening of the Shakespeare North Playhouse in the nearby town of Prescot. May the bard’s lyrical visions propel us into a summer of climate action!

    All things are ready, if our mind be so

    In the previous monthnotes Jen trailered Innovations in Climate Tech – our online, half-day event, featuring inspirational examples and discussion about how civic tech projects are supporting climate action around the world, and how we might be able to seed more projects like this, with the cooperation of local authorities, here in the UK.

    This month Jen’s been lining up speakers for the event (which takes place on 21st September), and Siôn has been planning how we can use workshops in the second half of the event to share best practice and build more connections between technologists and local authority officials.

    If you’re from a local authority, or you’ve been involved in a climate-related technology project, and you’d like to share your work at the event, there’s still time to submit a proposal for inclusion in the programme.

    We’re also excited to find we’ve been accepted to speak at the upcoming Code for All 2022 Summit (also happening in September), so we’re looking forward to working our sessions there into our wider plan for building connections between the climate and civic tech communities.

    And finally, to complete the Summer events trifecta, we’ve been laying plans for an informal online get-together about energy efficiency and retrofit, since it’s proved such a popular subject during our prototyping weeks, and we’d really like to find the most impactful contribution we could make in the space, especially with fuel costs expected to continue rising well into 2023. If this interests you, share your availability for the week in which we’re planning to meet and join our climate updates newsletter to hear how things develop.

    Once more unto the breech dear friends

    All good things must come to an end – and our series of six rapid prototyping weeks has certainly been a good thing! This month we’ve been preparing for the final week in the series, focussing on how improved collection and sharing of MP, constituency, and local climate action data, between environmental charities and organisations, could enhance public understanding of climate challenges and solutions, and build networks across local communities.

    We’re really excited to be working on this with a number of really big names in the space—including The Climate Coalition, Green Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trusts, Hope for the Future, WWF, and Climate Outreach—and we’re really excited to see what recommendations come out of the week.

    We’re also putting the final touches to our write-ups of the last two prototyping weeks (on fair transition and energy efficiency for private rental tenants) and will be posting them on our Climate Prototyping page shortly.

    Friends, romans, countrymen, lend us your ears!

    Siôn has been sharing our procurement and energy efficiency prototypes with a whole range of organisations, getting their input on next steps we should take, and potential collaboration opportunities. So far we’re excited to have met with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, UK Green Building Council, Architects Climate Action Network, Living Rent, Energy Local, Connected Places Catapult and Citizens UK.

    Meanwhile, Myf has been renewing our efforts to promote CAPE to journalists, as one of the core audiences where we think up-to-date, accessible data on local authority climate action could really enable a new level of scrutiny and cross-pollination of climate actions around the UK. We’re looking to potentially speak at a few journalism conferences in the coming months, and we’re planning to prepare a set of online resources that might give journalists an idea of how they can use our data to find stories.

    We also presented CAPE and the Scorecards at Friends of the Earth’s Environmental Data for Change event—which I was honoured to be asked to facilitate on FoE’s behalf—right at the end of June. It was an absolutely packed call, which left everyone buzzing with ideas for the future. We’re continuing to work with Friends of the Earth, and other attendees from the event, on how we take the this great momentum, and shape a community of practice around sharing and building on the rich environmental data available in the UK, to power more informed climate action.

     

    Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash.

  6. June Monthnotes from the Climate Programme

    It’s the end of June already and we’re now over half way through the year, the solstice has passed and the days are starting to get shorter! Since the start of April the Climate team have been in a whirl of prototyping weeks which has made time feel like it’s speeding past at a high rate.

    So what have we done this month?

    Trialing Github projects

    Being an open source technical organisation, mySociety does a lot of its development work in GitHub, but on the Climate team we were using a mixture of Trello, spreadsheets and documents to track our priorities and progress. Having everything spread across so many places was causing the team confusion when it came to updating on progress and figuring out which tasks were the next most important.

    So, at the start of June we switched to trialling GitHub’s Projects feature. This seems to answer a lot of our needs right now – everything is in one place, we can use status labels to track the progress on the project and add custom ones which relate to project milestones. It has the bonus effect that we’re not doubling up work by having the same tickets in GitHub and Trello. We’re only two sprints in so far, so still early days but we’re hopeful this might be a simpler way of working.

    Prototyping weeks

    There’s only been one prototyping week in June: A fair transition. This was a tough week as it was such a broad subject and it was difficult to work out what exactly would be most useful for us to work on. This is what we came up with.

    We’ve also been planning for Week 5 – Energy efficiency for rental homes which takes place from 5 -11 July. There’s still time to apply if you’re interested in joining us on this one!

    Communications

    It’s been a busy month for Communications – we’ve put together a pitch for MG OMD, the global marketing agency that will be volunteering their time for us through the Weston Communicating Climate training programme that Myf, our Communications Manager, has been following. It gives us the opportunity to have a big agency input into our plans and maybe give us ideas for new ways of reaching people.

    Myf has also been working on some case studies – one from Sustain and one from Green Finance Institute. They’ll really help to highlight why the climate action plan data we have is so important to making positive change on reducing local climate emissions.

    Data

    Alex has been working hard on our data ecosystem and we now have the local authority data up in a better format. You can find it here: https://mysociety.github.io/uk_local_authority_names_and_codes/

    Events planning

    Finally we’ve been working on events. We have our first Prototyping Show and Tell on Friday 1 July from 2pm – 3:30pm BST: do drop us a line to be added to the event if you want to come along and hear all about how prototyping works and what we’ve found.

    We’ve also started looking at our September event, Innovations in Climate Change, which will be held on September 21 2022 on Zoom. We’re super excited about this and our aim is to bring together local councils, international actors and technology people to share their tech based climate change projects and hopefully inspire some new work to reduce local climate emissions. If any of that sounds like you, sign up to present or keep your eyes peeled for an Eventbrite page to register your attendance.

     

    Image: Natosha Benning

  7. Climate action and innovation, powered by funding from BEIS

    Much of our activity on the Climate Action Plans Explorer (CAPE) over the last year has been supported by BEIS. This funding has given us the luxury of time and resource to develop new features, based on research into our core users’ needs.

    We’ve made progress in four broad areas:

    Different ways into the data 

    More intuitive routes for experts and non-experts to explore UK councils’ Climate Action Plans and understand more about each one.

    • We developed a ‘nearest neighbour’ dataset, based on research with council officers.
      This matches councils by more relevant criteria than just their location: see more details in this blog post and this update.
    • We consulted local authorities and campaigners to understand more about what’s most important to them in local climate strategies, then put together a browse by feature page. This uses data from the Climate Emergency UK Scorecards project to create collections of plans that exhibit best practice in key areas. More in our blog post here.
    The Browse by Feature page on CAPE
    • We included links to additional sources of data to every council’s page, such as the Tyndall Centre Carbon Budget, and Friends of the Earth’s ‘Near You’ tool.

    Insight and oversight

    By showing the scale of ambition amongst the most active local authorities, CAPE provides peer motivation for less aspirational councils.

    • We collected the headline promises in which UK councils commit to the date by which they will reach net zero. More in our blog post here.
    • We provided substantial technical support to Climate Emergency UK on their Council Climate Plan Scorecards project, which analyses comparable features across every plan in our database. The scores can now be easily compared across all authorities of a given type.

    Seeding and nurturing open data

    We’re supporting the monitoring and analysis of local climate response with a growing open dataset, and encouraging councils to publish better standardised data to allow CAPE and other similar services to be sustained more easily.

    • We’ve added BEIS data on emissions for each council, broken down by source. We were able to calculate Combined Authority data from constituent boroughs/districts, so have also added a novel open dataset — more about that in this blog post.
    a colourful graph showing CO2 emissions breakdown by sector
    • The total number, cost, and emissions reduction estimates of a council’s projects are also displayed on their CAPE page.

    Awareness and uptake

    We’ve been facilitating networks and ensuring that councils and other stakeholders know about, and can use, the resource.

    • We presented at several online seminars and conducted outreach with local authority officers and councillors.
    • We met one to one with a variety of organisations to let them know how CAPE could help them.
    • We ran the first informal get-together for an international set of climate organisations — more are planned.

    Conclusions

    This work has brought us new understanding about what councils need; what the public understands; what data is available and what needs to happen in the future if local authorities are to be properly equipped to fulfil the net zero targets they’ve committed to.

    mySociety believes in working in the open, so we share whatever insights we can through our blog and research portal, with the aim of facilitating quicker, more effective climate action across the UK.

    New obligations are needed

    Practically speaking, we’ve been able to provide new data for developers, researchers, councils — and anyone working on climate, especially in the digital realm.

    But while the data we added to CAPE is substantial and useful, it only scratches the surface of what could be done if better data was coming from local authorities themselves.

    Proactive data releases could bring immeasurable benefits to council climate officers, campaigners and researchers, but are unlikely to happen until reporting like this is made a statutory requirement for local authorities in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as they are in Scotland.

    Reduced council budgets only increase the need for data

    As is clear from the CAPE dataset, many local authorities have set themselves ambitious emissions reduction targets. More than 50%, 251 councils, are promising carbon neutrality as soon as 2030.

    Ambition is admirable, but climate officers are grappling with the dual challenges of implementing widespread change across all of their councils’ activities, on a narrow budget with little statutory or regulatory backing. Many of them are defining their own roles even while they work, and are building their idea of an effective local authority climate response based on best practice observed in their peers.

    This is why a large part of our work has focused on enabling quicker, more informed comparison between local authorities, encouraging a break from the usual preconceived comparison sets. Instead we facilitate the exploration of actions taken by councils in similar, specific situations.

    But our work can only go so far, when reliable, up-to-date, and machine-readable data on councils’ climate actions is so thin on the ground. 

    Local authorities have almost no statutory obligation to measure or report on the emissions generated by their own operations or their area as a whole, nor on the actions they are taking to reduce those emissions.

    This data must be provided in a machine-readable format, enabling automatic comparison across time periods so that impact can be tracked throughout multi-year emissions reduction projects.

     

    Over the next few months we will be reviewing our Climate programme output, to inform policy recommendations. If you’re working in this area, we’d love to talk to you.

  8. MPs’ Register of Financial Interests

    Donations to MPs are in the news again, and TheyWorkForYou allows users to easily see what any individual MP has received. In fact, the site has carried a copy of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests (in which, as Parliament’s website explains, “MPs must register within 28 days any interest which someone might reasonably consider to influence their actions or words as an MP“) since at least 2005.

    This hasn’t always been straightforward, and has recently become slightly trickier.

    The official register is published as static HTML or PDF, with a simple list of all MPs. We scrape that HTML, convert it into light XML and import it onto the site – which means you can easily see not only the current entry on an individual MP’s page, but also see a complete history of their register without having to view many different copies of the official register.

    The XML contains all the data from the official register, but it only parses out basic information like the category of interest. Providing more detail would be great, but is quite a hard problem to tackle.

    Recently, Parliament has started using Cloudflare’s bot-protection technology. We assume this change was made with good reason, but as a side effect it has prevented effective scraping of the website, as Cloudflare don’t distinguish between good and bad bots or scrapers.

    We know that Parliament was working on an API at least as far back as 2016, from their now-removed data blog, but if this is still in development, it is yet to see the light of day. What they said at the time still stands: their website is still the only means of accessing this data. We don’t think it’s necessary to protect purely static HTML pages such as the Register in quite such a heavy-handed manner.

    We do have ways of continuing to get the Register, and TheyWorkForYou is still up to date, so anyone else who has been scraping the official site and has hit issues because of this is welcome to use our data, either via the XML or our API.

    Image: Adeolu Eletu

  9. Data for levelling up and net zero

    Identifying opportunities for levelling up and net zero both require high quality, comparable local data 

    The levelling-up white paper sets out the government’s direction and strategy for reducing regional inequalities, a much-needed objective as the UK has one of the worst regional inequalities in the OECD countries. The paper outlines new opportunities for local authorities to have devolution-style powers and gain more autonomy by 2030. 

    There is a large gap in the levelling-up agenda: the white paper does not put the recently published net zero strategy at its heart. Both levelling up and net zero require systematic changes to the role local government plays in directing the economic activities of their area, and engaging and working with communities and citizens.

    Improving local data is important to boosting local economies while delivering a net zero transformation, and implementing those two as one comprehensive package will help fully embed environmental considerations in economic decisions.

    Levelling up and net zero have to be approached as a mutually supportive package, and not as two separate packages. Their implementation will create new economic models and lead to new governance structures. Both require new transparency mechanisms to enable citizens to track progress towards commitments.

    A new independent body to gather, enhance and make data accessible to local governments and citizens

    Both the levelling up and net zero agendas would benefit from high quality, evidence-based, and comparable local data.  In the current situation, local data is not easy to navigate and does not always allow easy data discovery, aggregation and re-use. 

    mySociety and Climate Emergency UK have been working to transform a situation where council’s climate plans are hard to find and understand by making council climate action plans accessible on a central website, and producing comparison tools and scores on the basis of written commitments found in climate emergency plans to spur comparisons, identify best practice, and improve performance.

    The importance of improved local data is recognised in the levelling up white paper announcement of a new independent body (p. 138) to gather, enhance, and make data accessible to local governments and citizens. Creating central pools of information helps spread learning and improve accountability, without undermining the local innovation that devolving power and responsibilities to local authorities and communities unlocks. The stated goal of this new body is to improve local leaders’ knowledge of their own services while increasing central government’s understanding of local authorities’ activities. This new body can play a very important part in improving the local data ecosystem.

    This new  capacity is equally important to the goal of net zero. It would be a missed opportunity not to strongly consider how this body could support local governments’ move towards net zero, and enable a transparent and just transition. 

    Addressing the limitations

    Creating high quality local data is important to improving outcomes, but will also demonstrate the limits of current financial constraints. To deliver ambitious and sustainable transformations in both regional inequality and net zero requires sustained and structured investment in the resources and capacities of local authorities. Addressing inequalities through better local data should not be limited to collating data on economic inequalities, and it is therefore critical that the new datasets also highlight local health inequalities and gaps in social care funding that significantly contribute to existing inequalities that, in turn, lead to poor engagement in climate action. Data should not be a stick to beat local governments, but a tool to help them articulate problems and find solutions. 

    The plan is for the new independent data body to be co-designed with local government, but it is also important that this reflects the needs of local communities and citizens. Citizen engagement and participation is vital for both levelling up and net zero. As outlined by the Climate Change Committee, 62 per cent of the measures needed to meet the country’s net zero goal will require some form of behaviour or societal change, and this should be reflected on how data is used to drive accountability and transparency.  

    As more plans about this new data body emerge, we will advocate for it to support the transition to net zero through promoting inter-council learning, central government understanding, and community accountability. 

    What mySociety is doing around net zero and data

    mySociety is working to repower democracy and enable new approaches to reducing carbon emissions. We are taking our experience running services such as TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow and FixMyStreet to work with partners and explore new services to reduce emissions within the scope of local authority activities.

    To date, we have worked with Climate Emergency UK on the Climate Action Plan Explorer and the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, making local climate action plans more discoverable and accessible for local governments, campaigners, and citizens.

    We are currently embarking on a series of prototyping weeks to explore different possible approaches with different partners. To hear more about our work, sign up to our climate newsletter.

    Image: Retrofitting homes in progress, by Ashden

  10. 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.