1. New in Alaveteli: hiding individual attachments

    At our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow, when faced with requests to remove material, we operate on the principle of removing the minimum amount possible.

    Alaveteli, the codebase which underlies WhatDoTheyKnow and a number of other FOI sites around the world, gives moderators a range of options for removing content – with the ability to surgically remove text ranging from individual words and phrases, to individual messages, or even entire request threads. This is useful when we spot misuse of our service, for example.

    What we’ve been lacking, up until now, was a way to apply these types of removals to attachments.

    Back in the early days of WhatDoTheyKnow, attachments were less common, but now we see many more: there can often be several attachments to one individual message.

    Over the last few years, there have been occasions where we’ve had to remove an entire message, which may contain several useful attachments, just because of a small issue with one of them.

    We’d then go through an annoying manual process to download the publishable ones, upload them to our file server, and then annotate the request with the links – here’s an example.

     An FOI response, above which is the annotation: We have redacted a name from one of the released documents, acting in line with our published policies on how we run our service. We have republished the response and attachments in an annotation below.

    Back in 2013, when the original suggestion for enabling finer grained control was raised, the site contained around 400,000 attachments. There are now more than 3,500,000! We don’t remove content often, but at this scale it’s inevitable that we need to intervene now and then.

    After a little code cleanup we were able to make individual attachment removal a reality. This allows us much more control over how we balance preserving a historic archive of information released under Access to Information laws, and running the site responsibly and meeting our legal obligations under GDPR.

    As an example, let’s imagine that the FOI officer replying to our request inadvertently makes a data breach when releasing some organisation charts in `organisation chart b.pdf`.

    A fake FOI response in which the officer releases an organisational chart.

    Previously we’d have had to have hidden the whole response. Now, we can go into the admin interface and inspect each individual attachment.

    A list of file attachments

    We can then set our usual “prominence” value – offering a few options from fully visible to completely hidden – and include a reason for why the content has been hidden. We always seek to run the site transparently and explain any actions taken.

    Prominance: Hidden.Reason for prominence: attachment contains significant data breach

    On saving the form, you can see that only the problematic attachment has been removed, with the remainder of the response intact. This saves us considerable time when reviewing and handling material with potential data issues, and keeps as much information published as possible while we do so.

    Response with one hidden attachment

    As an extra bonus, since the main body text of emails is also treated as an “attachment” in Alaveteli, we’re now able to hide potentially problematic material there without affecting the attachments we present.

    A list of file attachments

    We’ve already used this feature several times to republish material where we’d previously had to hide the entire message due to the technical limitations at the time.

    Image: Kenny Eliason

  2. Notes: giving our users more information

    Alaveteli is our platform for running Freedom of Information websites — it underpins WhatDoTheyKnow as well as many other sites around the world. It’s made up of many interconnecting elements, but a key part is the database of public bodies.

    On WhatDoTheyKnow, we list over 42,000 public bodies that are subject to FOI and EIR – possibly one of the largest databases of public bodies in the country. Along with their name, we record information like their FOI request email address, publication scheme and disclosure log URLs, and we categorise them so that they’re easier to browse and make requests to.

    We often want to add additional insight to help citizens understand more about the public body. This can vary from body to body, from describing the information they hold, what they don’t hold, guidance around how to challenge their poor FOI-handling practices or why we list them when they’re not currently subject to FOI.

    We do this via what we call “notes” – a free-text field per authority that admins can update with whatever information is useful for the particular body.

    We often find we need to add or update the same note for a group of authorities — for example, we added the same note to all Business Improvement Districts to explain our reasons for listing them. 

    This can be a major challenge. We list nearly 300 BIDs, and updating each manually, one at a time, would be a several-hour ordeal. An alternative is for our developers to write a quick one-off script to update the text, but that comes with a coordination cost, and can be tricky to work around other text that may be present in the free text field that we want to preserve.

    One of the behind-the-scenes ways we manage the categorisation of authorities is through tags. Many of our other records have the ability to add tags too.

    A picture of several tags, including ones like 'Cardiff' and 'Wales'

    This led to the thought that it would be great to be able to apply a note based on a tag, rather than only having one note field per authority. This would allow us to more quickly add useful information to groups of authorities.

    Another issue we wanted to solve was to be able to add notes to content other than public bodies, like FOI requests for specific types of information and our category lists. In particular we wanted to be able to celebrate requests that led to particularly useful public interest information being released or having wider impact, and also to add clarification around requests that may be misinterpreted.

    We’ve received funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to help support marginalised communities to make more well-formed requests, and to more effectively use the information they obtain to engage with and influence authorities in a way that contributes to fairer decision-making. Thanks to this, we were able to add this underlying capability, which we can use to continue to help users more easily understand how to navigate the complexities of public authorities and what information they hold.

    The first step was to extract the existing notes to a new generic Note model that could be attached to any other record. Ruby on Rails makes this easy through its polymorphic associations.

    We then needed an interface to allow admins to list and search tags for each type of record that has them, and browse all records that are tagged with a particular tag.

    A list of authorities as tags, all starting with the letter A

    A list showing which tags have been applied to each authority

    As well as it being generally useful to be able to browse our database through our tags, this gave us a place to add our new functionality for adding a note based on a tag.

    While Rails’ polymorphic associations make creating a link between one record and another really easy, they don’t cover creating the link through a free-text tag. Fortunately, it took nothing more than a few lines of code to link up notes that are directly associated with a single record, and notes that are applied via a tag.

    Now our public bodies can have notes applied to them and only them, and also notes applied to several authorities based on their tag.

    An authority with two tags applied, as described in the text that follows

    In this example, the Environment Agency has some specific notes about it, but since it’s also a local lighthouse authority, we can apply the relevant notes simply by tagging the authority record and the notes for local lighthouse authorities will automatically get applied. Magic!

    What individual messages look like on the Environment Agency page - a box at the top

    We’ve also applied this pattern to information requests. Now, we can add notes to individual requests, like this example that points to another source for obtaining the information…

    ATOS Anne

    …or applied via a tag so that we can point citizens interested in the climate response to the authority’s CAPE page.

    ATOS

    So far we’ve created 46 notes that get applied via a tag. These notes are applicable to 7,998 requests and 15,283 authorities. Using a rough guess of 30 seconds to manually apply a note to a record, it would take 11,640.5 minutes – 8 full days, or 25 working days – to do so for each of these requests and authorities. This just wouldn’t have been possible before.

    This new feature unlocks a whole new avenue for us to support citizens and users that we just wouldn’t have had capacity for otherwise.

    Image: Keila Hötzel

  3. Climate monthnotes: September 2022

    As we move into the season of the falling leaves, we look back on the activities that fell in September.

    Most importantly we welcomed Alexander to the team, doubling both our developer count and the number of people on the team named Alex.

    Events dear boy, events

    We ran an event! About Climate Tech! It seemed to go quite well. There’s lots of detail in the blog post and links so you can rewatch people from Wiltshire to Copenhagen talking about how they used technology to help with everything from green roofs to community consultation.

    The post also contains details of our follow up event about the small grants (£5,000) we have available for local councils and partners for trialling ideas for tackling climate change.

    Internally we spent a bit of time thinking about how we might use some futures scenarios to test out our plans and explore any unspoken assumptions we might have about the way the world works. Failing that we could always use said scenarios to help run a creative writing workshop on dystopian fiction.

    The work goes on

    We have come to the end of our prototyping weeks and we’re now starting to look at  exploring some of them in more detail. The focus at the moment is on home energy, procurement and our most recent prototyping work with The Climate Coalition.

    On the home energy front, Siôn has been continuing to speak to potential partners in the area while we work out the best way to turn this work into something concrete. If encouraging local communities to come together and improve the energy efficiency of their homes sounds interesting to you then get in touch.

    Wasting no time, Alexander has been unknotting procurement and contracts data in order to turn our Contract Countdown prototype into something a little more functional. We’re still at an early stage with this, trying to work out if it’s practical to keep the data current. We’ll also be looking to show the more useful version to some potential users to see if it’s a service that has value.

    Finally, we started work with The Climate Coalition on a beta of a tool to help them corral a range of data to more effectively help climate groups with campaigning. So far we’ve largely been talking about what data is both useful and available, and how to link it all up.

    In non-prototyping work we’ve continued to chat to Climate Emergency UK about next year’s follow up to the Council Climate Plan Scorecards. This is very much in the planning stage at the moment.

    Previously in blog posts

    One of the side effects of our work on Climate is we’ve gathered a lot of data which we’d like more people to use. Alex wrote both about the data we have and also the process we use to gather and publish it. The first of these is of interest to anyone who would like some nice data, while the second is considerably more technical.

    Speaking of people using our data, Myf published the latest in our series of case studies on how people are doing just that. This month it’s the turn of the Brighton Peace and Environment centre who’ve been using CAPE and the Council Climate Plan Scorecards to help with visualising council’s progress towards their Net Zero targets.

    As ever, if you’ve used any of our data we’d love to hear from you. It helps us with both prioritising future work as well as when talking to current and potential funders.

    While gathering all this data we’ve had some thoughts. Alex has started to work with the Centre for Public Data to turn these thoughts into some recommendations. There’s a survey!

    If you’d like this sort of thing in your inbox then you can sign up to our monthly climate newsletter by clicking the subscribe link at the top right of that page.

    Image: Mott Rodeheaver

  4. August monthnotes from the climate programme

    We’re now six days into September. We’re feeling a strong ‘back to school’ vibe after the long summer in which many of the team were away on annual leave at one point or another. 

    Prototyping is behind us and we’re shifting our focus to what we want to achieve in the last six months of the (project) year. Let’s take a quick look back at August and see what we achieved.

    Innovations in Climate Tech event

    We’ve been working flat out on finalising our agenda and speakers for our showcase event on 21st September. The lineup of speakers is shaping up to be really exciting, and they’ll be introducing key themes such as equity, diversity & inclusion, spatial planning, adaptation and engagement – all of which should spark some interesting new inspiration for councils.

    Don’t forget, if you’re a local council working on climate change, and you spot a project in the event that you might like to trial, there’s the chance to bid for one of three £5,000 grants to help make it happen.

    We’ve also been inviting people to the event and spreading the word. We’re running it as an affiliate event in Code for All’s amazing week-long Summit, packed full of other compelling climate presentations. So don’t just stop at our event, take a look at the full schedule and sign up for any that interest you – they’re all free, and it’s a great opportunity to learn more about what the global civic tech community is up to, in topics from climate and democracy to countering fake news and mass surveillance!

    Product development

    August was a light week for development, as Struan, our developer, enjoyed a well-earned break in Italy. (Travelling there by train, of course, and earning time back as part of our Climate Perks policy!)

    He’s back now, and just in time to welcome our newest developer, Alexander, to the team. Together they’ve picked up work on the next stages of our prototype around the transparency of council procurement, Contract Countdown. Once the more developed prototype is live with real data in it, we’ll put a call out for journalists to help us test our assumptions, as part of a first focus group.

    And finally we ran a stakeholder meeting around the Neighbourhood Warmth prototype – this was interesting and helped us start to shape our thoughts on where we could go next. We’ll be solidifying those over the next few months and hopefully forming a couple of strong partnerships which will help drive our thinking forward. Development on the next stage of this will start in January 2023.

    Final prototyping week

    We ran our final prototyping week in partnership with The Climate Coalition in early August, looking at how better data about local climate action, citizens, and MPs could help organisations campaign for better climate outcomes. We had a massive amount of input from a wide range of national organisations and local community groups – thank you to everyone who took part! The outcomes of the week were really exciting and we’ll be publishing a short write-up in September.

    Communications

    Now that our services have really bedded in and people are discovering how useful they can be, we’re able to produce a steady stream of case studies. The hope is that these inspire other folk to use CAPE and the Scorecards site for their own organisations. 

    This month we’ve spoken to a professor using both services in her research on healthcare and climate; and a charity dedicated to making school dinners more sustainable. There are still more varied and interesting case studies coming soon.

    A whole episode of Delib’s Practical Democracy podcast was dedicated to Myf and Siôn as together they explained our work – do have a listen if you like a chatty approach when taking things in! 

    And our climate newsletter is now a regular monthly fixture – you can sign up from that link (top left of your browser) if you’d like to receive these in your email inbox.

    Image: Pascal Debrunner

  5. We’re prototyping — fancy joining us?

    Having launched two services – the Climate Action Plan Explorer and Council Climate Scorecards – mySociety’s Climate Programme is running a series of six rapid prototyping weeks to explore what we could do next.

    The next prototyping week, during the week starting 9 May 2022, will be all about access to nature. How can we use mySociety’s expertise in data and digital tools to help accelerate initiatives that integrate nature with the urban environment, open up rural spaces to a broader demographic, or encourage better stewardship, understanding and nurturing of our flora and fauna?

    If you’d like to get involved, please fill this short form to express your interest and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible. We’ll also soon be announcing the topic of prototyping week #4.

    Prototyping? What’s that?

    If you’re wondering what happens during a prototyping week, look no further than my colleague Zarino’s report on week #1, which focused on enabling local authority emissions reductions through procurement.

    Right now we’re midway through prototyping week #2, exploring the potential to catalyse local climate action on energy through conditional commitment. As with #1, we’ve had a busy couple of days with a great bunch of people from organisations outside of mySociety contributing thoughts on problems and potential solutions in this space. Several inspiring ideas emerged and we’ve whittled it down to one solution to prototype. Now our thoughts are turning towards building and testing that prototype with a few people before the end of this week.

    So it’s a real rollercoaster, trying to quickly grasp what mySociety could contribute and taking steps towards understanding if it’s useful before going any further. We hope a couple of ideas will be strong enough for us to develop further, preferably in partnership. And by working openly we hope that this series of prototyping weeks provides possibilities for people outside of mySociety to pick up and pursue ideas that we aren’t able to commit to ourselves.

    All that said, using this approach in this way – designing for the needs of society in the face of an ongoing emergency – is something of an experiment. So we’re reflecting and adapting as we go. This post is part of those broader efforts to continuously improve. We hope that by working in the open we’ll enable a richer range of feedback on, and involvement in, what we’re doing.

    So, please do join us if access to nature is an area in which you have expertise or strong ideas, or pass this on to anyone suitable.

    In line with our equity, diversity and inclusion strategy we’d be particularly grateful if you could also share this post in places that will help us in our policy of centring minoritised groups. We’ve been particularly inspired by orgs such as Black2Nature, Black Girls Hike and Nature is a Human Right but we know there must be more out there with relevant experience and expertise on access to nature — please do help us find them.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. Climate programme: new season, new cycle

    Joining mySociety as the Climate Programme’s Delivery Manager a couple of months ago, it soon became clear I had walked into a super-organised, passionate and able team. What was there left for me to do? Turns out the answer is to variously support, organise, communicate, enable, help them look ahead, let them get on with it and occasionally help them to say ‘no’ or ‘not right now’ to the things that aren’t top of the list. I led the team through cycle planning last week. This is a particularly favorite part of the job for me: it gives us a chance to look back and see how far we’ve travelled; and then think big for the future.

    The last six weeks has seen Climate Emergency UK (CEUK) steam ahead on the analysis of councils’ climate action plans, recruiting around 140 volunteers, developing and delivering training, and designing subsequent stages to the process which will include a ‘right to reply’ by councils and second marking by a smaller group. mySociety has supported CEUK by developing technical systems that enable them to carry out this work – from robust spreadsheets that minimise the risk of scores being overwritten by other volunteers, through to automatically tracking the number of plans started and completed. We expect the results to go live in January 2022.

    mySociety developer Struan joined the Climate team full-time in early August and, along with designer Zarino, he has been working on improvements to the Climate Action Plan Explorer (CAPE) including better search, a zip download of all plans, and the basics of an API.

    Our new Outreach and Networks Coordinator Siôn Williams started in mid-August and hit the ground running, helping the team think through its approach to outreach while bringing fresh perspectives and considerable relevant experience. Several relationships are already bearing fruit including Friends of the Earth asking all their supporters to ask their Councils for stronger Climate Action Plan commitments, using CAPE as their main source of information. Myf meanwhile has developed a set of ‘explainer resources’ to help people understand how to use CAPE to maximum effect; as well as forming key relationships and building up a database of ‘who’s who’ in a range of sectors.

    We’ve also been starting to explore our assumptions about how we can best support local communities and local authorities to act quickly and effectively, laying out our Theory of Change for the programme, encouraging us to pan out and think about what change we want to see in the next few years. CAPE is a start, but we are hungry to achieve more.

    Looking forward, we will develop this further over the next few weeks, using it to lead into some longer-term planning. We have also been working on mechanisms to ensure we can work emergently, and hope to detail this out in next Climate month notes. Watch this space. And enjoy the crunchy autumn leaves when they come.

    Image: Andrew Ieviev

  9. Your chance to test out Projects, our newest tool for FOI

    Are you investigating, researching or gathering large quantities of data through Freedom of Information requests? Perhaps you’re a journalist, academic or NGO. We’re looking people based in the UK who’d like to try out our new ‘Projects’ feature for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

    Projects allows you to crowdsource the extraction of data from multiple (or batch) FOI requests made to multiple authorities. You can set up a project with a brief description of what it is and what you are hoping to achieve, and some tasks that volunteers can complete to help you with this aim (like categorising responses, or answering questions about the data released).

    Once that’s done, you can set it up to invite volunteers, who can help you to extract all the information you need from the released responses.

    You’ll be able to download your volunteers’ input as a spreadsheet, meaning analysis of the data is much quicker and easier — so you can get on with the task of forming conclusions and writing up your findings.

    What we’ll need from you

    Projects is still in its nascent stage, so we need feedback from our testers. This will help us improve the service and tailor it to users’ needs, based on real life use cases.

    Right now, we handle the setup and importing of the requests you want to work on manually (that is, our developers have to do it) — but we’re working on improving this aspect, and your feedback will be crucial in shaping the direction our development takes. We’re also looking for general comments, once you’ve used the service, on what’s useful and what’s missing; what you tried to do but couldn’t, and what made things easier for you.

    If this sounds interesting, please get in touch at pro_team@whatdotheyknow.com. We look forward to hearing from you!

    Image: Jessica Lee

  10. What is consequence scanning?

    At LocalGovCamp, our designer Martin ran an interactive exercise that took attendees through a ‘consequence scanning’ exercise, as a way to predict and mitigate all the outcomes, both positive and negative, of a proposed piece of development.

    In this case, the service under discussion was a fictional parking violation reporting app.

     Consequence Scanning

    Let’s just repeat that, in case of any angry reactions: fictional!

    So, what could possibly go wrong with a piece of tech designed to encourage residents to grass on fellow citizens for their poor parking? You can see how it played out in this video:

     

    Now you’ve seen a consequence scanning exercise in action. If you’d like to understand more about the process, read on: this is how Martin explained the whole idea to us here at mySociety, with more detail on the underlying principles:

    We’ve been working on a few sensitive projects recently – specifically our work expanding FixMyStreet Pro to cover issues of a more social nature, like noise reporting, antisocial behaviour, that sort of thing.

    As experienced as we are with the ‘make a report by sticking a pin in a map’ style of interaction design, we recognise the need for extra care when applying this to issues that are about people, rather than things. There’s an increased risk of building a tool that results in unintended negative consequences; especially where the service concerns an area already prone to controversy.

    mySociety Board member Jonathan Flowers put us in touch with Connected Places Catapult, who had been using ‘Consequence Scanning’ for this very thing, and we realised it was just what we needed.

    It’s a structured system for drawing out the consequences of a new idea, and giving people a say in what actions are used to mitigate or address them. It originated from the Doteveryone thinktank, and CPC have taken it forward and customised it for their needs.

    In Consequence Scanning, consequences are classified as either intended or unintended, with the important distinction that intended consequences aren’t always positive, and unintended consequences aren’t always negative.

    The process is delivered in a workshop format and works best with a good mixture of participants with diverse views and backgrounds, directly involved in the service on both sides. This means ideally both service users and service officers should take part and be prepared to be honest about consequences. For this reason it’s important to create a safe space where information can be shared honestly and openly.

    The process is split into three parts:

    Part one: What are the consequences?

    Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?

    Part three: What are the unintended consequences we should mitigate?

    Part one: What are the consequences?

    1. What are the intended consequences for:
    •  Organisation – How might this affect our organisation?
    •  Users – How might this affect the users of this service?
    •  Community – What are the consequences that could affect the wider community?
    1. What are the unintended consequences? For the kind of work we do, unintended consequences tend to emerge in these areas:
    •    Lack of digital understanding:
      • What can happen in a situation where there is a lack of digital skills or access to technology?
    • Unintended uses and users
      • What could be the unintended uses of this service?
      • What could be the unintended users of this service? Eg private companies using public services for profit
    • Weak security/reliability/poor support/monitoring
      • What could happen in situations of technical failure, poorly equipped staff, or lack of budget etc?
    • Changes in norms and behaviours
      • How could this cause changes in societal norms and behaviours?
    • Displacement (what will people do this instead of… )
      • If people use this service instead of others what could result?
    • Impact on environment
      • How might this service result in consequences for the planet or local environment?

    Part two: What are the positive consequences we want to focus on?

    1. Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
    2. Add further details or related information

    Part three: What are the unintended consequences we want to mitigate?

    1. Sort the list of intended consequences into groups by affinity (affinity sorting)
    2. Use causal mapping to work out the relationships between the consequences and help determine where mitigations could have the greatest impact: eg, solve A before B, solve D and prevent E,F,G
    3. Use grouping and categorisation of consequences to show relationships

    This system works best on a new, but defined idea. If it’s done too early in the design process, the consequences end up being very general, or people bring their own assumptions and often focus on the wrong things. It’s best to bring it in once scope has been defined.

    The primary function is to identify the consequences and not to “solutionise” the mitigations, but the group should be free to discuss possible mitigations where they feel it’s important.

    We’ve been using Consequence Scanning in our work on noise reporting and antisocial behaviour, and it’s also proving useful for our internal anti-racism action group, where we want to understand the potential unintended results of any future development in terms of who our services reach, and who they exclude.

    Image: Drew Graham