1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. Innovations in climate tech: global inspiration for local climate action

    Call for speakers

    Are you using digital technology or data to tackle the climate emergency at a local level?

    Could local councils or other organisations benefit from trialling or implementing your tech?

    If so, come and help spark inspiration by showcasing your project on September 21, via Zoom. Spark inspiration, and maybe find partners to implement your project.

    At mySociety, we’ve been making our own services, bringing our expertise of data and civic tech together to create online tools that empower citizens and councils to act on climate. We’re focusing on climate action at the local government level, because we believe this is the area where effective change can most easily be made — see more on our Climate page.

    Now we want to share what we’ve made, and hear about your work too. In the spirit of open data and collaboration, we want to help create ideas, inspiration and even partnerships that will amplify the effect of all our work in this area.

    What we’re looking for

    • Are you working on an emissions reduction project using digital technology?
    • Perhaps you’re a data journalist, bringing change by writing stories that interrogate the data around climate change.
    • Or you might be working for a campaigning organisation that uses tech like crowdsourcing or location-based digital services to accelerate climate action.

    If your ideas are new, innovative or outside the box, so much the better!

    We’re currently looking for people to showcase, discuss and potentially spark collaborations in hour-long afternoon sessions, with civic tech practitioners, council staff and others working around climate. Tell us about what you’ve been working on and chat with others about how they could adopt and build on your ideas.

    Sounds good? Sign up here before August 5 and we’ll get back to you by August 26 to let you know if you’ve been selected.

    Subscribe to mySociety’s newsletter for a monthly update on all our climate-related events and activities.

    Image: CJ Dayrit

  5. Reforming FOI in the UK: policy paper launch

    Thanks to everyone who attended the launch of our Research department’s policy paper this week.

    Open Democracy’s Peter Geoghegan and Open Rights Group’s Jim Killock joined us at the event for a fast paced discussion of the problems with FOI we’re all seeing in the current climate, and to what extent the proposals in our paper would remedy them.

    At times, the chat box  was so lively and knowledgeable that it felt like we’d convened the entire UK FOI community, but we know that isn’t quite true, so here’s the video for those that couldn’t make it:

    We’ve also answered the most relevant of the questions that were posed by our attendees, and you can see the responses here. Thanks, too, to Open Democracy for reviewing the paper in this thoughtful piece.

    Alex Parsons, who led on the research, has a handful of side explorations that didn’t end up in the final paper:

    And finally, if all this talk of FOI has awakened your desire to do more around the topic, well, we have just the job opportunity for you.

  6. National Democracy Week: supporting women in Civic Tech

    Throughout National Democracy Week, we’ve been focusing on women in politics: how they’re represented; how they’re affected; and how data can help us understand more about these two topics.

    To wrap things up, we want to highlight some of the organisations helping women in tech, and especially in our own field of Civic Tech.

    Coding, researching, designing and promoting web tools that help people to understand and engage with democracy is mySociety’s own way of participating in politics. We’d like to encourage more women to join us in this very rewarding field.

    Working in Civic Tech

    Civic Tech is a fairly new field, and a broad one. And while the coding side is often — rightly — highlighted as an area where there’s a minority of women, it’s also worth mentioning that there are all kinds of other career routes available (to everyone!).

    We can see some of these in mySociety: in fact, browsing our Team page is one good way of seeing the diverse roles within which we’re all chipping away at the organisation’s goals.

    These include research, design, events, communications, sysadmin, data analysis, sales and delivery — and of course in the wider field there are people working in hands-on activism and philanthropy.

    Organisations supporting women in Civic Tech

    mySociety’s gender balance fluctuates, as you’d expect, when people leave or join; but women currently make up about a third of the workforce. We’d always love to employ more women, and when we recruit it’s something we actively think about; in fact we wrote a whole longform blog post about it a while back.

    But in order for that to happen, women need to know about the routes open to them, and the benefits of working in Civic Tech. For starters, here’s a selection of the organisations actively working to get more women into this field and to support them once they’re here.

    • Open Heroines brings together the voices of women working in open government, open data and Civic Tech.
    • Code First: Girls (UK) works with companies and with men and women directly, to help increase the number of women in tech.
    • 23 Code Street (London) offers coding courses to women; for every paying student, they also teach digital skills to a woman in the slums of India.
    • Women Hack For Non-Profits (London) a community of women building open source projects for non-profit organisations and charities. Learn to code and work on real life projects.
    • Codebar.io (UK and worldwide) teaches coding in a supportive, collaborative environment for women, LGBTQ, and underrepresented ethnic groups.
    • blackgirl.tech (UK) ‘code and chill’ workshops for black women and non binary people.
    • Rails Girls (worldwide) Ruby on Rails workshops for women.
    • Lesbians Who Tech (US and worldwide) a community of queer women in or around tech (and the people who love them).
    • Geek Girl Meetup UK (London and worldwide) a network, for and by, women and girls interested in all things tech, design, and startup.
    • Mums in Tech (UK) coding school for mums, with baby friendly courses, events and classes.
    • DevelopHer (UK) non-profit community dedicated to elevating women in tech.
    • Pyladies (worldwide) mentorship group for women in the python community.
    • TLA Women in Tech (London) movement for gender equality in the global tech industry.
    • Ada’s List (email-based community) a group for women who are committed to changing the tech industry.
    • AuthorAID (worldwide) Supporting women researchers with practical advice and also provides grants to support researchers in attending a conference on the topic of gender or hosting a gender workshop in their country.
    • Uscreates (UK) supporting gender equality in design leadership.
    • Women who design (Twitter-based) a directory of women in the design industry.
    • Double or nothing (UK) campaign for gender equality in design.
    • Hidden women of design (Facebook page) a series of curated talks by Female Graphic Designers sharing insight into their creative practice.
    • Women in data (UK) Annual conference for data professionals.

    Words from mySociety’s staff

    Louise, Head of Development: I enjoy working for an organisation that has a positive effect on the state of the world and helps a wide range of people participate in civic life. As far as tech goes, I think programming is an amazing career choice for women for a lot of reasons — but three really obvious ones are money (tech jobs tend to pay above the average), power (you can build things that change the world) and flexibility (tech jobs tend to be inherently flexible and, as mySociety demonstrates, you can work from home).

    Bec, Head of Research: What I enjoy about working in Civic Tech is discovering how relatively small tools can change behaviours and change institutions. Hopefully for the better!

    Abi, HR: My Top Tips for Job Applicants now include reading this great piece, Confidence and the Gender Gap: 14 tips for Women in Tech. Think you’re slightly under-qualified? APPLY ANYWAY. We have seen worse, believe me.

    Myf, Communications Manager: I’ve found Civic Tech to be a really welcoming field that judges you on the quality of your work, not your gender or any other factor that’s irrelevant to the task in hand.

  7. Highlights from TICTeC@Taipei

    Well, what an amazing few days in Taipei!

    On 11-13 September we co-hosted TICTeC@Taipei, our Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, with our wonderful Taiwanese partners Open Culture Foundation (OCF).

     

     

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  8. When Westminster Was Wikified

    Last Saturday (August 19th) at Newspeak House in London, mySociety and Wikimedia UK held the “Wikifying Westminster” workshop, a day-long event to encourage people to get involved with Wikidata, but also to give a taste of what people can build with the data that is already there.

    The vision: one day, complex investigations which currently take researchers a lot of time, such as “how many MPs are descended from people who were also MPs” or “how many people named X were MPs in year Y”, will be answerable with data from Wikidata using a single SPARQL query…

    …but we’re not quite there yet. Currently, some data is scattered all over separate databases (which sometimes get shut down or disappear); some is just plain missing; and most frustrating of all, some is in place but there’s no apparent way to get it out of the database.

    In order to make this vision a reality, we need to experiment with the data, find ways to check how complete it is, and explore what questions we can currently answer with it. Events like Wikifying Westminster are the perfect opportunity to do just that.

    After a brief introduction to Wikidata and the EveryPolitician project, we split into two groups: one focused on learning how to use Wikidata, while the other focused on working on mini-projects.

    Here’s a taste of what happened…

    Learning track

    The learning track began by introducing new users to the basic Wikidata editing principles (or “getting data into Wikidata”). Participants were able to put their new skills into action immediately, by adding missing data on British MPs, who were mostly lacking dates and places of birth.

    By the end of the first session, good progress had been made, particularly on obtaining dates of birth for current British parliamentarians. For some reason, though, it proved much harder to find these for women than for men: we can only speculate as to why that might be (do some still adhere to the idea that a woman shouldn’t reveal her age?!).

    Lucas query Wikidata

    Lucas Werkmeister from Wikimedia Deutschland shows how Wikidata query service works (photo credits: Lucy Chambers)

    We were also given an introduction to SPARQL, a language used to query information on databases (or “getting data out of Wikidata”). Lucas Werkmeister introduced the Wikidata query service and explained a few tricks to help with using it. Participants were later able to put this to the test by running progressively difficult test queries such as “All current UK MPs” or “Who is the youngest current MP?”

    Also, Navino Evans showed us the potential of reusing data, talking about Histropedia, which he co-created with Sean McBirnie. Histropedia is an awesome tool that lets you visualise thousands of topics on interactive timelines: you can browse through existing ones or create a new one from scratch.

    Hacking track

    This group both worked on improving data and looked at how well we could answer some simple “stepping stone” queries (i.e. small questions to which we already knew some of the answers) as a heuristic of how good the data in Wikidata already is. You can see and contribute questions to the list of test queries here.

    Some more details:
    Improving data. The focus here was on the Northern Ireland Assembly, for which Wikidata now has full membership history back to the foundation of the Assembly, and on adding academic degrees of cabinet ministers. Starting from an excellent spreadsheet of the undergraduate universities and subjects of UK politicians and ministers (going back to John Major’s cabinets), we tried to upload that data on the relevant items, adding the qualifier “academic major” (P812) to the property “educated at” (P69). In this case, the key problem we found was that we weren’t sure how to model when people did joint subjects, like “Maths and Politics”, convincing us to concentrate on the more obvious subjects first.

    Answering some unusual and/or intriguing questions. Inspired by a prior finding that there are more FTSE 100 CEOs named John than there are female ones, and that John is historically the most common name of UK parliamentarians, we thought we’d find out when exactly the John-to-female balance was toppled amongst the UK’s MPs (hint: not until 1992).

    Going back further in history, we queried the first time each given name was recorded in Parliament, this was inspired by a recent news article about an MP who claimed he was the first “Darren” in the Commons.

    Some ideas were also born that we weren’t able to see through, for various reasons. For example, could we discover which, if any, MPs are descended from people listed in the UCL’s ‘Legacy of British Slave-owners’ database? An interesting question, but at the moment, the answer is ‘no’, partly because child-parent relationships are currently inconsistently modelled in Wikidata, and partly because of the nature of Wikidata and ancestry: if there is someone who doesn’t exist in Wikidata (e.g. Grandad Bob, the painter) in the family chain, Wikidata can’t bridge the gap between a present day MP and the slave owner who might be their ancestor.

    This is just the beginning

    Work, of course, is still ongoing: all pre-1997 UK data is still to be inserted or improved on Wikidata, and so much more is missing – family connections, academic degrees, links to other databases, and all sorts of “unusual stuff” that can be used for interesting queries.

    This data is crucial if we want to be able to answer the really big questions which Wikidata should one day be capable of helping us explore, about what politicians do.

    We can do that together!

    Wikifying Westminster - Build cool things with Wikidata


    (photo credits: Lucy Chambers)

    We hope that events like this give people an easy way in to Wikidata and also show them what’s already possible to achieve with the data. Over the coming months, we are hoping to support more events of this type around the world. If you are interested in getting involved, here’s how:

    • Want to improve your country’s data? Events like this can be a great way to help kickstart activities and find other people who share your goals. We are happy to help out and support people in other countries to do so.
    • Are you already organising or planning to organise a similar workshop around Wikidata? Make sure it is listed on the Wikidata Event page!
    • Do you want to attend future workshops? Follow us on Twitter to stay updated about events that we are running, and ones that other people are too!

    Feature image credits: Mark Longair

  9. Spain: Right to Know Day ‘requestathon’ highlights frustrating FOI process

    Is there anything you’d like to know from the Spanish authorities?

    In advance of International Right To Know Day, three organisations are collaborating to make the process of submitting an FOI request in Spain a little bit easier.

    Access Info Europe, Civio Foundation and the Transparency Council of Spain are calling it “an access to information requests marathon”, and their aim is to help people navigate the tedious process of requesting information from Spanish public authorities.

    As explained in this article by Access Info Europe, the Spanish Government has established a very complicated system for filing access to information requests. This includes the requirement to log in to a government-run portal using an electronic certificate or digital identification in order to request information. These certificates and IDs are not easy to obtain.

    This, and the unwillingness of Spanish authorities to accept information requests via email, led to Civio Foundation and Access Info Europe shutting down their Alaveteli request site, TuDerechoASaber (YourRightToKnow) in December 2015 in protest. You can read more about why they did this here.

    But they still believe that citizens everywhere should be able to request the information they require. In order to help people who don’t have the required electronic certificate or digital identification, Access Info Europe, Civio and the Transparency Council of Spain will use their own electronic certificates to file requests on users’ behalf.

    From now until 28th September (International Right To Know Day) anyone wanting to obtain information from Spanish authorities can send requests to them via:

    Do let us know what you ask — we’d love to hear.

    Photo: Duncan Creamer (CC)