It finally feels like Spring is in the air, and you know it’s been a busy start to the year when we’re rolling the first two months into one set of monthnotes – in the middle of March!
So, what have we been up to?
Well – we’ve been adding datasets to and testing our alpha version of the Local Intelligence Hub tool that we built with The Climate Coalition. Feedback has been really good and this feels like something that’s really going to level up the ability of UK climate organisations to share data and coordinate their actions, at both a local and national level. We hope to share more about this project in the coming months, once it’s been made available to TCC members.
We submitted talks to a couple of conferences/events – and lo and behold, we’ll be in Sheffield (and online) for the Festival of Debate on May 24, with a panel of exceptional guests. Our topic? “What if you could reshape democracy for the better — and you had 20 years to do so?” Climate is sure to be part of the answer. Fancy joining us? Book here.
Between all this we’ve been working hard with our friends at Climate Emergency UK on the next round of the Council Climate Scorecards. Their draft methodology was released in November 2022, and the first round of marking started in January 2023. Part of our support has included building a Django application to store the marking data – and this has already dramatically improved the experience for Climate Emergency UK’s volunteers.
Climate Emergency UK are also working with mySociety’s Transparency team, using WhatDoTheyKnow Projects (a WhatDoTheyKnow Pro beta feature that helps researchers crowdsource data out of batch FOI requests) to gather some of the data for the scoring. All their FOI requests will be published on WhatDoTheyKnow later this year.
Our IICT grants are coming to an end soon – we’ve put out a blog post about Lynsted Community Kitchen Garden and the data they’re collecting with the weather station we funded. They have a public event on March 25 if anyone lives near Lynsted and wants to visit to check it out! Updates from Possible and Better Futures should be coming soon.
On the research side, we launched our report on unlocking the value of fragmented public data, which is part of our work into the data ecosystem around climate data. Our plan over the next few months is to support a few research commissions which link in to this report and help to show use of climate data.
We’ve confirmed a partnership with Dark Matter Labs – we’ll be moving forward with them and our Neighbourhood Warmth prototype, exploring how we could encourage neighbours to come together to take their first retrofit action, such as getting a house survey. We’ll be building a working prototype over the next few weeks, then testing it out with communities in three pilot areas around the UK, to ensure that what we’re building makes sense to the people we’re aiming to serve.
And finally, we met up in person! We had a team meeting in early February which was a wonderful chance for us all to take stock of the last year, and discuss the future. We’ve been making some plans for year 3 of the Climate programme and after widening our scope through prototyping, now we’re going to be focusing back in again on building and proving the impact of the services we’re running.
That’s a very whistlestop tour of our first months of 2023!
Image: Daniel James
- Online version of this document
- Application form
- Potential collaborators form
- Join the research commissioning mailing list/Research pool
- Download PDF
In one sentence
mySociety is looking for an individual, organisation or joint team to explore requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow.com to understand how requests for environmental information are being used in practice, highlighting success stories in releasing information at the local level, problems requesters encountered, and suggestions on how mySociety could better make use of the environmental information requests.
mySociety is the charity behind UK civic services like TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, and WriteToThem. We build open, digital solutions to help repower democracy, in the UK and around the world.
mySociety’s climate programme is funded by Quadrature Climate Foundation and the National Lottery Community Fund.
About mySociety’s existing work in this area
mySociety’s Climate Programme is exploring how digital tools and approaches can work to reduce the third of UK emissions that local authorities have influence over. A key focus of this work is improving the quality and quantity of information that exists around local climate action. We make local authority plans more accessible and visible, campaign for better official data, and support pooling and crowdsourcing of data to improve knowledge and accountability for climate action. You can read more about mySociety’s Climate programme here.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a website built by mySociety, and administered by mySociety in partnership with volunteers, that helps people make Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and publishes the results in public. Over 900,000 FOI requests have been made through this platform. We have published research looking at the scale of FOI in local government, and in improving FOI through the UK, and Europe.
About this project
Our ultimate goal in our climate work is to decrease UK carbon emissions that are either directly controlled or influenced by UK local government. Our main approach is by improving the information environment so that a variety of local institutions and actors are better able to understand the current situation, share knowledge on their approaches, and take more informed action. We have done this by making local authorities own plans and documents more discoverable and searchable, supporting crowdsourcing of information about plans and actions, pooling information held by different groups of campaigners, and arguing for improved publishing of official information.
Another method open to us is to use (or facilitate the use of) Freedom of Information laws to get more official data and information into the public domain. Freedom of Information laws give a wide range of public access to information held by authorities. This is useful in releasing information about authorities’ own plans and actions, but is also useful in releasing underlying information which local authorities, so that other organisations (including companies, charities, and other public sector bodies) can use to inform their own approach and actions.
The Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) substantially overlap with Freedom of Information. EIR requests make it easier to ask for and receive information specifically related to the environment, and covers a wider range of organisations than the general Freedom of Information law. We believe there is the potential to use improved support and guidance for Environmental Information Requests to facilitate more information relevant to local climate action being released, and being made discoverable by local authority actors, civil society and communities. This might take the form of modifications to WhatDoTheyKnow, or light-weight specialist services that sit on top of WhatDoTheyKnow’s FOI archive and infrastructure (similar to FragDenStaat’s Climate Helpdesk).
But before we can do that, we want to understand more about Environmental Information Requests. WhatDoTheyKnow’s archive gives us access to a huge number of requests made for environmental information, but we understand very little about the contents of these requests.
Based on a quick text search, we have a maximum of 70,000 requests that in some way mention environmental information regulations. As part of our wider pool of 1 million FOI requests, there may be other requests with environmental interests that have not explicitly mentioned EIR. We are looking for a contractor to explore the large WhatDoTheyKnow dataset, and highlight themes, patterns, and individual examples that show how EIRs are being used, obstacles users are encountering, and the implications of this for mySociety’s future work in this area.
The available budget for this work is up to £8000-10,000 (inclusive of VAT), and the project would need to be completed by the end of July. There is a small amount of flexibility on this end date – but we are looking to make decisions in August about best ways to follow up the project in September.
What we want to know more about
The broad goal of this project is to refine our understanding of how EIR works in practice. We’ve broken this into six areas we’d like to understand more about.
- EIRs have fewer exemptions, and a higher threshold for withholding material on public interest grounds, than FOI and. In principle, relevant information should be easier to get through EIR, but it is unclear how much this is significant in practice. We want to know more about the kinds of information that are successfully being released through EIR.
- EIRs apply to more types of organisation – and organisations that have an important local footprint may be accessible to FOI. We want to know about the kinds of institutions and authorities who are or could be releasing information under EIR that is relevant to our local emissions goals.
- Authorities should consider which regime a request falls under – and default to the more permissive EIR regime when a request is for environmental information. We want to know if there are cases where information is being withheld under FOI but should have been considered under EIR.
- EIR might be more poorly understood by both requesters and authorities – information may be being incorrectly withheld that should be released. We want to understand any patterns of refusal that would inform advice tools.
- At the moment we don’t have an automatic way of identifying EIR responses (when authorities have judged a request under these rules), but it should be possible to create classification rules that separate them from FOI requests. We want to refine this approach so we can more consistently identify and analyse EIR responses, so they can be in current or future local climate services.
- The big way in which EIRs are less accessible is that authorities can charge fees without a minimum amount of time taken, which is the case for FOI requests. Generally we think this doesn’t happen much (the ICO’s guidance is not to charge for a reasonable request), but we don’t know. We want a clearer sense of how often authorities ask that requesters pay a fee for environmental information.
What we are looking for in and from a partner
Expertise / skill set
We think there are a few different approaches to this project and are open to a range of approaches. In general we anticipate two main kinds of applicants: one leaning more on technical ability, and the other on specialist knowledge of FOI and EIR, or environmental data more broadly. For either kind of applicant, we can provide basic support in the other skillset. The ideal candidate would cover all of these bases (where a subject matter expert makes the technical search process sharper) – and we can help facilitate partnership applications between technical and specialist partners who might otherwise submit separately. If you are interested in this route, please fill out this collaboration form and we can help put you in contact.
The key thing an applicant needs to have is an approach to searching the large quantity of information on WhatDoTheyKnow. At a minimum this requires some technical skills and ability to navigate the site – but beyond that might be accomplished by large scale text analysis, or a sampling and search method. WhatDoTheyKnow’s search allows searching for specific search terms – but the search count is not always accurate for larger queries.
For technical strategies, we can provide data exports to enable searches off-platform. But for subject matter experts, we can also provide an Excel sheet of links to URLs that have triggered particular keywords, and authorities.
Something that is important to us is being able to point to individual examples – and so approaches based on aggregate analysis (which might be the better approach to identify the scale of fees being charged, for instance, or automatically analyse themes of requests) need to also be able to drill down to individual requests.
With this in mind, the following is a list of skills we would expect the candidate to have a couple but not necessarily all of the following:
- Technical skills
- Experience with search and processing large amounts of text delivered in a mostly unstructured way.
- Experience with Natural Language Processing (NLP) or automated topic extraction.
- Subject matter skills
- Knowledge and experience of Freedom of Information and/or Environmental Information Requests
- Especially practical understanding of refusal and appeal grounds in both FOI and EIR.
- Less important, but understanding of the wider European context of Environmental Information Regulations might provide additional understanding of potential approaches mySociety could take in the UK.
- Knowledge and experience of Freedom of Information and/or Environmental Information Requests
Alignment with values and aims
Our Repowering Democracy strategy puts a special emphasis on embedding equity and inclusion in our work practices and services, and our work aims in general to fulfil values of equity/justice, openness and collaboration.
Applicants should consider if this presents any obstacles to a working relationship, and think about how these values should be reflected in the project plan, either in terms of subject matter to investigate, or research approach.
mySociety works flexibly and remotely, and there is no requirement to work from or visit an office. Applicants can distribute their work as appropriate over the time available, but we would expect regular check-ins on progress to be arranged over that period. A shared Slack channel and a specific contact person will be used to help coordinate and quickly share questions and information between mySociety and the researcher.
Successful applicants would be expected to abide by the mySociety Code of Conduct in mySociety communications channels and events.
Outputs and deliverables
The purpose of this project is to inform mySociety’s future projects, especially forming the base of knowledge around the use of EIRs for a prototyping week.
We are open to the form of outputs – this may take the form of one large report, briefings around our individual question areas, proposed amendments to guidance, etc. For technical submissions, analysis code under an appropriate licence would form part of the output.
The outputs should also work as a general contribution to knowledge of the current use of EIRs, and we might either publish or edit down and publish these briefings/reports.
Q&A and contact details
The application timeline includes a Q&A event, to which you can sign up at the link at the top of this document. The Q&A session will include an element to help individual researchers coordinate to form a joint submission (applications are also welcome from individual researchers). Answers will be made available in a video on this page for applicants who cannot take part. Questions can be emailed to the contact address below.
Please send any queries or questions to email@example.com and mention which project it is in regard to. Questions in advance are preferred and will be prioritised in the session.
Applications can be submitted by individuals, organisations, or joint teams of individuals/organisations. These should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by the closing date.
You should submit a short application, of up to 4 pages of A4. A template for the response can be downloaded at the link at the top of this page, and covers:
- Who you are (whether an individual, organisation, or joint team).
- A description of your previous experience/previous work and why you want to take on this project.
- To the extent that this is possible, this should be anonymous and not include names of the org or members of the team (to help with anonymous stages of the recruitment process)
- How you would approach and deliver this project – a short project plan with approximate timings.
- This could include discussion of appropriate outputs for the project, and balancing technical and subject matter requirements.
- The total value (£) of your proposal (including VAT), and high-level breakdown of costs (perhaps an indication of days per person, any other expenses). This does not need to include production costs of the report.
- Given the cost of the project, we will not be giving a great deal of weight to budget plans so please keep this short and high-level – we can dig into further details during interviews, if necessary.
- A short description of the individuals or team who will do the work, including biographies
There is a separate equalities monitoring form to fill out, which is processed separately from the main application (there is a link to the form in the application form). This is for understanding the reach of our method of distributing the call for proposals.
If you are interested in joining a ‘researcher pool’ mailing list that we will contact with details of future projects, please see the link at the top of this document.
If there are changes during this timeline, the table on the website version of this form will be updated.
Stage Date Description Call for proposals published 7 March 2023 Q&A Webinar 21 March 2023 An open, online public event for interested bidders to learn more about the project and ask questions. This will be recorded and available afterwards. You can submit questions in advance to email@example.com. Questions in advance are preferred. Questions answered 23 March 2023 Video of the webinar to be made available to all potential bidders, in addition to answers to any other questions submitted via email Deadline for applications 31 March 2023 (end of day) Initial decisions 7th April 2023 Applicants to be informed whether they have made it through to a short panel interview (and may be asked for a sample of existing work). Applicants not progressing past this stage to be offered written feedback Interviews w/c 10 April 2023 Format to be decided, but this will likely be a one-hour panel interview with several people involved in the climate programme, towards the end of the week (14th, 15th April) Final decision w/c 18 April 2023 Remaining applicants to be informed of the final decision. Applicants not progressing to be offered feedback Project briefing/kick-off meeting End of w/c 18 April 2023 To include a brief introduction to mySociety, discussion of any onboarding required and approach to project management, communication and catch-ups Project deadline End of July 2023 End of project
(Time range of project is a little flexible – we want it to inform decisions in August about any follow up work in September)
What happens after the project
We intend to publish the report or briefs you produce, credited to you, on the mySociety website, licensed under a Creative Commons licence (see recent publications on research.mysociety.org for details). We may make some light edits (beyond proofreading) before we publish. You will be free to make publicly available your own version should you wish to, and any other material based on the research you conducted.
We will convene a short ‘lessons learned’ session for the contractor and mySociety to discuss how the project went – what went well and anything that could have been improved. We will also discuss any future work based on the delivered project (e.g. if you are an academic and might want to co-author an article) and our ongoing relationship. We would also like to arrange a presentation on the project to mySociety staff, and there may also be an opportunity to promote the work in a public event held by mySociety (budgeting for this would be separate to the project above).
Terms and conditions
Interested parties must be UK-based individuals or organisations.
Questions and Answers
For data analysis, what format is the data available in?
We create a regular research export of the database in CSV format. This doesn’t include the last few months of data and removes requester names where possible (this is generally available on the website, but we are trying to future proof against information being too available if redactions are needed in future).
There is a a data table of requests made by authority, and then a dataset of the individual messages (with full text) for each request.
We currently don’t make the downloaded files themselves available in bulk (but are accessible through the site) – but the bulk export does include any cached conversion of a word document or pdf attached.
We can produce reduced data sets limited to specific authorities or keywords. For instance, to those flagged as potentially EIR projects at the start.
What is the time scale for the research?
Broadly we’re looking for work to be completed by the End of July to help us inform how we spend our time in September. Depending on the nature of outputs, there may be some flexibility around this.
The retained EU law will ‘sunset’ EIR at the end of the year, unless explicitly retained. How does this work relate to that?
Our current default assumption is “everything will be fine” and this project can proceed as if EIR will continue past 2023. In the event it is looking like everything is not fine, this research helps us understand more about the impact of EIRs for campaigning purposes.
How have you handled projects like this before and how have they worked?
We’ve previously commissioned two pieces of research: one was about how we should commission research, the other was the role of local government in climate change. In both case we worked with a sole researcher, with regular check-in meetings and a shared slack channel. That said, we’re open to group applications (and this project may be appropriate for that). Neither of those projects was particularly data heavy, but we have worked to provide external researchers with data before.
What support will you give the project?
The main support and contact for the project will be Alex Parsons (Senior researcher) from aa research and data perspective. There is limited available of the WhatDoTheyKnow on a day to day basis team – but I can either answer questions or get answers to questions we need to know.
If you have any other questions about this project or the application, please email : firstname.lastname@example.org
As a joint project between mySociety and the Centre for Public Data, we have written a set of simple principles for how to get the most impact out of publishing public data. You can read the report online, or download it as a PDF.
Fragmented public data is a problem that happens when many organisations are required to publish the same data, but not to a common standard or in a common location. Data is published, but without work to join up the results, it rarely has the intended impacts.
The results of this are frustrating for everyone. Data users cannot easily use the data, policy makers do not see the impact they want, and publishers in public authorities are required to produce data without seeing clear results from their work.
Better and more consistent publication of data by local authorities helps enable understanding and action at scale across a range of areas. At the same time, we recognise that the technical advice given has assumed higher levels of technical capacity that in practice is possible for many data publishing tasks. Our goal has been to make sure our advice makes data more accessible, while having a realistic idea of technical capacities and support needed for data publishing.
This report recommends three minimum features for a data publishing requirement to be successful:
- A collaborative (but compulsory) data standard to agree the data and format that is expected.
- A central repository of the location of the published data, which is kept up to date with new releases of data.
- Support from the data convener to make publication simple and effective – e.g. through validation and publication tools, coordinating returns, and technical support.
We recommend that:
- Whenever government imposes duties on multiple public authorities to publish datasets in future, it should also provide the staff and budget to enable these features.
- The Central Data and Digital Office should publish official guidance covering the above.
Better data publishing helps climate action
This project is informed by recurring frustrations we have run into in our work. Projects such as KeepItIntheCommunity, which mapped registered Assets of Community Value, were much more complicated than they needed to be because while transparency was required of authorities, coordination was not – meaning the task of keeping the site comprehensive and updated was enormously difficult. In principle, we could build a tool that empowered communities in line with the intentions of the original policy makers. In practice, a lack of support for basic data publishing made the project much harder than it needed to be.
This problem also affects our work around local government and reducing emissions. Local government has influence over one third of emissions, but much of that is indirect rather than from the corporate emissions of the authority directly. As such, many activities (and datasets) of local government have climate implications, even if the work or data is not understood as climate data. For instance, the difficulty in accessing the asset data of local authorities makes it harder for civil society to cross-reference this information with the energy rating of properties, and produce tools to help councils understand the wider picture.
In future we will be publishing in more detail the kind of data we think is needed to support local authorities in emission reduction – but emissions reduction cannot be isolated from the general work of local authorities. Improving the consistency of the data that is published helps everyone better understand the work that is happening, and makes local government more efficient.
Photo credit: Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash
A month ago we wrote a blog post looking for outside researchers to do some research to keep our climate work well rooted in the evidence base. The goal of this first piece of work is to research public understanding of what local government does, and especially its role in combating climate change.
After a really strong set of applications, we are delighted that we’ll be working with Tom Sasse on this project. Tom is an associate director at the Institute for Government and is taking this work on in a freelance capacity.
As he starts on this research, he’s interested in any material (especially that may be off the beaten path) that could be relevant to that question. He can be reached on Twitter or through email at email@example.com.
We’ll be reflecting on what we’ve learned from this process to make improvements to both the application process, and the design of our future research briefs. If you’re interested in hearing about those future calls for proposals, you can join the mailing list.
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 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.
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:
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.
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:
- Public understanding of local authorities and climate
- Public pressure and local authorities
- How local authorities make decisions around climate
Watch this space for more details about these research opportunities, and how to get involved.
In the first post in this series I introduced our new focus around repowering democracy, and in the second I outlined how we think we need to change as an organisation to make this happen. In this final post we’ll give an overview of the new behaviours we’ll adopt across the organisation so that we’re better able to help repower democracy.
Over the next 10 years, we might have two general elections; maybe three rounds of various local elections; and quite possibly a vote for Scottish independence in 2023 – but by and large the elected leaders, civil servants, community leaders and institutions we already have in place today are the ones who will be making the big decisions about democracy and climate over the next decade.
With this in mind we’ve identified seven cross-cutting behaviours we need to adopt in order to deliver our strategy. Below, we introduce each behaviour and the key events and outcomes we are seeking to deliver as we incorporate these into our day to day work.
1. Partner for impact and diversity
We can deliver our greatest impact through and with others. We look for partners with the ‘same goals, different skill sets’: organisations and groups that want to achieve similar outcomes to ourselves, but that might be approaching it in a different way, or have a distinct set of skills so we can each complement what the other is doing.
Understanding, learning from, and seeking to collaborate with the systematic connections and existing networks already active in tackling the democratic and climate challenges ensure that we can best understand the unique contribution we can make to drive the most positive outcomes.
2. Build community everywhere
We’ll seek to build community everywhere, inside and outside our organisation – stewarding and supporting the growth of participant communities around our existing services, enabling a greater sense of ownership by those communities. We’ll help users to help each other more, reach new users, and provide more evidence for the benefits of becoming active citizens.
Building community is a core concept for understanding how to put more power into more people’s hands and better understanding societal needs beyond the needs of individuals. To make this happen we’ll become a more porous organisation, helping us improve at working with and collaborating with others to achieve our shared goals.
3. Advocate for change
Our research work to date has played a relatively passive role in putting forward practical and actionable ideas for how things might be done differently. Considering the scale of the crises we face, we need to advocate and push for more significant and swifter change – pulling the levers of power where they are open to us; aligning with movements for change where they are not.
At its simplest this means getting the word out about how people can work with us, find common cause, and pool our resources in order to increase active pressure for change. We’ll seek to expand our public policy and public affairs skills directly and through partnering, increasing our capacity to really dig into institutions to identify key decision makers and allies.
4. A drumbeat of experimentation
We want to recapture the early approach to experimentation which kickstarted mySociety by placing new bets within each of our programmes, to try new approaches and engage new users and participants who might not be familiar with our work or how they can make use of it.
We will look for every opportunity to move quickly and experiment widely – doing what’s necessary to learn, putting that into practice and looking for ways to ‘put money behind what works’.
5. Everyday equity and inclusion
Whilst technology can achieve many things, it can often serve to reinforce structural inequality. Representation in civic tech suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields: with predominantly white leadership and staff, the majority of technical roles and positions of power held by men, limited opportunities for those from historically excluded and as a result underrepresented groups – particularly racially minoritised and disabled people.
We need to better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they benefit more marginalised communities, and actively work to diversify our workforce – leading to better outcomes for everyone.
6. Home is where the heart is
We started in the UK and we still run our largest active services here. Over the past 18 years we’ve worked with fellow civic technologists around the globe as part of the civic tech community, sharing, adapting and collaborating on building a movement of technology led participation.
Through this strategy we are recommitting to incubating solutions to democratic and climate challenges here in the UK first of all – and working in the open to support partners to adopt this work elsewhere. Through TICTeC we seek to better connect and equip others to undertake effective, evidence-based and impactful work that enhances public participation, transparency and accountability.
7. A bigger idea of team
We have an excellent, experienced and committed team. But we are often thinly spread and constrained around our capacity to explore new ideas at pace and scale and we need to be more inclusive and diverse both as a team and through the partners and communities we serve.
If we’re going to operate in a way that is commensurate with the crises we face, we’ll need to find new and imaginative ways to do more; enhancing our collective skills further, with new staff who can help us collaborate more effectively and work better with others to achieve our goals.
We’ll invest in community building roles, with outreach and network skills to give us more capacity to better connect, learn and collaborate; we’ll rejuvenate our approach to volunteering, expanding the ways for more people to contribute their time in more meaningful ways to support and extend our work – becoming a more open and porous organisation along the way.
We’ll work in partnership with people, communities and institutions to harness digital technology in service of civic participation.
We’ve learned a lot about what we need to change in order to make the shifts we’ve identified, in order to be ready to repower democracy.
Our experience over the past 18 years has taught us that advocacy campaigns and policy influencing is more effective when it’s done in partnership, and that we offer a specific set of skills and experience that many organisations do not have inhouse. We plan to partner more with a broad range of experienced people and partners outside of the organisation.
We need to rethink our definition of the team beyond the confines of just the staff – our volunteers, board members, and not least the wider community of which we are all part helps forge a bigger, better definition of what mySociety needs to be.
We’ve recognised that we can’t just play one side of the game: it’s not enough just to empower citizens, we need to prime institutions to be capable of responding to that empowerment.
And along with all of this we’ll need to increasingly rethink where power lies, and where we refocus our activity beyond government and the public sector.
Where we go next
The thoughts outlined in these three posts set out the direction of travel for our work over the next few years – over the next few months we’ll be working through what this means for our existing programmes and services, how we live up to the three shifts and fully incorporate our new behaviours.
In developing this thinking we’ve drawn upon support from across our whole team, board members, staff and volunteers, with lots of input from external peers and advisors. I’m especially grateful to the New Citizenship Project who have helped us imagine what the #citizenshift means for our day to day work and have helped us work though how we might put that into practice.
If you have any thoughts on how you might help repower democracy, I’ll put all three of these posts on Medium for comments and further discussion.
Image: Ussama Azam
When TheyWorkForYou launched back in 2004, it was a world first. Never before had parliamentary data been used to power a digital tool designed specifically for citizens to better understand how their MPs were representing them in parliament.
Innovations like TheyWorkForYou and our open source code Pombola, which was designed to help people elsewhere run their own parliamentary monitoring sites, have helped make mySociety a bit of a global expert in the digital transformation of parliaments and parliamentary data, and over the years we have been working a lot with international parliaments to help them to realise their own digital potential, so that their people can better hold them to account.
One of our key partners in this work is Westminster Foundation for Democracy, alongside whom we have worked with parliaments from Morocco to Uzbekistan to Myanmar. While each parliament is fascinatingly unique, there are very common opportunities, risks and barriers that arise in digital transformation, and an exploration of these themes is the subject of a new report published today.
‘Connected Parliaments’, published by Westminster Foundation for Democracy during Participation and Openness Week 2021, is a jointly authored report by WFD and me, mySociety’s Head of Research. It considers how local and contextual factors affect the digitisation of parliamentary business, and the potential for digital tools to empower citizens to better hold their political institutions to account.
Image: Fabio Bracht
In May 2019 Pressure Vessels, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), sought to understand increasing levels of stress on the mental health of academic staff.
Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University used Freedom of Information to understand the changing state of staff bodies’ mental health, analysing the demand for counselling and occupational health services within HE.
The first Pressure Vessels report focused primarily on academic staff, while this follow-up broadens the brief to incorporate professional services staff.
“Professional services staff are often marginalised in discussions about the higher education workforce, despite the significant roles they play. They are also more likely to be vulnerable to restructuring and redundancy,” say the study’s authors.
Of course, like every other sector in society, Higher Education has experienced a severe change in working conditions due to the global pandemic. But as Dr Morrish points out, “higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.”
The data in Pressure Vessels II was obtained by requests for information made to 17 universities, on staff numbers accessing counselling and referrals to occupational health for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 academic years.
The first report inspired Sheffield lecturer Tom Stafford to plot the figures onto graphs for each institution — he also offered to make graphs for any more data that could be obtained from other HEIs.
We are pleased to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used as part of a campaign to understand conditions and press for improvements. It’s just one more example of how our right to information can be used for the greater good. Read Pressure Vessels II here.
Image: Nik Shuliahin
Stuart Lawson is a librarian, one of the editors at the Journal of Radical Librarianship, and a part of the open access movement which advocates that research outputs should be distributed for free and online, with an open license — for the good of all.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that some of Stuart’s recent research, informed by Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s Higher Education Institutes, has focused on research journals — and specifically, how much institutes are paying for subscriptions. You can see the requests here, the data released in this spreadsheet, and the resulting report here.
The study collected details of payments made by HEIs for access to academic journals from 2017-2019, focusing on ten publishers. The research team discovered that the total expenditure was more than £330 million.
We spoke to Stuart and asked for some background to this FOI-based investigation, beginning with an explanation of the original motivation behind it:
“Open access publishing means that research is available to everyone, but there are debates around how that model can be paid for. And since there is currently a mixed system where some publications are open access and some require subscriptions to access, libraries are continuing to pay a lot of money for subscriptions while also trying to find ways to fund open access.
“I am a librarian who wants all research to be published open access rather than behind a paywall, so I felt that it was important to know the financial costs of the current system.
“Previously, the amounts were unknown. It’s impossible to have conversations about the appropriate cost of scholarly publishing if we don’t know what those costs are in the first place!”
The need for FOI
Freedom of Information is, of course, a practical way to obtain data from public authorities, and to build up a nationwide picture. But in this case, it was vital.
“Using the legal tool of FOI was the only way to get this data, as institutions were not voluntarily releasing it.
“One publisher, Elsevier, even had a clause in the contracts signed by libraries that forbade them from telling anyone how much they were spending, unless they were required to via an FOI request.
“These ‘non-disclosure’ clauses are common worldwide in publisher contracts, but thankfully not widely used in the UK (except by Elsevier) because Jisc — the higher education body that negotiates most deals — have worked to remove them”.
Despite the reluctance that one might assume that this signified, Stuart says getting the required information was pretty straightforward once they’d submitted the FOI requests. In fact, the hardest part was the admin:
“A majority of HEIs provided the data promptly, although some refused in the first instance which meant I need to push back and sometimes requested an internal review of the handling of the request.
“Eventually most institutions provided the data, but the hold-outs caused a lot more work for me”.
Making requests in public
Why was WhatDoTheyKnow particularly suitable for this project?
“It was the best way that I knew of to make bulk requests to organisations. But more importantly for me, I wanted to make sure there was a complete public record of all responses so that when I compiled the data, others could verify it”.
That’s one of the reasons that WhatDoTheyKnow is set up to publish FOI requests and responses online, so we were glad to hear this.
And what is Stuart’s desired outcome from this study?
“For people to realise the high cost of subscription charges, and for libraries to question how much they are spending. And perhaps even cancel some of the deals and spend their money on enabling open access instead.”
It’s possible that this piece of research will be enough of an eye-opener to start making a change in this area. But Stuart’s realistic:
“I hope I don’t need to send these requests again in future years, but the situation is still moving quite slowly, so it might be necessary to use WhatDoTheyKnow once again!”
Image: Bruno Mira
Earlier this year, we were fortunate enough to be contacted by Brian Keegan, Assistant Professor in Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, who specialises in the field of network analysis.
Brian and his team were planning to mine the official biographies of every legislator published by the Library of Congress – going back to the first Congress in 1789 – and add the information as structured data to Wikidata. Having heard of our involvement with WikiProject Every Politician, they wanted to understand more about contributing.
The research team, which included professors from the Libraries, Political Science and Information Science departments, planned to combine this biographical data with more common data in political science about voting and co-sponsorship, so that interesting questions could be asked, such as “Do Ivy League graduates form cliques?” or “Are medical doctors more likely to break with their party on votes concerning public health?”. Their hypothesis was that the biographical backgrounds of legislators could play an important role in legislative behaviours.
However, the first big step before questions could be asked (or SPARQL queries made) was supporting undergraduate students to enter biographical data for every member of Congress (going right back to the first) on Wikidata. This has not generally made it into the datasets that political scientists use to study legislative behaviour, and as students began to enter data about these historical figures, it quickly became apparent why: non-existent nations, renamed cities, and archaic professions all needed to be resolved and mapped to Wikidata’s contemporary names and standardised formats.
Nine months on, the team and ten undergraduates have revised over 1,500 Wikidata items about members of Congress, from the 104th to the 115th Congresses (1995-2018) and the 80th– 81st Congresses (1947-1951), which is 15% of the way through all members dating back to the first Congress in 1789!
They started running SPARQL queries this summer.
Joe Zamadics, a political science PhD student who worked on the project explained the potential of combining these data: “One example we tried was looking at House member ideology by occupation. The graph below shows the ideology of three occupations: athletes, farmers, and teachers (in all, roughly 130 members). The x-axis shows common ideology (liberal to conservative) and the y-axis shows member’s ideology on non-left/right issues such as civil rights and foreign policy. The graph shows that teachers split the ideological divide while farmers and athletes are more likely to be conservative.”
The team are keen to highlight the potential that semantic web technology such as Wikidata offers to social scientists.
For the full Q + A with Brian and Joe see the mySociety Medium post.