We went to COP26 in Glasgow ready to share our work on our prototype, join conversations and learn from the wealth of knowledge and perspectives on offer there. Now back in the office and fired up from the experience, here’s what I gained from the summit.
Going to COP26 – my first ever COP – was the culmination of seven weeks’ work on our very first prototype to map climate laws and policies using natural language processing, and an opportunity to shape the next phase of our work. We were there to share and there to learn. For me, it was also an immense privilege to act as the ambassador for the effort my colleagues had poured into building our prototype, which represents the beginning of our journey (blog about our prototype journey coming soon).
Obligatory globe pic (the cool COP26 mask conceals my goofy excitement)
We were fortunate to be able to share our work at incredible venues like the UNFCCC Global Innovation Hub and Resilience Lab, and in the beautiful surroundings of the University of Glasgow campus. And thanks to the mobile view built by our front-end developer Paula, opportunities to share it weren’t limited to formal events, but extended to coffee breaks, lunchtime chats and chance encounters in corridors.
Our setup at the UNFCCC Global Innovation Hub
This meant we were able to get feedback on our work from many different perspectives – from civil servants, researchers and people from NGOs to representatives from food delivery companies interested in policies on reusable packaging – and the more people we spoke to, the more we realised that the scope of potential uses for our work could be wider than we’d initially thought. Climate policy data, after all, is a public good – and we are discovering new people with a stake in that good every day.
Michal presenting our prototype at the Climate Law and Governance Day
Affirmation for our mission – and challenges to our assumptions
Talking to people about our prototype did two important things for us. Firstly, it gave us insight into how our stakeholders currently use policy data – analysts told us how they prepare policy briefs by reading through huge swathes of documents, and researchers described the constant manual scanning for newly published and updated climate laws and policies they have to do to stay in the loop. These processes, they told us, are inefficient and frustrating, and it was encouraging to receive overwhelmingly positive responses to our proposal to help fix the problem using machine learning and natural language processing as we map more climate policy in more detail.
Secondly, however, these conversations gave way to insightful comments and probing questions that tested some of our assumptions, reconfirmed the complexities that are intrinsic to the task of mapping and analysing climate policy, and gave us fresh ideas. ‘How do you define a climate policy?’ one researcher asked me. ‘Why don’t you measure impact by linking policy data to deforestation data?’ an analyst suggested.
Comments like these are exactly what we need. Beyond our prototype, we’re preparing for a limited release of the next version in spring 2022, followed by a public release next summer – but we’re also always thinking about the bigger picture. Capturing the ideas and needs of our prospective users and thinking about how and when to fit them into our timeline is at the core of our focus right now.
Learning from other speakers
With that in mind, we also drew lessons from other, broader conversations about climate law and policy and data-driven solutions to the crisis. At our event at the University of Glasgow, Louise Crow, from the non-profit group MySociety, spoke about their work analysing local council policies, and how council websites are not set up to reflect organisations that encourage transparency and citizen participation. Matthew Agarwala, from the Cambridge Bennett Institute for Public Policy, told us how AI can be harnessed to analyse sovereign debt and drive sustainable investment, while Robbi Redda, director of SouthSouthNorth, discussed the critical role of knowledge brokers in supplying decision-makers with the data they need to operate effectively.
This is crucial input for us: linking our national policy data to local policy databases feels like a no-brainer, given that our purpose is to maximise the accountability of decision-makers across the board. Expanding our data to encompass law and governance and sharing it with knowledge brokers are also clearly vital opportunities.
Climate data as a moral issue
Meanwhile, a host of interesting people showed up to our event on flows of data at the UNFCCC Resilience Lab – including Liv Torc, who framed the conversation by reciting her wonderful poem about rivers and flooding in Somerset.
This was an important session because its key message was a reminder that proper and effective use of climate data is fundamentally a moral issue. Data must be inclusive, participants told us, harnessing local and indigenous knowledge; it must be open and accessible, and available for all to use, including in different languages. And it must be reliable and of a high standard, helping to facilitate trust in factual evidence. ‘Without a moral framework’, explained Nathalie Seddon from the Oxford Nature-Based Solutions Initiative, ‘data won’t get us anywhere’.
Liv Torc recites ‘When You Know the Water’s Coming’
All these ideas are central to our purpose – creating an open, accessible, reliable, community-driven knowledge source – but they also give cause for us to pause and reflect. We’re serious about our principles but in the knowledge that we’re a team of people from the Global North: we don’t pretend that showing up at COP26 with a laptop will allay all the concerns of people who already live with the impacts of climate change every day. So, we are actively seeking opportunities to listen and to do what we can by building the knowledge and the voices of local communities into our data and tools. Our intention is that the researchers, analysts and decision-makers who we hope will use them – wherever they may be – see information that reflects and serves to help alleviate the injustices inherent in the climate crisis.
From the Blue Zone to the future
A huge trove of thoughts and feedback to reflect on, then. It was a joy to be at the summit, surrounded by so many people and ideas, hurriedly writing updates to the team back home between buses and cups of coffee. On my first day I got so immersed in various conversations that it was at times easy to forget that we were in the Blue Zone, with the negotiations happening just metres away. The Blue Zone struck me as a strange sort of space: the fate of humanity on the agenda, Aberdeen Angus beef on the menu, bright glossy pavilions all around. For us, it was really the positivity and creativity of the people we met there that provided the hope for us to cling on to.
I sat on the train home and tried to doze off as I watched the sun go down over the Lake District, but the thought of all the new avenues, opportunities and ideas we’d opened up in Glasgow made that difficult to do. Back in London, we’re getting to work now on the next phase of our journey, ready to release next spring. There’s no doubt that our time at COP26 was a critical moment in our story, and one we’ll be learning from for a long time to come.
Michal stayed in Glasgow for a few more days, and took part in a debate at the New York Times Climate Hub on whether democratic or authoritarian leaders are better prepared to address climate change.
Michal takes the stage at the New York Times Climate Hub
The debate threw up some interesting ideas, but either way what’s clear to us is that policy will be the factor that makes or breaks our response to the climate crisis. And we need to act now. So across all governments, from liberal democracies to autocratic regimes, our task is to support more efficient and more informed decision-making. Watch this space for news about how we’re doing that.