The ground-breaking Polluters Project was a Guardian investigation into the fossil fuel companies driving the world to the brink of climate breakdown and the political, financial and lobbying structures that enable them. It aimed to focus the climate debate, away from individual responsibility, to those in power. In this part of the project we investigated MPs’ climate records, combining several strands of expertise – environmental reporting, data methods, visualisation and design – to produce a visually compelling and interactive piece of investigative journalism on one of the most important issues of our time.
Although information on MPs’ interests is publicly available, the way in which it is held is almost impossible for voters to access in a meaningful way.
Our MPs’ scorecard interactive is the most comprehensive picture to date on the climate records of the UK parliament’s elected representatives, providing readers with relevant information and enabling them to weigh up the climate record of their own MP and other elected representatives.
Our interactive was published ahead of the 2019 General Election and, in that period, was used as a tool by members of the public, many of who shared the results on social media. We were pleased to hear from MPs who reported that they had been pressed on their climate records while on the campaign trail (although some of the MPs themselves were less than thrilled to be pressed on the issue on the doorsteps).
Although the analysis provoked a negative reaction from some MPs, others – even those with modest scores – recognised it was an important exercise that would stimulate debate. The hope is that initiatives like this will help press governments to act: as the UN says the coming decade is crucial if the world is to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of global heating.
A similar methodology has since been used by the Irish Not Here Not Anywhere campaign in the run up to the February 2020 general election.
In order to provide readers with a fuller picture of MP’s climate records we developed complementary methodologies before visualising the resulting data:
- We analysed 10 years of MPs’ published interests – donations, shares, salaries and gifts – against a list of more than 400 search terms as associated with fossil fuel companies, petrostates and climate sceptics (as agreed by the Guardian/DeSmog). Each individual MP’s full interests history was scraped using Python scraper and terms were identified using regex.
- We developed a scoring system based on 16 indicative parliamentary divisions on climate chosen by the Guardian and DeSmog UK in consultation with several other organisations. The sole criteria in selecting MPs’ climate votes was whether their votes were likely to increase or reduce emissions. To carry out this part of the analysis we used the Import functions within Google sheets to quickly fetch the data and built out a scoring table using If Statements, VLookUps and Index/Match formulas.
What was the hardest part of this project?
There were several challenges to overcome in producing this project:
- Identifying the appropriate legislation: a lot of thought went into identifying the most meaningful parliamentary divisions on climate. The legislative pieces were chosen by the Guardian and DeSmog in consultation with Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Rebecca Willis (a research associate at Lancaster University) and others. The sole criteria in selecting the climate votes was whether they were likely to increase or reduce emissions.
- Developing a scoring system: we went through several iterations of scoring systems. We had wanted to up-vote those who had put their climate interests over the party whip: however, this disadvantaged MPs who consistently voted green. In the end we went with a simple scoring method as described in our methodology, with a base number of three votes required.
- Scraping: the sheer number of terms involved in our analysis – more than 400 in all – applied to a decade of MPs’ interests was a challenge which required a lot patience and various iterations to overcome.
- Mobile design: One of the big challenges of the project was creating a design that worked on wide desktop screens and tiny mobile phones. Given the sensitive nature of the data it was essential to frame it correctly, and ensure that readers coming to it on a mobile phone did not miss out on context. We achieved this by adding mobile functionality that made the scorecards expandable. Mobile readers could therefore explore the data visualisation, while still having access to the full information on each MP, rather than a truncated mobile version.
We overcame those challenges and the resulting piece was the most comprehensive exercise to date on the climate records of the UK’s elected representatives.
What can others learn from this project?
The main lessons which others can take away are:
- Collaboration is key: the project could simply not have been done were it not for the combined skills of individuals in various departments as well as collaboration with the guidance of external experts.
- Code for good: this was a data-led project which would not have been possible were it not for the use of code to identify the key material that was subsequently checked and summarised by the journalists involved.
- Reuse, recycle: we invested a lot of time on the code that went into this project. However, the code used in this project has since been applied to other projects and will continue to be useful in future.
- Enable your readers: it is not always the case but, in the run up to the election, we felt that giving readers the utility to check the records of MPs and their parties was important. The beeswarm histogram linked to MPs’ scorecards provided great functionally, working as it did across platforms and devices, and giving the reader an overview of the parties’ scores as well as individuals’ scores.