Little noticed in Vince Cable’s statement last autumn about when he would stand down as Liberal Democrat leader was the third element. His plans to stand down once Brexit was (in some way) resolved and once his proposed party reforms had gone to party conference caught the attention. But there was a third point too – a rather cryptic reference to standing down, “once key technology projects to secure the future campaigning ability of the Liberal Democrats” have gone live.
But to a select group of party insiders, it was immediately obvious as a reference to something very different.
Although Vince Cable hasn’t been known for his hands-on approach to managing the party during his time as leader, he has had one particular project he has been passionate about, a reflection of his life-long advocacy of science and technology.
It is Wintringham 1, named in honour of the first female Liberal MP and set to head into space this morning as the first Liberal Democrat satellite.
This might sound implausible if you are not familiar with the huge drop in the price of satellite launches, combined with the rise of ‘microsatellites’ which can pack into a tiny space the sort of processing power that used to require satellites the size of a bus.
In fact, satellite launches have become so much easier and cheaper that the American podcast Planet Money did a special series charting the podcast’s efforts to launch its own satellite into space.
Now the Liberal Democrats are today becoming the first political party in the world (and, I think one can possibly add without hyperbole, the universe) to have its own dedicated satellite. It will be launched from New Zealand this morning, controlled remotely from the nascent UK Satellite Control Room in Hillingdon, which is hoping to expand in due course to have control over the new satellite launch venues in Scotland and Cornwall.
Why get a satellite, you might wonder. Well, it’s for four reasons.
First, any long-term user of Connect will know the problem with not all the properties on the electoral register being properly geocoded. As a result, they are missed off delivery round and canvass maps or – even worse – appear in completely the wrong place. With Wintringham 1, the party will be building up its own geocoding database, saving on data licensing fees and building up a better data set. There are even hopes that, as the party has done on a limited scale before with other data, the quality of the geocoding data – mixing technology with the knowledge gleaned by thousands of volunteers across the country – will be such that the party can make money from licensing it to others.
(That possibility of licensing data led to a mini-conspiracy theory about how the terms for licensing the data appeared not to rule out licensing it to The Independent Party, causing some members of the Federal Finance and Resources Committee – FFRC – to speculate that a secret plot was afoot. Alas, the truth was rather more mundane. The paragraph in the document which would have made clear such licensing will not take place was missed out from the committee’s mailing by mistake.)
The second reason for the party’s own satellite is real-time weather data, allowing the party to optimise the deployment of volunteers around the country, switching helpers from canvassing to indoor clerical work, for example, as rain clouds move across the country. The availability of enhanced real-time weather data via the party’s member-only mobile website will, it is also helped, be a little perk of membership that may encourage registered supporters to upgrade.
The third reason is, of course, potholes. What better way of locating potholes to campaign on, or to track progress in repairing them, than with an eye in the sky?
The fourth, and most controversial, reason is to enable party volunteers to turn on a ‘track my location’ system if they feel at personal risk. This might be when, for example, someone canvasses a particularly far-flung rural area or when out campaigning in the dark, such as before dawn to deliver good morning leaflets in a winter by-election. This raises obvious fears about Big Brother and invasion of privacy, so the party’s Federal People Development Committee (FPDC) has been drawing up a data sharing compact to make clear when such data can be used and for what.
Funding for Wintringham 1 has been secured from several new party donors who are keen to support the party’s campaigning on Brexit. Topped up by a fundraising in Vince Cable’s own constituency, where donors got entered in a draw to be able to be the person who pushes the button to launch Wintringham 1.
Congratulations on winning Loof Lirpa, one of the party members who joined in response to the 2015 general election. May your button pressing in Hillingdon be a success.