Interviewing Mark Sullivan, the founder of the party’s new electoral database supplier

During the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham, I had the chance to quiz Mark Sullivan (the founder of VAN, which is becoming the party’s new electoral database software under the name CONNECT).

I’m (like others) excited about the possibilities CONNECT will bring, partly because I’ve worked with EARS for just about two decades now. It has helped produce some stupendous election results and people involved with it have worked tremendously hard. But it also has some major limitations, particularly the number of bugs (including more than once data being lost on polling day), the haphazard record of delivering new features (the extra features the party agreed to pay centrally for to help the 2009 European elections still weren’t all in place for the 2010 general election, for example), the difficulty of making EARS work with other programs that specialise in other tasks and – perhaps most importantly – an interface which makes data management too much like a special sect for the hardcore rather than a broad-based activity running through all we do.

CONNECT by comparison not only looks far better on each of these factors, it won out in a contested procurement process and has a big business model advantage: as it is used by a large number of campaigns, the income from those fund a large development team.

However, in order to get the best out of the opportunity, I took the chance to ask Mark about three potential concerns which have come up when Liberal Democrats have been taking a first look at CONNECT: rural areas, reliability and differences between US and UK politics.

Mark explained that VAN has its origins in Iowa, not only a very rural US state but also one with a large number of older political volunteers. So right from the start, VAN had to cope with both rural campaigning and being used by volunteers who have not grown up used to using computers or the web. What’s more it had to work over slow dial-up internet connections as that was all most people had at the time. Add to that VAN’s successful use by the Canadian Liberal Party – as my two mammoth train journeys in Canada attest, it is very big and very rural – and VAN has a strong track record of being used in rural areas with both the addressing and internet connectivity issues that brings.

One other point about the Canadian Liberals is worthy of note. They had developed their own in-house software using a team who I’ve met and are very sharp. It was much bigger than the EARS team, but eventually concluded that even with their resources they just could not do enough in comparison with what you can get from VAN’s team of around 45 dedicated programmers and the updates they regularly provide for all customers.

On reliability, Mark’s message was impressive. In the four and a half years since a new service level agreement was reached with the Democrats in the US, the target of never having the system down for more than 15 minutes has never been missed. Even online services such as Gmail have failed for more than 15 minutes in the last four and a half years. That is right at the top of reliability records and means in practice if you have been using VAN during those years, you’ve lost more time thanks to issues such as a laser printer jamming, a kitten having a go at cables or a Microsoft Windows Update insisting on a slow reboot of your machine than you have due to VAN.

Aside from that up time record ,the best witness to VAN’s reliability and security is that both the Clinton and Obama campaigns were happy to use it – even when they were head-to-head against each other in a bitterly contested nomination struggle. For two such campaigns to both be willing to entrust sensitive and vital data to the same system is a good mark of the trust they had in it.

One reason they could do this was that access to data can be controlled not only by geography (e.g. “who has access to the records for people in village X?”) but also by type of data (e.g. “who has access to the email records for people in county Y?”).

The ability to mix and match data access in this way will, I suspect, come in very useful for the Liberal Democrats in elections that cut across local party organisation. For example, someone organising a regional freepost for a European election could have access via CONNECT to name, address and mailing opt out information for people across the region without having to also therefore be given access to other pieces of data.

Mark himself had hit the campaign trail in rural Wales for the May 2011 elections to see how at first-hand how campaigning differs between the UK and the US. Some parts of UK campaigning are requiring VAN to change, such as the much greater emphasis in the UK on regular delivery rounds which a regular local volunteer does every other month for years. (VAN was used to creating much more bespoke delivery rounds as and when required.) Similarly, the emphasis on hand-delivery in the UK over postage means that VAN has improved its facilities for producing different target letters but then printing them in one integrated delivery order. (Getting this right in EARS has always been one of the hardest things to do.)

Mark’s view was that this was a two-way process – VAN is adapting to UK politics but in return UK political organisation can in turn learn from how you can do things differently when you have a system like VAN. In particular, the ability for people to have the latest data on tap means much more efficient use can be made of volunteers. Moreover, the ability to access it and update it from several places at once makes it much easier to build up a larger team of volunteers doing tasks such as data entry. That way key data people end up being able to spend their time on tasks such as making the best use of data rather than been trapped into having to spend large amounts of time doing all the data entry themselves.

That is a different approach to doing the data officer role from that followed by many at the moment, but then the point about new technology is that it lets you do things differently and better.

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