The all-member edition of Liberal Democrat News recently posted out included this piece from myself about the party’s new electoral database software, Connect:
One of the big talking points amongst party activists at the Birmingham conference was Connect, the party’s new electoral database software, introduced under Chief Executive Chris Fox. Connect was put through many demonstrations to different groups of future users – data officers, treasurers, campaign organisers and so on.
Like others, I am impressed by its ability to make what we have tried to do in the past easier, more effective and quicker – especially given my experience using existing systems since the 1990s and also trying to share data effectively between different parts of the party during my time working at party HQ.
But systems need to work well to bring promised benefits. So when I had the chance to quiz Mark Sullivan, founder of VAN, the firm which will be supplying Connect, I raised the questions of how it would work in rural areas, its reliability and how well the originally US software was adapting to the UK.
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, at a time when slow dial-up internet connections were the norm, and with being used by volunteers who have not grown up used to computers or the web. It has also been used successfully in Canada, a country which– as my two mammoth train journeys showed me – is very rural indeed.
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. That means in practice that if you have been using VAN during those years, you have 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 uptime 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.
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 village X?”) but also by type of data (e.g. “who has access to the email records?”).
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 in May 2011 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.)
But in addition, there are areas where we can learn from VAN’s US experience. For example, the ability to access it from several places simultaneously makes it much easier to build up a team of volunteers doing tasks such as data entry. That way key data people can 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.