More doubts raised over Conservative Merlin campaign database

James Crabtree’s excellent recent piece for Wired about the Conservative Party’s use of technology and new media raised some questions over the party’s Merlin database:

If each constituency has roughly 50,000 voters, even a superhuman (and wealthy) candidate can hope to reach about only half of them. This is where Merlin — the party’s little-publicised campaigning software, commissioned by Francis Maude back in 2005 and built by a small London-based tech outfit called Conchango — could really make an impact…

Candidates can feed in data from surveys posted through voters’ doors to create better targeted local “canvass sheets”. (This data is also fed directly back to party HQ, giving a more complete picture of local concerns.) More significantly, Merlin integrates Mosaic, a complex “people classification system” developed by the research firm Experian. Mosaic gives a detailed breakdown of 65 consumer “tribes” such as “cafĂ© bar professionals” and “high-spending families”. These socio-demographic categories let candidates see who lives in their patch simply by typing in a postcode.

When Wired interviewed him, Elphicke had not yet begun to use Merlin in his local campaign. But others who had used the system told how its real power emerged when an extra factor is added: industrial-scale tailored opinion polling. Polling thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of voters is hugely expensive. But here the Conservatives have a second weapon: the deep wallet of treasurer Lord Ashcroft, who bankrolls the party’s “key seats” campaign and its large polls of target voters. A poll might seek out the views of a Mosaic group — say, “overstretched young aspirers” — living in marginal seats in northern England.

If this group proved sceptical about Conservative policies on policing, the party could respond, using Merlin, by sending a letter on Tory crime policy only to that group. Merlin also promises full hand–held integration for election day: no more printouts to take door to door or voter lists to review, just party workers keeping CCHQ updated in real time about voter turnout and key seat performance using dedicated BlackBerry-like devices.

Frances Maude admits that he “isn’t sure” if such plans will be ready in time; Merlin’s rollout has, at times, been “difficult”. Some of those who have used it for campaigning say the otherwise powerful system suffers “operational stability” issues (meaning sometimes it doesn’t work at all). Others worry that the party lacks the statistical know-how to make sense of its powerful tool.

Those doubts about whether or not Merlin really delivers the goods have now been echoed by the Financial Times:

Technological glitches and suspicion over modern campaign methods mean some party activists are shunning it…

In spite of the money spent purchasing the data and setting up the tools to exploit it, some candidates appear sceptical or hostile. Activists say it is difficult to tally polling information with the demographic data on the database, while many say the information is no better than what they would get from door-to-door canvassing.

“I wouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole,” said one candidate. “It is a very ambitious system introduced too close to a major event.”

Another complained that the system would sometimes crash when being used remotely by activists while canvassing. Even though the Merlin system had gone live in 2008, that was insufficient time to iron out kinks, he said. “To have an upgrade just before a general election smacks of desperation,” the candidate added.

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