Back in March, Mark Pack reported on a momentous move in the Lib Dems: from the EARS election software to Voter Activation Network, or VAN, which is used by Democrats in the US and the Canadian Liberal Party, amongst others.
EARS has done sterling service for the party over the years. I first used the DOS version of the software in the mid-nineties, when it had already been around for a few years. Younger readers may not have encountered the joys of the paper “Shuttleworths” that were used before EARS: sheet after sheet of knock-up lists, laboriously hand-written onto carbon-copy paper, with names crossed out as numbers came in from the polling stations.
EARS has moved on and is a valuable campaigning tool all-year-round. But, as Mark noted, the other parties have not only caught us up but also overtaken us on the IT front. The Federal Party decided it was time to look at the options, and concluded that VAN was the best option.
I had the chance yesterday to get a good look at the new software, and it’s certainly a step forward. As someone who spends a significant portion of my time using EARS as a campaigning tool, VAN seems to me to be a good choice.
On the functionality side, it does pretty much everything that EARS does and a lot more besides, plus it’s pretty simple to pick it up. It’s web-based software (what isn’t these days) so no more fiddling about with the one master copy – log in anywhere, any operating system – you just need a browser and an internet connection (we’re assured it will work over slow dial-up connections; and if you lose Internet connectivity on polling day, just find another computer).
For example, all political parties send letters and emails to groups of voters. With EARS we can create a filter to select the group, and then create a list of addresses or emails to feed into something like Word or Outlook. In VAN we can create the emails and letters within the software – and it then records exactly what’s been sent to each voter. I can go back in two years time and see every letter and email we’ve sent to a particular person.
The VAN equivalent of defining delivery walks is simpler too – click on a Google map to select the area of the walk.
There’s a great deal more as well, of course.
But, as with all good technology, the real question is not what the software does, but what it allows us to do. Will VAN help us win elections?
I think it will, and the trick will be to figure out what it allows us to do differently.
Take polling day. With VAN, polling numbers can be entered directly onto the software from an iPhone (or from any web browser), so less need to spend time driving around. Knock-up lists can be printed off from anywhere too. That gives us the ability, should we wish to do it, to radically change the way we organise polling days, allowing us to spend more time contacting voters and less time on data entry and driving around.
All being well, the party will have migrated from EARS to VAN in ample time to use the new software in the 2012 local elections, which will mean taking the existing data local parties have stored on EARS and importing it into VAN. That’s likely to be the biggest challenge – moving data between the old and new systems – but the plan is to do it centrally so local party officers won’t need to get too bogged down in the technical details.
Like any new software, there’ll be issues, problems and a learning curve but it certainly looks promising so far.