Thank you EARS, but the VAN is coming

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.

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54 Comments

  • I haven’t seen this new software – but from what you say, I think even with it it will be a little while until we don’t need to drive round collecting sheets from polling stations – I understand the principle, but how many of the people sat at polling stations have or know how to use smart phones? I’d also be a little worried about the risk of hacking – if the password gets into the wrong hands it would presumably be far too easy for another party to put in the numbers of a few voters and us not knock up plenty of people who we are expecting to vote for us.

  • By all accounts it does sound like a massive leap forward. I’m genuinely excited about the possibilities it opens up.

    However, Scott, getting data in from stations without driving round is nothing new- we’ve been taking the expedient step of phoning our tellers for the numbers for years! Giving them a copy of the electoral roll to look up numbers where the station has taken the polling cars was also a godsend and I can only presume VAN will make this even easier.

  • Harvey Sussock 19th Jun '11 - 4:59pm

    So that’s it then? Decision taken? How democratic is that? I typed VAN into the libdem and the members’ websites; all I got was ‘Van Rompuy’! (and vote Yes to Fairer Votes!)Is there somewhere else I should be looking to see the case made for change, the evidence, the options discussed etc? I thought that’s how government was supposed to work these days? Just like the NHS proposals!
    I suppose local parties might have been consulted to see what deficiencies/strengths we think EARS has, for comparison with VAN. Not that I think EARS was perfect and modern. But I can see lots of work looming with implementation, changeover, training and support. And costs?

  • Personally I would stick with EARS and try to improve it. The people behind EARS are Liberal Democrats. VAN is a US product. I am not clear what will happen if they suddenly decide that they want to change the price. Also are we going to be ‘forced’ to stop using EARS. The councilors that I have spoken to are not happy with this. Although this article is from a councillor the product is mainly being pushed by party insiders from what I can see.

    My suspicion is that most councillors will simply ignore VAN and carry on using EARS as we have already paid for it.

    Ed Joyce

  • Liberal Neil 19th Jun '11 - 6:35pm

    @Scott – No-one will have to sit at a polling station using a smart phone – but that will be one of several options for inputting telling data. It could be done by someone else turning up to pick up the tellers slip and inputting them themselves, or by someone who lives near to the polling station picking them up, taking them home and inputting them.

    The key point is that no-one will need to traipse back to one (usually hectic) committee room to do it, and the data will be updated immediately so that others can make use of the up to date data immediately. (For example someone else sitting at home doing phone knocking up using the live data on their PC or phone.)

    @Ed – I don’t beleive anyone will be ‘forced’ to stop using EARS. From what I’ve seen people are very likely to choose to switch quickly.

    @Matt W – there is a detailed systme for managing which individuals have access to which data, and what they can do with and to it, based on the usual Data Protection Act rule of thumb that they have to have a need to be able to use the data in line with the party’s registrartion.

  • David Hollingsworth 19th Jun '11 - 6:56pm

    As an computer officer for Leeds Central I am receiving e.mails from ears saying they are carrying on and local parties can stick with them rather than have Party HQ impose the VAN system on them . In a democratic patyt assume local parties would be free to carry on using Ears if they wished

  • I think this is great news. EARS has more than a few ‘limitations’ and anything that helps to compete effectively with our opponents should be welcomed. A couple of years ago, everyone was saying ‘what can learn from Obama’, this is a clear example that we should embrace.

  • Steve Comer 19th Jun '11 - 8:12pm

    I saw a demonstration of VAN at the ALDC/LGA Conference yesterday. It will help us to target our limited resources more effectively, and record shades of information. It is vital that its available to the 12 cities who have Mayoral referenda next May, we need the ability to record voting intention in that contest alongside other information we will pick up at the doorstep or on the ‘phone.

    I’m sure some will want to continue with EARS, but I’m afraid I don’t find it very user friendly, and it feels like a ‘programmer’s programme’ to me. In recent elections the Labour and Tory parties have had better databases than we have, and in close contests that makes a big difference.

    Change is not always easy, as we saw with the switch from PageMaker to PagePlus, but I don’t know anyone who wants to go back to the former, and I think the same will be true when we move over to VAN.

  • Irfan Ahmed 19th Jun '11 - 9:42pm

    I know how to work the shuttleworth system where we put lines through all those who have voted. I’m probably one of very few young people who do!

  • Only in the Lib Dems would people complain about the myriad problems with EARS, then complain about a top-of-the-line replacement. The other parties use software about a decade ahead of ours, and they managed the retraining. EARS is the equivalent of Internet Explorer 6 – ubiquitous for no better reason than its ubiquity.

  • Maureen Rigg 20th Jun '11 - 8:15am

    I agree, having had the opportunity to see what VAN can do. The biggest advantage for me will be the ability to record exactly what was sent to voters and when, alongside being able to weight the value we put on past canvass data depending on what kind of election it was, how long ago etc.
    I have one concern though and it’s a fairly big one on which campaigns dept have given me no reassurance, not surprisingly. If the data is held locally we control how much literature, phoning etc goes on in our area and what the message is. If Central Campaigns is going to have access to all that data and use it we need them to work much more closely with us on what goes out. One small example from the data set already held centrally – we signed up someone on the D&P sweep after a European election. Next year we were in the middle of a rather difficult bit of casework for them when someone in Cowley St decided it was a good time to phone all of our members and ask for donation. Getting “no” as the answer there was another phone call the following week and then again. Result – we lost a member. There are anecdotes from parties up and down the country about unsuitable literature, lack of communication to the local party and so on. That must not happen when VAN is up and running or the great potential of the system will be lost as parties stop using it.

  • The timescale is tight, and there isn’t a lot of time to train people up before 2012. I know there is some ill-feeling about changing technologies in the party’s councillor base and I hope the new Campaigns teams will do their bit to address this.

  • Don Lawrence 20th Jun '11 - 8:43am

    Oh dear, it sounds just like another IT disaster about to happen.

    Bearing in mind the substantial hidden costs of adopting new software: training, lots of lost activist time; correcting mistakes, lots and lots of time where it happens; new hardware; need to find new people to replace those who think this is all too much and it’s time to move on; debugging the software, where it doesn’t do what it says on the tin; rolling it out; the cost of writing programs to transfer data from EARS; the loss of data from EARS where the cost of transfer programs is too much; having EARS running in some constituencies, assuming they will continue to support it with new registers where people want to stay; losing EARS support immediately, if the business folds. I would like to see the risk assessment carried out. Bet it was less than a side of A4.

    However, what really worries me is the potential fallacies out there that we may have swallowed.

    “If you lose Internet connectivity on polling day, just find another computer” – that solution only works if the problem is the computer, not if it is the internet going slow – for example if your system is under attack.

    “The VAN equivalent of defining delivery walks is simpler too – click on a Google map to select the area of the walk.” Try doing that in a rural area without street names and a postcode that covers two square miles! There’s six Scottish seats definitely lost!

    Mark Pack says “The decision was taken by the Federal Executive, on a recommendation by the Federal Finance and Administration Committee after a review of bids from three firms (including EARS) by a panel that included, for example, a representative of ALDC (i.e. councillors) and the Agents and Organisers Association. Whatever you think of the decision, this is one that’s gone through the party’s democratic processes.”

    Mark, do you really think that our party’s democratic process was designed for anything as complex as this? A review of bids by a panel – How about a review of the software by several expert EARS users from a variety of constituencies? A representative of ALDC – How about several? Were any people who have been involved in computer projects in the outside world involved, preferably techno-sceptics as well as technophiles.

    Liberal Neil says “There is a detailed system for managing which individuals have access to which data, and what they can do with and to it, based on the usual Data Protection Act rule of thumb that they have to have a need to be able to use the data in line with the party’s registration.”

    A detailed system for security inevitably means someone has got to maintain it. I would prefer a simple system any day. If on the day, the expert is ill and he/she is the only one who can do some aspect, where are we then?

    Iain Roberts says “@Neil, The Party is asking for an Android version of the app, which should be along soon. You’re right – we need both Android and Apple apps.”

    Great, new software and we are already asking the developers to change it (at what cost?)

    From my viewpoint, it would be essential that we had organised a series of trials, where it was run in several areas for at least one election campaign, so that we can get real feedback on the good, the bad, and the costly bits, before we commit. After that we can then go through the democratic decision making process and can decide whether to go with VAN of stay with EARS.

    Good new technology is great, but we are all aware there have been too many IT disasters in the past for this to be rushed. I hope those who have been given the responsibility of managing this process so far have really looked for and obtained good advice (and someone else has checked that they have – sorry, that’s the Computer Auditor in me).

  • Four questions on this:

    If there’s an iPhone app and an Android one too, are there plans for a BlackBerry one too?

    2012 – there’s no elections in Scotland that yearn (how typical of the Federal Party not to notice.) Presumably we’ll not have to implement until 2013 Euros then?

    Do we have exclusive use of VAN in the UK – i.e. they agree not to sell it to Labour / Greens / SNP etc? I wouldn’t want us to be working on an upgrade, spending time and money, to give benefit to our opponents.

    Will this be cheaper for Local Parties to run than EARS, including the retraining costs? I suspect this is effectively what it will come down to.

  • Liberal Neil 20th Jun '11 - 10:14am

    @Don – on your logic we would rarely ever upgrade any software/technology. Yes, there are risks and costs, but they have to be balanced with the risks of not upgrading, which in the case of the campaign software we use is a massive waste of of activists’ time and effort.

    @KL – what on earth makes you think anyone hasn’t noticed that Scotland doesn’t have elections in 2013? A comment that the new system should be up and running in time for the local elections in 2012 does not imply that everywhere has them. In fact half of England doesn’t – how typical of someone from Scotland not to notice!

    I don’t know the answer to your other points but I’m pretty sure our opponents won’t have it.

  • After years of complaining about the dinosaur that is EARS, I’m genuinely excited by this news. VAN may open up more sophisticated targeting possibilities and that’s good news in itself, but the real value will be the remote access functionality and what sounds like other more efficient ways of handling the data. EARS was good enough for the 90s and the developers have given us a lot of hard work for which they deserve a lot of thanks. But given the technology available in 2011 (or even in 2005 tbh) EARS results in large amounts of valuable activist time being wasted unnecessarily. Roll on the VAN!

  • @Liberal Neil – my only links are with the Scottish Party, I don’t have anything to do with the Federal Party so have no idea when elections in England are because I don’t need to. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect the average member in England to know when elections in Scotland are if they don’t have any involvement with them. I would expect, though, that the Federal Party would be aware of everything which came within its remit; so it’s not unreasonable to expect the Federal Party to know when Scottish elections are and take this into account when implementing this.

    It does though give the opportunity for it to be phased in – it’s probably too soon for this to be adopted for the 2011 Scottish Elections, so the first time it’ll be used here will be in the Euros in 2013, and it’ll only get its first test here in 2015. Remember that it will need to cope with four – arguably five – main parties in Scotland.

    Will data be migratable from EARS, or will someone have to enter it individually?

  • Stuart Smith 20th Jun '11 - 12:41pm

    @KL – every local authority in Scotland is up for election in May 2012! They should have taken place this year but it was decided to split them from Holyrood elections. VAN needs to be in place this summer for it to be used in next year’s elections throughout the UK.

  • “- Data will be migrated automatically (or, at least, in an automated batch process). Where local parties have customised EARS with extra fields, there will be a small amount of work to make sure those get carried across correctly to VAN.”

    I don’t think that bit has been thought through then. EARS data is stored in very inconsistent formats – even the basic canvass data has variations of Und LD, Soft/und Con and Lab, won’t vote/Not voting etc. There there is the recording of Anti BNP voters who some people record as canvass data, some in another field.

    You make it sound like it is a rarity for local parites to customise EARS with extra fields – this has happened with every local parties EARS program I’ve ever worked with so I would say it is very very common. This will also be the area where a lot of value added data is stored (petition signatories, hard to access flats, remote/postal only houses etc).

  • I am very nervous about this. It seems that there are a lot of people posting here who don’t know what a LAMP server is and I am not sure that they should be driving this through. It would not be a good idea to use ‘user experience ‘ to guide decision making on this. We need buyers who understand the technology in detail and are aware of things that could go wrong. Also this is a key decision and I am not surprised to see that nobody is taking ownership. Nobody has their head on the block over this because it is clear that there is a big chance of this going belly up. Alternatively it may be turn out to be a big win.

    Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.

    On the positive side as far as I can see this software is being used by ‘Cowley Street’. Concillors/local parties in the constituencies can forward data which will be converted for use in the system. Therefore those of a nervous disposition can simply ignore this and wait for the early adopters to deal with the teething problems.

    I don’t doubt that web functionality will be the way forward. In my view we should have tried to improve EARS but that does not look feasible now. The solution therefore is to leave this to the enthusiastic early adopters and wait to see if it works.

    There may be cost implications for the party but the key thing is that it will not interfere with our operations in the constituencies.

    Ed Joyce

  • EARS is too expensive for my local party. For many years I have used Microsoft Access to provide the sort of service provided by EARS, but free of charge. The primary input to any such system must be the Electoral Register, produced annually by the LA, and then followed by subsequent regular updates. These are provided in the form of text (csv) files. This input requires careful validation. I have developed a range of tests to pick out typing errors, format errors, address errors etc to ‘clean ‘ the data. It does not help to have one set of data fields for the initial register and another for the updates. Nor does it help when the LA decides to change its system and suddenly produces another variant of the data. Coping with these changes and trying to preserve the links between the register and our local canvass data is vitally important and very difficult.
    Our UK electoral roll system is voluntary, you do not have to register to vote. LA’s, or at least my LA, does not have a central database of addresses, certainly not matched to the Post Office database, and therefore the data is compiled by clerks in the electoral registration office and inevitably errors are made . I do not know how the UK system matches with the USA or Canada but I wonder if our electoral registers are anywhere near as accurate as the North American equivalent. Garbage in = garbage out and compared with getting the base data right the pros and cons of the methods for recording votes cast during an election, as discussed on this thread, seem to be of little relevance . I hope the new system is able to cope but I have my doubts, especially when told that ‘data will be migrated automatically’. Do you really mean data or should that be garbage?
    If the new system is more expensive than EARS then we will be unable to use it. A primary requirement of the system is that, like the NHS, it should be free at the point of use.

  • Tony Dawson 20th Jun '11 - 7:32pm

    “The decision was taken by the Federal Executive, on a recommendation by the Federal Finance and Administration Committee after a review of bids from three firms (including EARS) by a panel that included, for example, a representative of ALDC (ie councillors) and the Agents and Organisers Association.”

    I am intrigued. We are a Liberal Party – we believe in markets. So I trust that nobody went buying something for Local Parties which might not want it? If so, how much, please? (no, seriously, do NOT tell us here!)

    Although I am a sleepily-competent EARS trainer, I know its strengths and weaknesses. I also know its total irrelevance for probably half our constituencies now that our Parliamentary leadership has diminished our poll standings so effectively. The most effective ways of getting your vote ‘knocked out’ in local elections where you are lucky if you have 200 D&P’s and a few activists per polling station do not involve committee rooms or computers or manning polling stations at all.

    My mind is also totally boggled by the rationale of discussing the nitty gritty of Lib Dem communication in an open forum on a private site.

  • Don Lawrence 20th Jun '11 - 9:00pm

    @ Liberal Neil,

    “On your logic we would rarely ever upgrade any software/technology. Yes, there are risks and costs, but they have to be balanced with the risks of not upgrading, which in the case of the campaign software we use is a massive waste of activists’ time and effort.”

    Unfortunately, you are misunderstanding my point, and are perhaps inadvertently supporting it. In a thriving organisation software is regularly being upgraded, but wholesale replacement is a massive risk. As a result, it has to be evaluated, planned for, owned and managed to a much greater degree. You rightly mention the risks of not upgrading, and these should have been evaluated as well. I am just raising the point that the people posting in favour of VAN, don’t mention that any of these things have been done, or when they do indicate as such, they don’t put it in any sort of objective way, but instead wrap it in nice warm phrases like “Canada is like the UK.”

    @ Iain Roberts

    “VAN is mature software that’s in use elsewhere. We’re getting local customisations (e.g. spellings, address formats) but not wholesale new stuff. In addition, I believe the contract we’re having allows us to ask for new functions to be developed. Yes there are risks, but think they’re relatively low.”

    I’m sorry Iain, but your reply doesn’t fill me with confidence, “The contract allows us to ask for new functions” – what contract doesn’t? The questions are “How much will it cost?” and “If it doesn’t provide something like Android, why do we think it is that good?” Finally, anyone who believes that any project of this sort involves relatively low risk, without having gone through it all with a fine toothed comb, is I am afraid just deluding themselves and others. If you have done this, great, let us know. If you know it has been done by someone else, let us know that. Never, never, never take something as important as this just on belief.

    “On delivery walks there are quite a few ways to do everything. I’m guessing a system that’s being used by the Liberals in Canada can probably cope with rural areas!”

    I would prefer it to have been formally assessed that Canada has an approach and it will work here, rather than just a guess! Perhaps the assessment has been done, but I really would like to know it has been done and by someone really competent.

    @ Andy Hinton

    “Most of the objections you raise are also true of EARS. In particular, having recently done a lot of creating new walks in EARS, I am amazed that you appear to be advocating sticking with that as a method of dealing with large rural areas with no street names etc.”

    Andy, you are absolutely right, except in your comment you are amazed I seem to be advocating sticking with EARS. I am not. What I am asking is have we carried out a good enough assessment to confirm that things will be better with VAN. Many constituencies have developed ways with EARS to allow rural areas to be coped with. But if these cannot be ported over automatically, there will be a massive cost in local activist time doing it again. I ask very simply “Was there a representative from a rural constituency involved and did he/she ask for and get a satisfactory answer. If not, it will be the poor back office people who will be wasting there time again.

    Let us all be very clear on this, I am not against VAN. It may well be the solution. However, we will be under enough pressure at the next elections and this is too important a change to do solely on the warm feelings that we want something better, when we haven’t made it work yet. We have complained for years of Labour’s waste of money on database technology – NHS, ID cards, CSA etc etc. A number of pilot trials for 2012 would be a sensible approach. Wholesale change covering more than that is a big, big risk.

  • “On delivery walks there are quite a few ways to do everything. I’m guessing a system that’s being used by the Liberals in Canada can probably cope with rural areas!”

    It’s not the rurality that’s the issue with rural walks (and it’s pretty rare for really rural walks to be delivered in any way other than posting) – its the fact that all the houses are named (sometimes without a road name) so you can’t make any assumptions about what is where. As Canada has been settled more recently then there might be a more structured addressing system.

    But that is guesswork on my part – just like the above comment!

  • Cost?
    2 LPs?

  • James Barber 21st Jun '11 - 9:45am

    I can’t wait for VAN to be up and working.
    EARS means an incredibly inefficient polling day operation with ferrying of data by car/bicycle and the data isn’t that timely when distrubtued for knocking up. When canvassing the data can be enterred on the doorstep. Spare 20mins on the way somewhere – canvass for 20mins on the spur of the moment.

    VAN will enable real time updating of people who have voted allowing real time updates of those who we want to knock up and importantly real time stopping of knock ups when they’ve just voted moments ago.
    Our knock up operation will require either far fewer people for the same effect allowing more target wards OR working targets much more thoroughly.

    EARS served a purpose well for its time but is way out dated. Being hooked in VAN exclusively in the UK means we’re now at the cutting edge for such software.

  • jonathan brown 21st Jun '11 - 10:14am

    Maybe we all have to change from EARS to VAN. Otherwise future boundary changes, training etc.. might create difficulties? Anyone got idea on cost of VAN? Jonathan Brown

  • Mark: “All local councils do have a central database of addresses – or rather they contribute to and use the central database of addresses,”
    It would seem that my LA does not actually use this database for Electoral Registration purposes. In the initial register I identified 747 address errors, mainly missing, wrong or duplicated postal towns, and there has been at least one and up to 12 such errors in each monthly update since. These are the sort of errors which occur when data is copied from one database to another when fields have not been matched correctly or old data has not been properly removed/over- written. Other errors are symptomatic of operator error – fields begining with a punctuation mark, the letter ‘O’ used instead of zero in house number, house numbers split over 2 fields etc. In percentage terms they represent a low error rate but, as we well know, elections are lost on a single vote. What assumptions have been made about the quality of data to be fed into VAN? Does VAN use the NLPG database?

  • I am definitely not happy about this being a web-based system and I, for one, would wish to stick with EARS and improve it. This is yet another example of “doing what the US is doing because they say it’s good”!

    As Stuart says – we have the Local Council Elections in Scotland next year so this IS a very tight time-frame. I would hope that Local Parties have the choice of which system to use! After all, they pay for it, it is not free!

    There are many potential problems, one of which is the party activists who don’t have all these fancy iPhones and such (I am one of them) – I am sure that we won’t want to be fiddling around on Polling day searching for the information on the internet! You say that lists can be printed from anywhere – where TO exactly? Do you think we are all going to be running around with portable printers & a supply of paper? I don’t think so.

    You say this decision was made at Federal Executive level – did any of you even consider consulting with the Local Parties’ EARS Officers to see what they might think?

    Please don’t impose this on us! Give us the choice!

    All I can say is that I am glad I am no longer the EARS Officer! I hope that the Local Party which I will be helping will choose to stick with EARS!

  • No this is not an example of doing what the US is doing. Otis an example of a panel of experienced campaigners reprenting key stack holders looking at all the different options and making a deicisssion based on the evidence.

  • @IanS
    With you absolutely on the quality of LA address data, I had the same problems here in Wales when I tried to make my own database before we coughed up to rejoin EARS. Here we have also English/Welsh (or both) street and town names It really makes things complicated.

    I did see a comment from the party managers that the EARS support company was going to be asked to do the data migration to VAN – and presumably annual translation. They certainly have the expertise and local knowledge.
    It seems that the high handed way this decision was taken has put paid to that.
    Those that try to use VAN next year will find out how good a job that the others have done.

    I am not against change – but we should be trialling this first , comparing with the new V9 of EARS.
    Its how ordinary users find it to use that is important – not us geeks.

    Finally – are you sure no other party has it ?
    The SNP used a system with ‘Voter Activation’ – in this years Scots Parliament elections – Alex Salmond credited it with a large part of his success in a recent Radio 4 program about how they won.

  • Don Lawrence 21st Jun '11 - 2:13pm

    Iain,

    It seems there are a lot of questions, but very few answers. Could you get the person who managed the process to respond and let us know whether these things have been considered, evaluated and a reasoned conclusion reached? Hopefully he/she could give enough detail to really set people’s minds at rest, which is what most people need.

    It really is too important to be left hanging as a take it or leave it decision.

  • Pompey Richard 21st Jun '11 - 2:31pm

    Goodness, what a lot of hot air!

    IanS – sending back the registration form is compulsory in England (I don’t know if it differs in other parts of the UK). However, please do not believe that the US has a much better system of electoral registration than we do – they don’t! It is state based and often subject to high levels of political meddling.

    Those of us who have been around a few years will remember when we had both POLLY and EARS – in fact POLLY was the system favoured by Cowley Street. In addition there were lots of local systems. When i was Hampshire Organiser in the early 90s there were at least 5 different systems in use the county.

    Since then most people have migrated to EARS, which continued to be supported and developed. In my opinion, as a campaigner, it is a system that has not kept up with software development and has a lot of flaws. we have had 2 Tory defectors in recent years who were surprised at how backward our system is. That said a lot of people, even Liberals, don’t like change and are likely to stay with EARS for the moment. That is not a problem.

    Cowley Street can’t imposem a system on any local party. They can use it as a measure to judge if a constituency should be a target seat but the real measure of this system will be if it enhances campaigning in the first few seats that take it up. I suspect it will, not least because those seats will have the resources and skills to rapidly implement and test it out live. Some (like us) will probably run EARS in parallel until we are quite happy with VAN.

    There will be issues and problems along the way but the prospect of speeding up a lot of processes will be worth it. The advantage for most local parties is that they will be able to take their time coming adopting VAN, just as happended with EARS.

    I am not a natural fan of Cowley Street but I agree we need to move forward (in fact we have needed to for some years) and I think they are right to go with a company used to dealing with centre-left/centre political parties and developing a proven system for our needs. If anyone believes that the US is a well organised, homogenous political environment please think again. The system will already need to have multiple adaptations to suit the needs on the ground in different parts of North America. If it works there it can work here.

    By the way, how many people still use the Windows 3.1 operating system? Why? Because that is the era that EARS comes from.

  • Peter Hayes 21st Jun '11 - 2:46pm

    I do hope that Cowley St have buttoned down the financial cost of any system changes which can’t be made at a Constituency level. Having dealt with COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) IT systems for a number of years, you nearly always end up paying through the nose for even the slightest change. I also assume VAN will be able to accept the LA source data regerdless of its format.

    VAN may well be the way to go, but as Don rightly says, there seem to be more questions than answers, which is worrying for a change as largescale as this.

  • Jake Holland 21st Jun '11 - 3:59pm

    Hi all,

    I’m the new Head of Campaign Development.

    I will try to answer questions about VAN and the move in the Members Forum. I’ve started a new thread to discuss it.

    Look forward to seeing you there,

    Jake

  • David Wright 21st Jun '11 - 5:04pm

    I doubt we’ll be using VAN here in May 2012 – but if all goes well with it we will in 2013.

    I have brought in software projects on time so I know it can be done – but never one with hundreds of customer organisations, many with unskilled people and without much in the way of training facilities. If VAN and the Party can get a UK system delivered, with users trained and confident with the system, to support just some target and a few brave “Beta” local parties by next May, they’ll be doing well. My guess is it will take a year from when the system is ready to be used by SOME Local Parties before it’s in use by nearly ALL – and that’s assuming it does meet all our needs.

    I hope the Party is allowing for this in its plans and budgets.

    My other BIG concern is the apparent dependence on continuous web access. We CAN NOT guarantee 100% web access for election day – even if the servers etc. are rated and tested for the unusually high load, what if something beyond our control happens that day? For example, a serious attack on the company hosting our servers, or even a simply mistake there? Or the infamous back-hoe digging up and cutting a cable? Or BT or Virgin or whoever having an outage in a town – whose Local Party can’t rerun the election later when the break is fixed! (BT and Virgin guarantee 2 days response time if you lose net access – some other companies take much longer).

    In case anyone claims this can’t happen – I used to work with a (normally) very competent company which provided the UK network for a big supermarket chain. I was told that one day a technician was making approved and planned changes to the network, but by mistake changed the wrong systems. It took hours for them to find what had happened and restore things – during which time that supermarket could not operate any of its checkout tills. I imagine compensation was paid – but that wouldn’t help much on the day if we lost key elections.

    I understand that EARS v9 will have a distributed database, which can be accessed remotely, but the committee room PC will have a full copy of the data it needs, so a net failure would still allow normal Committee Room operation, just delay updated via the net, (and if it’s a long delay, we can still send runners!). IMHO it is essential that VAN allows local caching and use of local data so network failure is an inconvenience not a disaster.

    Meanwhile – why is remote access only on iPhone? My Nokia phone can access the web; if VAN is web-based why can’t I use its browser to list houses to knock up or enter polling numbers?

  • Liberal Neil 21st Jun '11 - 5:50pm

    @Rebekah

    The party hasn’t chosen this system because ‘the US says so’ but because of the leap forward in functionality it will bring.

    For me moving to a web based system that can be updated live is a no-brainer.

    And yes, it is a tight timescale, but there are elections in large parts of the UK every year so whichever year it was introduced it would be tight to that extent.

    @ Don – yes we will have to invest in a lot of training (and re-training) but one of the good things about VAN is that it is much more user friendly for a new user to pick up than EARS, and many aspects of it, like the virtual phone bank, won’t require knowledge of how the rest of it works. Personally, and based on my experience in recent years, I think that a raft of re-training would be no bad thing anyway.

  • Liberal Neil 21st Jun '11 - 5:56pm

    @Peter Hayes There are still a lot of questions at this stage because it hasn’t all been signed and sealed yet. The party went through a careful process to decide in a preferred supplier and been negotiating with them since. There is a lot of work to do converting a US system to fit the UK system, to agree what functionality we need and to identify areas for development. Surely this is the right approach to making sure we get a system that works for us?

    The thread is now up an running in the member’s forum and I would encourage anyone with specific questions to head there and ask them. Jake Holland, who heads this up in the party, is responding to them.

  • 1. Should we be proudly announcing what our new system can do, and what our concerns are about it, on a public website which anyone can read? I suppose it’s a bit too late now.

    2. I am no big fan of EARS and its highly idiosyncratic interface and seemingly arbitrary operational restrictions. The lack of web and mobile interfaces is also a glaring omission, and in my view it is indeed time that we moved forward.

    3. I do share some of the concerns of some people on here, about how much risk there is in rolling this out ‘en masse’ without (or seemingly without?) any piloting. In data transfer terms, we in our area do have some significant differences in the way that wards record the ‘non standard’ canvass data, such as BNP, Not Voting, Possibles. We don’t even record Greens, and any Greens we come across get marked in the Comments field. I suspect that given the huge spread of practices across the country, there is going to have to be either a lot of manual translation, or else we will have to accept some data loss.

    4. The remote working will be excellent, but it will need to be carefully managed. If everyone has access to the same data, then they might all turn up in the same street to do some canvassing! I presume this will be dealt with by the software.

    5. Does the new system allow for fully-integrated emailing and SMS messaging of filtered groups? That would be very powerful, albeit obviously there would be a cost for SMSing. At present the EARS system is extremely clunky in this regard.

    Any info appreciated.

    Cyber

  • Mick Taylor 23rd Jun '11 - 9:52am

    I am sure those computer geeks who think that loads of extra knobs and whistles are what it’s all about are confident that VAN will deliver. As a user of EARS for over 30 years, I would add a large caution to those rushing to change our election software. EARS has been run by Liberal Democrats for Liberal Democrats. VAN is a company run for its owners/shareholders. If in the middle of an election campaign I suddenly find a glitch, will I still get the Lib Dem on the phone who will talk me through the problem and find a solution? This isn’t idle speculation. It has happened to me more than once and it got sorted immediately. I simply don’t believe we will get the same certainty from VAN.

    In addition I have some experience of changing software and transferring data and it’s complex and riddled with problems. It will not go smoothly, it never does. When my local council changed software under my watch, it lost some of the functionality of the old system in return for some new features. If we are to be forced to change systems the timescale suggested is ludicrously short. Retrain all the EARS users in time for the 2012 elections that many are already working on? Even if it can be done, it’s a huge distraction from campaigning. Far better to bring any changes in for 2013 when there are far fewer elections.

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