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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15 Comments

  • I am very excited for you all to use VAN, though I have to wonder if anything could have really helped the Canadian Liberals in the last election…

  • Edis – our data isn’t going to be based in the USA for that very reason. I know this was something that was discussed as part of the contract negotiations with NGP-VAN and they made sure that wherever the data was held the laws relating to data protection and security met the standards we would expect in this country.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Sep '11 - 4:35pm

    My instincts are that this is a huge crash waiting to happen. Meanwhile I will have to find ways of storing lots of data from my ward that frankly are not going out of my possession.

    As or the great success of the Canadian Liberals, that’s not a selling point I would use.

    Tony Greaves

  • Role on CONNECT and being to make a lot more use of the data we do have. How many people are not doing as many piece of addressed mail as they could becuase trying to do mail merges in EARs or even word needs a rather off putting amount of knowledge.

  • Alan Muhammed Alan Muhammed 30th Sep '11 - 9:45am

    A congratulations is in order. Welcome to this century.

    Mark P has made the point that the hardcore EARS users (unlike the rest of us) were like a “special sect”, a group of geeks who were almost born to sit behind a machine (and who as a campaign manager, you’d be afraid to place in front of real people anyhow).

    Connect/VAN enables anybody to get on with campaigning without that geek, DIY campaigning without having to pop into the Lib Dem office. It’s far more productive in the long run although in the short run, there is a slight learning curve for those who have spent some decades using the old system.

    It’s good that there are a large team of developers, but it’s worth asking the question, is there a team of testers or is it just the developers? Also, will people be on standby in the right timezones for polling days? How are iterative/adaptive changes tested?

    That said, I get the impression that what with barely a handful of staff at EARS and the amount of defects (bugs) that EARS had, anything is better than what the party had before.

  • Stephen- there is a central contract between VAN and the Federal Party. Obviously, the federal party want as many people to move across as possible because it helps pay the bills and they think it is a better system, but if local parties want to carry on with EARS then that is up to them. I suspect the only compulsion would be for local parties who want to be a key parliamentary seats, although I’ve not had that confirmed.

    It’s worth saying that pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to who already knows EARS and has now had a chance to see Connect is convinced that Connect is a much better system and it will continue evolving in to something even better. There are also plenty of people who are “on the ground” who are testing it out and so although the decision to go with VAN was decided centrally the practicalities of how it works day to day is very much being tested out with ordinary activists.

    As you’re in Thirsk and Malton you should come to the session I’m doing about Connect at the Yorkshire regional conference in Skipton in November and you can have a look at it yourself.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Sep '11 - 8:46pm

    “VAN, which is becoming the party’s new electoral database software under the name CONNECT).”

    Funny, I was naively of the opinion that this will only happen if and when several hundred local parties determine that they wish to buy in. Except that they don’t have a price, let alone a ‘spec’. So this article seems to be yet another attempt to ‘bounce’ this agenda.

  • Erlend Watson 1st Oct '11 - 11:56am

    Actuallt Tony price was being referred to above. Someone from Thirsk said £25/month. In the case of large local parties like Southport I think that is £40. Definition is (something like) 3 successive years turnover of £25K. I have reservations about small local parties jumping first but fewer about your type of seat. As I see it cloud based software is probably the way ahead. However I am also nervous about the big bang change when I expect features to appear just like with every new version of EARS.

  • The main problem I have with CONNECT is purely and simply the cost. I’m a Treasurer and Data Office from a 2-constituency local party which has 0 councillors and an income of under £1000 a year – and have been told that the cost of our local party purchasing VAN would be £50 a month, or £600 a year.

    In contrast, EARS is offering many of the same features in an online multi-user format for what they promise will be half the cost.

    As all singing and all dancing as CONNECT might be, I simply can’t justify spending over 60% of our local party’s budget on a piece of software. Bluntly, I’d rather spend the money we’d save by getting EARS on three Focus leaflets in a target ward – since I think that will be far more useful in delivering better results.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Oct '11 - 6:50pm

    The point I was making is emphasised by Chris’ last posting (I think his figures are wrong as it happens but then most are likely to be because they are all just guesses).

    People will not know the actual costing unless it is put to them with various scenarios of take-up rate. These have not been produced yet, as far as i can see: certainly not disseminated to those who some people hope will pay. So using words like ‘the party’s new database supplier’ are deliberate and presently-unsubstantiated hype. I am NOT here saying that it will never happen. Just that it is a long way from being a ‘done deal’ and those who would wish it to be would do their case more good by stopping pretending that it is.

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