Time to ditch Connect?

The party has used two systems for computer based campaigning. EARS, developed in the UK for UK elections and more recently Connect, which was developed for use in US and Canadian election systems. Some elections ago the party made a decision to start using Connect instead of EARS as its main computer tool for digital and on the ground campaigns. This was largely because at that time EARS had not been able to demonstrate that it could provide an internet based service of the sort the party wanted.

So there began an experiment with this USA based computer tool that promised much but often failed to deliver it. I know umpteen people who after many training sessions on this election software are no nearer being able to use it than when they started. There are a number of things that make Connect a failure.

  1. As it is web based, with no backups on computers in each constituency, when it crashes or when the servers go down, we’re stuffed. There is reason to believe that Connect going offline during recent General Elections cost us seats we might otherwise have held or won. There is nothing worse than losing all your data on polling day and that has happened more than once, often for several hours.
  2. You can’t actually get the data you want to deal with on screen in front of you in an easy readable format.
  3. The Connect system seems unable to cope with the requirement for stable walk orders and printing out canvass cards that bear any relation to what’s on the ground is, if not impossible, beyond the ability of many of its users.

Now to be fair, the one part of Connect that made many of us willing to persevere with it is Minivan. It really is superb to be able to canvass, knock up and take numbers on a tablet or a phone and for it to go straight onto the system. Even then that only works if you are connected to the system via phone or wifi.

The reality is that this software developed for the US and Canadian election systems has adapted poorly to the UK. However, in line with the oft-cited inability of politicians to admit mistakes, those who continue to push Connect, seem blind to the difficulties experienced on a daily basis by many who use it.

So much time and party money has been invested that there is a reluctance to look at any alternative

I would argue that the time has come to abandon Connect, because the EARS platform is now superior to it.

  1. It is fully Internet capable but local parties also have the data on hard drives in the constituencies. Data can be uploaded to the Internet, but the inherent dangers of crashes or server unavailability are avoided.
  2. It now has a tried and tested canvassing tool in EARS LITE with far superior recording capability both for canvassing results and for identifying voters’ concerns and their response to questions. This tool also offers telling and knocking up services that are at least the equal of Minivan. This works on most available tablets and phones both windows and mac.
  3. It has retained its superior ability to create walks and print canvass cards in walk order and now offers better mapping tools than Connect.
  4. Much the most important point is that it’s easy to use.

Changing the British political system is of course what our party campaigns for all the time! Why should it be different with our digital platform? Surely we want the best system for winning elections?

Let me be clear, I don’t work for Datatrans, nor do I have any axe to grind in regard to computer based campaigning. I have used Connect with all its quirks and problems. This is practical suggestion having now seen for myself what EARS can now offer and coupled with that the fact that over 100 constituencies have already made the change, I would argue that the campaigning arm of the party should start disengaging from Connect before they find that the majority of the party has left them behind and abandoned it

* Dr Michael Taylor has been a party member since 1964. He is currently enjoying a round the world trip.

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28 Comments

  • Nigel Hunter 22nd Sep '17 - 10:34am

    Technology soon becomes outdated. If connect is not fit for purpose, ditch it

  • Technology does quickly become outdated.
    That’s exactly why EARS was ditched.

  • Laurence Cox 22nd Sep '17 - 12:17pm

    I also go back a long time in this Party and one of its predecessors, and can remember that before EARS there was Polly, which EARS quickly supplanted. There were also some home-rolled equivalents (I think that John Hemming wrote his own for Birmingham Yardley).

    A database based on the electoral register with voting and canvassing data is essential to the Party’s operation, but with GPRD coming into force on 25th May 2018, it is possible that Connect, being based outside the EU will be non-compliant. The same may also be true of Salesforce (our membership database) and Nationbuilder. Information on GPRD can be found here:

    https://www.itgovernance.co.uk/data-protection-dpa-and-eu-data-protection-regulation

    I would feel happier if I had confidence that our IT people at HQ were fully prepared for this.

  • Well said. Connect was touted as the software that won it for Obama. Which presumably also means it was the software that lost it for Hillary. EARS is far better and appropriate to the needs of local parties with a user interface better suited to ordinary members.

  • Andrew McCaig 22nd Sep '17 - 1:55pm

    I have never had the benefit of using EARS, but the most frustrating thing I find about Connect is the inability to record anything about an address, rather than an elector.. Apart from the obvious thing if not knowing how many letterboxes there are in a delivery walk, this makes it hard to record useful things like shared houses. A list of addresses per postcode is clearly available to Royal Mail… A database that could deal with both voters and where they live is surely not impossible? (Of course I may be missing something!)

  • paul holmes 22nd Sep '17 - 3:08pm

    We just ran another successful by election campaign in Chesterfield and I sat and cursed CONNECT all day on polling day yesterday. Highly sophisticated or complex, clunky and user unfriendly, I suppose it all depends on your point of view. From my point of view we won yesterday despite the problems CONNECT put in our way not because of any advantage it provided. I would subscribe to a point someone made early on in the process of introducing CONNECT. “It’s as if the Party have provided every constituency with a Formulae One racing car but without providing every constituency with the team of Formulae One mechanics and drivers needed to make it go.”

    Except of the course the Party don’t “provide” it. Each constituency pays for it at about twice the rate EARS costs.

  • Elaine Woodard 22nd Sep '17 - 4:09pm

    I have no idea what the new EARS software is like but I do know that when we last used it, the support was poor. DataTrans wasn’t (and presumably still isn’t) a big operation and that has its own vulnerabilities at key times.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Sep '17 - 5:54pm

    Elaine

    If you don’t know what the new EARS software is like you can ask them to come to your regional conference. [email protected] will find them. You don’t need a large organisation but you do need big servers. I understand that EARS have same and that they are UK based, not in some cloud in the USA or Canada.

    Paul

    As I said in the piece EARS wasn’t able to meet the challenge when Connect was introduced. My argument is that it is not only able to meet the challenge but that it’s now better than Connect in the vital areas that I suggested.

  • David Becket 22nd Sep '17 - 6:51pm

    The ditching of connect and replacement with the new improved ears cannot come too soon

  • I’m sure Vince wil be very interested in your points. If we want to be really sharp, we need the sharpest system at any particular election and the best tech people we have to run every constituency, ward etc.

  • No doubt EARS and Connect both have their relative strengths and weaknesses and I agree walk ordering isn’t as flexible in Connect as is was[is] in EARS. (To an extent this matters less if you are using MiniVan.) However it’s not accurate to say MiniVan “only works if you are connected to the system via phone or wifi.” MiniVan is a stand-alone app that only needs to connect to the system to download a list before a canvass session starts and to upload data once it has been completed. I also don’t understand the second of Michael’s three points of failure.

  • @Tony Rowan Wicks. “..the best tech people we have to run every Constituency and Ward…” But that is precisely one of the major problems with CONNECT:
    1. In few Constituencies -vastly fewer since 2015 – do we have professional staff. Mostly we rely on local volunteers who often only use CONNECT for an actual election every couple of years or so. Obama on the the other hand had 200 computer ‘teccies’ running the system for the USA in 2008. We employ 2 or 3 for the UK ! And I couldn’t even get the courtesy of an answer to my last question to them.
    2. The training provided has mostly been weak. I have attended training at national Conferences and left little the wiser. I was a professional teacher for 22 years, I passed accreditation to train other teachers and I passed accreditation to be an ALDC Trainer. I have to say that OFSTED (not my favourite organisation I hasten to point out) would certainly have failed most of the CONNECT training courses I ever attended.
    3. The system is complex to use. In the last 2 years I have run polling day in 4 Council by elections in two constituencies (we won 3 and narrowly missed gaining the 4th). In one small one I just didn’t bother even trying to use CONNECT. In each of the other 3 I have sat with a CONNECT user (2 at the time employed by the Party and 1 who used to be) and asked them to teach me how to use GOTV. Each time, including yesterday, they would at various points frown, lean towards the screen and say “oh it doesn’t do that/work like that……but we could work around it by…….” followed by lots of key board pounding and muttering which left me (and often them) little the wiser. EARS may or may not have been as sophisticated but at least someone like me could use it without too much trouble.

    I introduced computerised electioneering (EARS) to Chesterfield in 1992 and it was a great help. CONNECT has made it harder not easier, the exact opposite of what computers are supposed to do?

  • I am a local party data officer, and I am therefore a reasonably proficient user of Connect. I became active after our local party migrated from EARS, so I am not familiar with it – but I expect that there are very few people n the Party that are familiar enough with both tools to make an informed comparison.

    I am painfully aware of some of the shortcomings of Connect, but overall I think it is a reasonably good piece of software. There is a tension between the sophistication needed for HQ staff to use in target seats and the simplicity needed for less well resourced local parties. Some of its complexity is due to lack of planning when the tool was originally customised for UK (for example, the number of tags and questions).

    I am confident that HQ is working to make sure that Connect is GDPR compliant – because, if it is not, we will not be able to use it at all beyond May 2018. The location of the servers is a very small aspect of compliance (and these are in Canada for Connect, which I believe makes things easier).

    One important aspect of data protection is ensuring that data is not lost – through securoty breaches or theft of computers or memory sticks. That is far easier if the data is held centrally, rather than on individual computers in local parties. I therefore expect that GDPR will lead to increasingly cloud-based implementation, whichever tool was used.

    HQ will be kept extremely busy ensuring that the current Lib Dem ‘official’ software will be GDPR compliant by next May. The last thing that they need is an extra piece of software to manage, and a migration process to support.

    I certainly agree that there is a need for better training and documentation for Connect. Fo example, there is no description of what some of the target pools actually do.

  • Maureen Rigg 23rd Sep '17 - 8:26am

    I too have used both systems, including the very early internet based version of EARS. I became increasingly frustrated at the inability of DataTrans to carry out the upload of the new register in December quickly and accurately. The support was non-existent by the time we, reluctantly, made the decision to move onto Connect. Maybe a big staff isn’t needed but it does need more than one or two people to handle the queries and problems that inevitably arise.
    Paul, your comment on Formula One is spot on. A Formula 3 version would probably suit most of us in developing parties. I have found the training I’ve attended useful and the support group on Facebook is amazing. Without them I wouldn’t be able to do half of what I can do.
    I do wonder, under the new data protection laws, whether holding all the data on individual computers in wards as we used to with EARS would be viable? I haven’t studied it in detail and I know I have a lot to read up and implement as Data Officer.

  • Nigel Quinton 23rd Sep '17 - 8:36am

    My first reaction to this article was ‘oh no here we go again’ but If EARS is genuinely a viable competitor again now then we ought to consider it. Connect is better than many here are saying but no one could pretend it has been a raging success. Minivan however had been transformational. My challenge to Datatrans would be: are they able to support a fully national network and can they provide a canvassing App that our activists would embrace as enthusiastically as they have Minivan?

  • EARS has survived and advanced, in spite of the obstacles put in its way by HQ. Yes, it has its drawbacks – Connect is better at drawing in others from around the country to help with telephone campaigning, EARS is not quick to respond to fixes, and communications with users could be better – but when the party decided to pump vast sums of money and human resources into Connect, you would have thought EARS would disappear without trace.
    Here in Staffordshire Moorlands, we have stuck with EARS since we first adopted digital campaigning in the 1990s. There was an interlude when we were able to use Connect for a couple of years courtesy of the West Midlands Region, but none of our activists thought Connect was better or easier to use than EARS. Every year our Exec is given the option to switch, but we have so far we have always chosen EARS.
    I think HQ should acknowledge that some of us on the ground want to continue to use EARS and make the same resources that Connect gets available to EARS. If contractual arrangements won’t allow that, then give Connect its marching orders.

  • Stephen Booth 23rd Sep '17 - 12:39pm

    Bang on the money Michael Taylor. Connect is clearly designed for the US market and not UK. So many members of our party are, shall we say, mature people, who struggle with the endless barrage of “new technology” and whose fingers are not as nimble as they once were.

    I have used MiniVAN; for knocking-up (ask the Americans if they know what that means) and it works best in urban areas if you have a team of three – two on the knocker, one issueing names and recording.

    As for printed canvas sheets, don’t get me started! Like Bill Gates I am sure the proprietors of this software will have invested all their profits in paper. We usually canvas in a team and to guard against delay at the door we give every canvasser the same sheets. Not ideal but that’s the way our long-serving councillors like it. We end up with 20 electors on a sheet, households broken between sheets and a ludicrously complicated coding system, which we largely ignore. Also, has anyone explained to Connect that the very first level of campaigning is the polling district! Print it on every sheet by default. There are also hidden benefits of settling down when you’re back from canvassing to entering the data. It serves as an aide memoire for local problems, to chase up officialdom and an opportunity to view the session in the round.

    One good thing I like about Connect is its ability to produce delivery walks complete with maps, although the setting up of that does require someone with local knowledge (a round may look easy until you realise it’s divided by a fenced dual carriageway).

    The party really needs to face up to what we need: a flexible system that works for all age groups of campaigners. I am a very strong believer in retaining data locally, properly backed up in the cloud but easily and quickly available to teams. Let HQ give us guidance on data security and privacy, though we seem to have become far too suspicious of so-called personal data (to me that’s my passport, driving licence, how much I have in the bank, mother’s maiden name, what credit cards I hold, etc, etc). I can remember a time when you could go and look at the electoral role in the local library. Simply adding someone’s political affiliation doesn’t sound like spectacularly important personal data.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd Sep '17 - 8:26pm

    @Andy Hinton
    I am glad to hear that it was discussed at Conference, my own experience of the IT setup while working as a volunteer in HQ during the GE, didn’t fill me with a great deal of confidence.

    @Stephen Booth
    You still can look at the electoral register in your local library if you have a valid reason to do so; it is just that it is not left out on an open shelf. You might want to check that you are correctly entered on the register or, as I did earlier this year, check the name and electoral number of your candidate – as her Agent, I was bringing the nomination forms back from the Returning Officer to fill them in.

  • “Simply adding someone’s political affiliation doesn’t sound like spectacularly important personal data.”

    This is a spectacularly wrong point about data protection. Political affiliation is classed as sensitive personal data (hard to see that changing under GDPRS).

  • Paul Ankers 25th Sep '17 - 3:57pm

    I am glad there is a conversation about Connect. It shouldn’t be a binary conversation though. It is not simply a choice between EARS & Connect. There are plenty of other options out there.
    Indeed the party has a habit of acquiring IT solutions, like Nationbuilder or Salesforce. We should stick with one that can solve many of our needs.
    EARS was easier to analyse and I doubt ‘Canvas Analysis’ in Connect so often, but EARS wasn’t even a data cube.
    The author is wrong about MiniVan. It is an ideal portable tool. This needs to be retained. Some of the centralization of Connect needs to go. Reliance on the algorithms within Connect is not healthy. An ability to run polling day offline (temporarily) would be nice too. Would avoid the polling day headaches I hear so often.

  • Mick Taylor 25th Sep '17 - 4:54pm

    @Paul Ankers
    I simply said that EARS had now produced a tool called EARS lite which does all that minivan can do and more PLUS it is easier to use. What’s not to like?

  • I have no real idea how GDPR will affect political campaigning. I suspect that Labour and the Tories will ignore it because like us they rely on database systems to fight and win elections. So I suspect that if we are to continue to function as an election winning party (well I can dream) then I suspect we will ignore it as well. I also suspect that exempting political parties from its provisions is something almost everyone in Parliament would agree. There are precedents for that already,

  • I don’t see why political parties should be able to keep (what is after all sensitive data) on people in perpetuity. There is also an argument about whether something like Connect’s Canvass Analysis is DPA compliant as it categorises people with political affiliations that may no longer be accurate as people’s views change.

    So GDPR could have a significant impact. How the political parties respond to this I can guess. I certainly circulated a fair few briefings in my time that were about getting round data protection type rules rather than complying with them.

  • OnceALibDem 27th Sep '17 - 2:34am

    “I also suspect that exempting political parties from its provisions is something almost everyone in Parliament would agree. There are precedents for that already,”

    Not so much really. This is an EU regulation which has direct effect. It comes into legal force in May and is binding on the UK at that point. Parliament has very narrow scope for altering its effects (some bits of the regulation require the national governments to draw up certain rules and provisions)

    I’m sure that committed pro-Europeans won’t want to see the UK trying to find wiggle room (there may be a small area for this) to get out of obligations under EU law.

    I’m not sure of any areas of the current DPA regime which political parties are exempted from

  • Political parties ignore the rules about TPS and nothing is done about it. I hope a way of continuing to operate computer based campaigning systems will be agreed. If not, as I said, the rules will only be honoured in the breach…

  • David Blake 27th Sep '17 - 2:57pm

    The rules about the TPS are there for a reason and are pointed out in the party’s compliance guide. To exempt political parties from them would only increase the public’s anger towards politics.

  • Simon Oliver 2nd Oct '17 - 3:59pm

    I’ve never used EARS.
    I have been using computers and software in all their various forms for nearly 40 years, including a sizeable part of my degree and two NVQs.
    I have 20+ years experience of testing software professionally.
    I was the data and membership officer of our local party when Connect was introduced, and attended one training session and a pre-rollout briefing.

    So when I tell you that Connect has never been fit for purpose, you can take it as something approaching an expert opinion.

    I feel I am just repeating an old argument that I made at the time, repeatedly. Our local party stopped using it, and never really got any benefit from it before I moved to a different region. The learning curve for anyone above the level of canvasser is immense, and both the interface and database were designed by people who clearly did not understand UK political campaigning, let alone the British psyche and attitude to people asking them for their name, let alone their political leanings.

    If EARS has improved, good for it. I hope they help their customers to get elected. But all this data crunching cannot replace getting to know your ward intimately and talking to the people in it. Statistics are not a good way to see into people’s minds.

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