What’s the use of an elections database if it isn’t up-to-date during an election!

Mick Taylor and fellow Todmorden Lib Dems out and about

Mick Taylor and fellow Todmorden Lib Dems out and about

I am currently helping in a small local by-election for Todmorden Town Council. Amongst the things I have been doing is making sure that we use Connect properly. Imagine my frustration then when I discovered that it is not possible to add the voters who have come on to the register just in time to vote in the by-election. I have taken this up with the powers that be but have been told that they can only cope with the once a month regular register updates.

So the only way we can deal with this small number of new electors is to do it ON PAPER. I have also discovered that there is no way to remove defunct postal vote information, except by individual voter, a slow and time-consuming process.

Now in a small town election this is copeable with. There are only 6 new voters involved and perhaps 20 people who no longer have postal votes and if we remember then we can deal with this. However, in an election for a district, county or parliamentary seat the numbers will be greater, 200 plus new voters and say 1500 postal voters in the case of a parliamentary by-election. Now there may be different rules for a parliamentary election and that it suddenly becomes possible to do an additional update, but it is really not at all helpful for council elections. Most people have better things to do than remember to check the last minute register additions and removing defunct postal voters

Without being nostalgic, it was always possible with EARS to add new voters and amend postal voter details with a simple routine that anyone could do. If something had to be dealt with centrally it usually was within 24-48 hours.

Why can’t our party sort out with VAN a method of adding new voters to the system and removing in bulk the postal vote flag where necessary without all this mucking about in hyperspace?

* Dr Michael Taylor has been a party member since 1964. He is currently active in the Calderdale Party.

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28 Comments

  • Allan Brame 22nd Jan '16 - 4:12pm

    That’s why some of us prefer to stick with EARS

  • Tim Pollard 22nd Jan '16 - 5:14pm

    Michael, remember that you can upload any file as a Saved List and then use it during list making to Add to, Narrow down or Remove from other lists as much as you like. On the occasions where you need a 100% up to date postal vote list, then doing that is the way, and is very quick and easy. Most of the time though, just adding new postal voters to the existing set is more than adequate in my experience.

  • Paul Holmes 22nd Jan '16 - 5:30pm

    If CONNECT is now being updated monthly that is a definite and welcome improvement on last year. Hinckley and Bosworth fought two by elections last August/September (gain from Labour) and Nov/Dec (increased from fourth on 18% to second on 36%) and even monthly Register updates were not possible then. Given that both Wards contained patches of low rent/high resident turnover housing -and victory in the second election was just 25 votes away – not being able to self update the Registers, as used to be done with EARS, was a problem.

    It’s these end user issues that affect the (volunteer) PBI that need resolving, since what Mark Pack describes as the ‘Power Users’ seem to be very happy with the programme.

  • Tony Dawson 22nd Jan '16 - 5:54pm

    The entire ‘Connect’ thing was a bit of a ‘sell’ right from the start. The ‘spec’ of what we were getting was grossly-inflated and then frantic efforts were made to try to bring what we’s already contracted to buy up to a reasonable standard. The product is still far from that.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Jan '16 - 7:53pm

    @timpollard. All very well, but it isn’t easy for a busy Connect person trying to run a by-election. And it doesn’t even begin to tackle the very real problem of register updates, which used to be so easy and now is effectively impossible for anyone but the people in HQ, and they can’t do it for a crucial by-election. For goodness sake, get this sorted with VAN!

  • Actually, allowing users to amend the voter file was one of the reasons why so much of the EARS data we received was corrupted. Doing these things centrally ensures the integrity of the database in the long term.

  • Andrew McLean 23rd Jan '16 - 10:28am

    Mick is clearly what I call a “100 percenter”, someone who thinks it is unacceptable if the data in Connect isn’t completely perfect. But do these small imperfections actually adversely affect campaigning in a significant way?

    Take the example of a Westminster constituency where you are missing 200 electors who were added to the register between the last monthly update and polling day, that’s approximately 0.25% of the electorate. These will be people you know very little about, you haven’t talked to on the doorstep and you don’t have a relationship with; so they are unlikely to be people for whom you have an important targeted message. I would argue that the main value in getting them into the database would be to canvass them. but, unless you really have recently canvassed over 99% of the people in the constituency, you have plenty of other people you could and should be talking to. Just to be clear that’s 99% of the people talked to recently, not the percentage of doors you have knocked on.

    If it was up to me, even if I did have the facility to manually add these people to the database, and we received the list from the council in the middle of the election campaign, I don’t think that performing the manual update would be a good use of anyone’s time!

    If you are a “100 percenter”, next time you are tempted to complain that there is a problem with the data affecting some tiny proportion of the electorate, compare that tiny proportion with the number of people you haven’t contacted and keep the “problem” in perspective.

  • The big problem with Connect, for me coming from an EARS background, is that I find Connect counter intuitive. Apart from Mick Taylor comments to which I agree, drawbacks being:
    1. I think this is meant to be used week in week out by full/part time organisers not infrequently by volunteers, I have enough trouble with it at Local Party level most ward people have given up and rely on me (and I struggle).
    2. The lack of (unless I have missed it – which says something) an ability to see historic real canvass records for individuals (and not the interpretive label such as “Red Lib Dem” which means little), and then view this, say, across a street. EARS did have a straightforward display of this information which took seconds to understand.
    3. Shuttleworth lists, I understand, were altered by HQ on polling day last May to include groups of people who were not canvassed as our supporters. This wasted a lot of time on polling day knocking up people who had no intention of voting for us, possibly costing parliamentary seats. Do we need this interference?
    4. Some of the Connect headings have a trans-Atlantic meaning to them and open to the wrong interpretation with consequences, can these be made more logical to local users.
    5. More a point of info. Canadian Liberal Party training Connect/VAN videos (which can be easily viewed) can be more useful than our own material. worth a look up.

    We will sadly never have EARS back, I am committed to using Connect as this is the only show in town, but please make it easier for ordinary activists to use.

  • Andrew McLean 23rd Jan '16 - 1:16pm

    Hi Andy,

    In my experience the people that find the most difficulty with Connect are new users with a lot of experience with EARS. It’s approach to some tasks is significantly different, which takes a bit of getting used to. When parts of the Green Party started using EARS they found it hard to use.

    I’ll address some of your specific issues. But the best place to get support is the user forum on Facebook, I suggest you sign up if you haven’t already.

    1. Any system is going to require some effort from users. EARS does, Connect does too. Of course if you have already spent that effort learning to use EARS, the trade-offs are different. I would certainly prefer setting up a new user with Connect than EARS.

    2. You will get used to the Canvass Analysis categories, they really make life easier.

    3. Knocking up lists were completely under the control of the local campaigns. HQ staff may have offered advice, but these weren’t controlled centrally. Interestingly a lot of users would like them to be controlled centrally, because they are inherently complicated things to set up.

    4. If you think there is terminology that could be improved, then make concrete suggestions in the support forum. The system has a built in “internationalisation” facility that has allowed much of the text to be translated from American English into both British English and Welsh. This was used quite extensively when the system was first introduced.

    All I can say is stick with it. Connect isn’t perfect, I use it a lot and there are things that frustrate me about it, but there are a lot of good things about it too.

  • Andy Hyde
    There are lots of local parties still using EARS!

  • It’s a scary thing scrolling down LDV & thinking “hang on that’s Margareta… and Catherine… and MALCOLM?!? Holy crap I know ALL of them!

  • Anyway, that was my totally on topic and not drunk at all interjection to this thread…

    *saunters away*

  • Peter Davies 24th Jan '16 - 11:24am

    2) It’s easy enough to work out that Red Labour is probably Labour but persuadable for us. The problem is that at the last election the algorithm included people who had voted for us previously but threatened our most recent canvasser with physical violence.
    3) Meant that those people were knocked up three times.

  • @Andrew McLean
    Andrew I welcome your comment that knocking up lists are “inherently complicated things to set up”. It’s the first open admission I have ever seen from a CONNECT enthusiast which admits that. I have often said that CONNECT is complicated to use for the majority of people who are volunteers using it intermittently. I would also say that knocking up lists were far simpler to set up under EARS. A danger of the greater complexity/sophistication of CONNECT which so enthuses the ‘power users’ is that it makes it far more likely that volunteer amateurs will make mistakes or just give up altogether. Yet the volunteer amateurs are what we as a Party rely on -especially given the mass cull of paid staff around the country post May 2015. Not that all the paid staff were comfortable with CONNECT either.

    It is absolutely essential that improving and streamlining the end user experience is a number one priority -and that includes effective training. The usual response to that is ‘you can look it up online.’ I was Teacher for 23 years and I have to say that if all it takes is ‘looking it up online’ there would be no need to employ all the Teachers, FE and HE lecturers, private sector training agencies, NHS training staff and all the rest.

    You say that the main people you have found to have difficulty are EARS users switching to CONNECT. It is of course always true that anyone switching from one system to another has to adjust from ingrained ways of doing things. But could it also be that previous EARS users are more vocal because they know that some things could be done in Ears which cannot be done in CONNECT and many were indeed much simpler to do in EARS? By contrast someone using a computer programme for election purposes for the very first time has no point of comparison.

  • David Evans 24th Jan '16 - 1:49pm

    Paul, you are absolutely right. There is no one more ardent in their defence of a poor system than the true believers. As a computer auditor for over 20 years, I have seen it all before, but it dismays me how little even power users understand of the basics. For example, I have repeatedly asked in the private forum how Connect decides when a voter is a Red Lib Dem, or Yellow Labour, and in particular the exact criteria it uses to determine when a voter is moved from one category to another. I never received a clear answer, just a lot of generalisations and suggestions to look in various places, none of which gave a clear answer. I have come to the clear conclusion that no-one in the party actually can explain it fully. Indeed it’s the standard answer anyone asking hard questions about anything has been given over the last five years – “Just believe!”

  • Andrew McLean 24th Jan '16 - 3:01pm

    Paul, on the issue of knocking up lists: EARS 8 filters were much more limited than what is available in Connect. Setting up knocking-up lists in Connect that duplicate the capabilities we had in EARS 8 is very straightforward. Where life get complicated, is when you try to exploit the full power of the richer data you have available in Connect. Because you have richer data and can express more complex logic, setting up the filters becomes inherently complex, because the logic is complex.

    Setting up simple filters in Connect is simple, setting up more complex filters is more complex. The challenge is making it easy for beginners to use the basic capabilities, without removing the power from more advanced users. As you probably know there was a recent survey about proposals to modify user profiles to do exactly that.

    I absolutely agree that making the system easier to use is a priority. I attended an interesting feedback session at the last Autumn Conference precisely on this subject. To my mind two key things came out of that session. The first is that most of the suggestions for ways to make the system easier to use were already available, suggesting that training is a priority. The second was that a significant number of the suggestions at a session specifically about making the system easier to use were to add features to the system. This illustrates the tension between users who want the system simplified and users who want more and more features added.

  • Andrew McLean 24th Jan '16 - 3:13pm

    Peter,

    If someone threatened your canvasser with physical violence, then they should have been recorded as “Not Lib Dem” and flagged “Do Not Doorstep”. Either of these should have prevented them appearing in a knocking-up list.

    There is detailed written material available on creating knocking-up lists, following those instructions would have ensured they were omitted. HQ also offer on-to-one phone consultations on Knocking Up lists.

  • Andrew -when is all the talk of making the system more user friendly and improving training actually going to result in some improvement? We are already 9 months on from the last elections and so far are just marking time.

  • “There is no one more ardent in their defence of a poor system than the true believers.”

    That about sums EARS up for me!

  • Tim Pollard – answer the points made, not just make snide remarks. The fact is that HQ / Campaigns are trying to impose this system on everyone, and are brooking no argument or contradiction.

  • And, by the way, are there any systems which sort the complexity of historic voting intention data, eg, to give one standard cluster of voting intentions, people who usually vote Lib Dem locally, Tory nationally and UKIP at Euro elections??

  • @Tim13 – I think Andrew and I have covered all the points in some detail.

    And yes, Connect can identify those people – as long as the data has been collected and entered with that consideration in mind.

  • @Tim Pollard. It’s absolutely clear that the Party will not abandon CONNECT having sunk so much money into it and with the ‘power users’ like yourself being so impressed with it. Therefore many, like myself, who draw comparisons with EARS do not do so because we think you are going to go back to that system but to illustrate where the problems are.

    So, with the pressure of General Election campaigning gone for a while, when will the Party get on with improving the system it introduced, so that the vast majority of potential users -local, unpaid, poorly trained, volunteers, can make effective use of it -as they used to do with EARS. The alternative is to emulate the USA model of having a very large staff of paid computer experts doing all the CONNECT work for everyone across the UK. I believe OBAMA had 200 in 2008 -scaled for population that would be 40 or 50 in the UK? That’s not going to happen, so stop dismissing the volunteers problems and instead improve the end user experience. Otherwise more constituencies may well unilaterally decide that having a cheaper, less sophisticated system they can actually use is better than having a more expensive, more sophisticated system they have given up on.

    Also, standard answers to many issues raised are that “it’s not true, CONNECT can do that, the answer is in the training/online documents.” If so there would appear to be a huge disconnect between many CONNECT users and the training provided. When I was teaching I was subject to the joys of three regular OFSTED inspections over the years and as an MP had the reciprocal pleasure of ‘holding OFSTED to account’ on a regular basis via the Education and Skills Select Committee. I have no doubt what OFSTED would report if they found such disconnect in a school or classroom between input and pupil outcomes.

  • It is noticeable and sad that despite there being responses from Tim Pollard and Andrew, there is still seems no attempt to answer the question “What are the exact criteria it uses to determine when a voter is moved from one category to another?” Tim even says “I think Andrew and I have covered all the points in some detail.”

    Not that one.

  • @ David Evans – I’m not going to answer that question on a public forum, but email me (using standard Lib Dem email format) and I’ll do my best to satisfy your curiosity.

    @Paul Holmes – We continually listen to users and do what we can to improve the experience for them. We have regular feedback sessions at conference, a user survey every 6 months and constant feedback via our facebook group. As always with these things we are limited by money and staff resource. That goes for training too. Dan Purchese is now in charge of training at HQ after the restructure. He is reviewing all aspects of training, so feel free to get in touch with him (although he’s away this week, I’m sure he’d be happy to hear from you).

    The challenges with training though are the same as they were for EARS (I was an EARS trainer for a number of years), which is that face to face training is very expensive and is only of benefit if people go back and use it on a regular basis. There’s no way around that unfortunately. But we are working on a number of ways to try and reduce the number of things that users need to learn in order to use the system for basic campaigning.

  • Paul Holmes 25th Jan '16 - 2:21pm

    @Tim Pollard Thanks for a constructive answer.

    I very much agree with your analysis of the problems ref training -of all kinds not just CONNECT. I would add that of course it’s made even more difficult by the fact that most members, most activists, most Cllrs do not (and never have) attend Conference where a lot of very good training is provided -as well as some less good. As a new Constituency Chairman I have organised an election training event this coming Saturday which has members from 6 local constituencies attending -half have never attended a National Conference and another 25% or more only very intermittently. The demand for training is there so how do we provide it in an accessible way?

    In my first 18 years as a member for example, I only ever attended one Autumn Conference for the simple reason that as a teacher I couldn’t take a week off in term time even if I could have afforded to do so. Yet by the time I started attending regularly from 2001 onwards I had already run a large number of elections, served as a Cllr since 1987 and was now an MP. So how was I trained? I can remember an excellent, concise 1980’s beginners handbook on election law from the SDP Cllrs Association and an excellent concise Liberal Cllrs handbook on fighting and winning elections. When I introduced EARS locally in the early 1990’s there was a ringbinder of instructions I could physically leaf back and forward in and that was written for the most part in relatively accessible non computer geek language (it must have been for me to understand any of it). There was the excellent concise Cllrs Association handbook ‘Yellow Magic’ on how to analyse canvass returns. I recall training sessions in the constituency provided by ALDC staff. From 1995 I remember terrific support from the Campaigns Department whose staff provided hands on expertise, advice and the encouragement to improve what we were doing rather than just judging via KPI tickboxes. ALDC in the 1990’s was also building up a network of experienced volunteers who were accredited as Trainers.

    So where are we now? I will contact Dan Purchase next week and have already talked to someone at ALDC. That though raises a different point. Has anyone yet been told what the HQ staff restructuring was all about, who is in post, what the strategic direction was and is?

  • Tim Pollard 25th Jan '16 - 2:37pm

    That’s a bit above my pay grade. I’ll let you take that up with Tim Gordon.

  • I seem to have set off a stream of comments, I do agree we are now with Connect and EARS has gone (latterly poor experience of EARS was post Connect contract award and definitely not at its best due to the funding running down as LP transferred away).
    Regarding knock up on polling day something did happen in the held seats to the knock up lists, resulting in the wrong people being knocked up (as I found out personally with some very angry punters) – I was told that came from HQ – local parties running Connect last May for purely local elections had full control and did not suffer this problem.
    I will join the Facebook group somehow I missed that one, but please make training easier so I can get more people using Connect.

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