Liberal Democrat eCanvass – Web 0.2

I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how the party are using the web and e-campaigning to motivate the grassroots, so when I got an email today about how I could help in the local council by-election, I was interested to see what could be done. Clicking on a link about our exciting ‘eCanvass’ software, I get taken to a secure website.

After logging in, I see that the software is effectively a simple point-and-click thing, much like I used to use when I worked in call centres, which makes sense as it’s just asking you to call people listed in a database and then add their details into the same database.

The problem is, as can be seen from this page , that it’s clearly written in some Microsoft-only platform – my guess from the look of it is Visual Basic.Net .

Now, given that there is a large overlap between Liberal Democrats and users of non-Windows platforms (my rough guess from the Lib Dems I know is that only about 60% of them use Windows, with about 30% using Macs and 10% using GNU/Linux , but that’s obviously completely unscientific), this makes very little sense – it stops a significant proportion of the activist base from using the program at all (and even if the numbers are as little as a quarter of what I’ve stated, that’s still 10% of the party members who can’t use it – a significant number).

This would be OK if it were doing anything difficult that required platform-specific code, but I could knock something like this up in ten minutes (well, maybe not, but an insignificant amount of time anyway – a few days work at most including testing) in Java, and it could also be done in Python or Perl/Tk or any other cross-platform language (Java would be easiest as most people have Java on their computer anyway and there’d be no need for multiple binaries to be compiled or anything like that). All it is is a GUI interface to a networked database. In fact it could even be done – and this would be the obvious way to do it – as a web-based thing, with no need for anyone to download any executable code to their machine at all.

I tried to contact the team about this using this contact page . However, stupidly, I tried doing this in Epiphany, my browser of choice, and of course these people don’t know anything about writing standards-compliant web pages either. As a result, there’s a form with a ‘Human originator test’ field, but no indication of what’s meant to go in this field. The next field has “Your Name” before it and “Your email address” after, while the next field is completely blank (I’m assuming that this is actually the email address field).

So I fill in the form but, of course, I can’t fill in the ‘human originator test’ because there’s no indication anywhere on the page of what’s meant to go in there (there might well be if viewed on Internet Explorer, but of course I don’t have internet explorer) so the page refuses to send my query because it looks automated. This is, of course, even though I have earlier signed into the webpage with my name, postcode and party membership number, to look at the FAQs. (There are no FAQs – unsurprising if nobody is actually able to A the Qs in the first place…)

Also, when it tells me this, it reloads the page and shows my message in the text field where I typed – except my message is full of escape characters every time I use an apostrophe…

(ETA I later tried using IceWeasel (the version of Firefox that comes with my distro) to send the same message. The page still rendered as badly, but this time the message actually went through, even though I still had no idea what, if anything, was meant to go into the ‘human originator test’)

On top of that, the website just *looks* unprofessional, with badly-written CSS meaning that bars of colour go approximately half-way across the page before giving up.

The whole thing looks like the kind of thing I used to do with my band’s angelfire site back in the late 90s, and frankly wouldn’t have been up to scratch even then. If this is the best the party can do with using new technology then gawdelpus. I wouldn’t normally air this kind of thing publicly, but given that I have absolutely no way of contacting anyone who can do anything about it other than shouting loudly enough in public that someone might pay attention, there’s not much else I can do…

(For those of you wanting my review of Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D 2, you’ll have to wait til tomorrow. The interminable comment thread to my last post, while it has some very interesting stuff in it, has taken up all the thinking-and-writing-about-Grant-Morrison-comics part of my brain for the last few days. That and a BFAW will be up tomorrow.)

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7 Responses to Liberal Democrat eCanvass – Web 0.2

  1. Dave Page says:

    Yes, EARS and related stuff being Windows-only is a real problem. Part of the reason I’m teaching myself Mono-stuff is to write a cross-platform C#/Qt replacement for it.

    Shame actually – I have a disabled girlfriend who is happy to phone canvas for the party and is at home all day, but she doesn’t have Microsoft Windows so won’t be able to contribute in this way.

    I suppose one person to rant at would be Lynne Featherstone, though she never got back to me about the party’s illiberal and vote-harming European policy on software patents.

  2. Jennie says:

    I second contacting Lynne. She;s pretty switched on. The problem we (as a party) have is fuck all money, which means everything is done by volunteers, which means that things rarely look professional, because they;re not.

    If you could do better in ten minutes, why not volunteer your services?

  3. The sad thing is, Jennie, that this *isn’t* something done by volunteers – this is a company who are charging rather a lot for their services (the eCanvass software is free-as-in-beer, but the other software they provide, HandS and Casework Manager, costs a lot of money).
    I would never attack the efforts of a well-meaning volunteer in this way, but if something is being done by a for-profit company, then they deserve criticism if they fail.

    I was actually considering volunteering to do better (though considering this is being run by a commercial company I suspect they put the job out to tender and so on rather than trusting to volunteers) but it looks like Dave’s already onto it, so I’ll have a word with him to see if I can help in his efforts rather than duplicating them…

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  5. Andy Hinton says:

    Having just become Data Officer for my local party, I can report that Wine will run both EARS and the eCanvass program without (so far) any hiccups, so there is some hope for Linux users.

  6. Ranting welcome – but even better would be if you would fill out the survey from which I can start to gather information about the army of brilliant e-people out there and harnass said talent. Survey at Also – apologies to Dave for non-response – very unusual but not impossible.

  7. Thanks for getting back about this so promptly, Lynne. My own technical experience is very patchy and doesn’t fit well into the categories on that survey, but I’ll try to fill it out in as accurate a way as I can when I have the time…

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