Never Cut Turf Again With Distributed Canvassing

March 12, 2018 | NGP VAN

Cutting turf is one of the most time-consuming parts of working as a Campaign field organizer, with hours upon hours regularly devoted to preparing walklists and maps. Our newest organizing tool, Distributed Canvassing, is designed to completely automate the turf cutting process, saving hours of valuable time for campaign staff and allowing increased flexibility for volunteers. Our Organizing Product Manager, Jennifer Willis, sat down with us this week to explain how it is changing the campaign ground game.

LISTEN: To learn more about how Distributed Canvassing was created and what is in store for the future, listen to the full interview here:

 What is Distributed Canvassing anyway?

Distributed Canvassing is a tool that’s meant to change the workflow for launching canvasses. Right now your standard workflow for getting involved as a volunteer on a campaign is: 

  1. You need to contact a field organizer, 
  2. You schedule a time to come into the campaign office,
  3. Your field organizer has to spend a bunch of time cutting and printing turf,
  4. You (as the volunteer) check out that list of voters,
  5. You go canvass and actually contact the voters,
  6. Then you come back to the office to check the list back in,
  7. And the organizer has to enter the data back into the system.

Distributed canvassing is trying to cut down on that number of steps, specifically the part of actually cutting and distributing turf. So as an organizer, all you have to do is:

  1. Set up a universe and specify the script and how many doors you want each person to get,
  2. The system then creates a list number, and all you have to do is distribute out that list number and the app cuts the turf for you based on your canvassers current location.

How did the idea for it come about, and what was the development process?

Distributed canvassing came out of an app called Knock 10, that we released in collaboration with the DNC in the summer of 2017. The idea behind Knock 10 was to remove the barriers to entry associated with actually getting involved in contacting voters. With Knock 10, all you’d have to do is download the app and sign in, and the app would tell you the 10 closest voters from a predetermined universe. One of the biggest pieces of feedback that we heard form organizers was that while not having to cut turf was great, they wanted more ability to customize the script and universe. We took that feedback, and as part of our Hack-a-Thon last year we were able to generalize the workflow for MiniVAN to create Distributed Canvassing. So now organizers can just pick their saved search, they can pick their MiniVAN campaign (which is associated with a script) and they can generate that list number themselves.

You’ve been out in the field with campaigns who are piloting this technology – what have you seen?

Distributed Canvassing is in a beta phase right now, and we’ve seen it used for a number of different types of programs. Folks are really using it in a lot of interesting and creative ways; we’ve had people set up statewide universes, we’ve had people use it for ballot chase, we’ve had people set up their own distributed canvass for a really dedicated volunteer so they can work through an area on their own time, and I’ve seen it used also for traditional canvassing where you send a group of people out to a town. I think it’s worked really well for everyone – what’s good about distributed canvassing is that it’s flexible enough to account for all of those different programs.

There was a lot of success in using a statewide universe. In Virginia, organizers set up a distributed canvass, emailed the list number out to a group of their out-of-state volunteers and said “Hey, this turf is just outside of DC, sign in and knock on the 30 doors closest to you,” and they had almost the entire universe checked out and canvassed over the course of a weekend. That was a really clever way to do it, because it was a low effort way for the organizers to get quite a few doors knocked. It also worked well for traditional canvassing, for sending people out to a town to do the actual canvassing.

What feedback did you hear from campaign staff and organizers?

The biggest piece of feedback that we’ve received from the organizers actually running the campaigns is that it’s a huge time saver for them. I will say there’s definitely a learning curve for learning to trust the app and probably some training differences as well. It’s important to let volunteers know to download the next list where they are and the app will automatically get the next closest doors. We’ve taken a lot of that feedback and we’re hoping to get some more, to make some changes in our next iteration of distributed canvassing. 

What lessons and best practices for Distributed Canvassing have we learned through the pilot programs?

It depends on the kind of program that you’re running, but be mindful of the universe that you’re creating. If you want to send a group of volunteers out to a specific turf, keep the universe constrained to that area so they don’t get sent doors in a town 20 minutes over. If you’re setting a statewide universe and you want everyone to have doors that are close by, make sure that you have enough voters in your universe so that all of your canvassers will get nearby doors.

For training, be sure that your canvassers know that the doors they’re getting from the app are the closest to them, and also be sure that they know that they won’t actually see that turf until they enter the list number.

How does Distributed Canvassing change the typical workflow for a campaign?

I think distributed canvassing can be really helpful because it frees up a lot of time for the organizers running the canvass. It really lowers the barriers to entry for launching a canvass, especially if you don’t have the resources to cut and distribute turf. With distributed canvassing you can just set up your universe and send out your list number to all your canvassers, and that’s it, you don’t need to spend all of the time cutting turf, you don’t have to spend the time checking turf in and out, and of course because you’re using MiniVAN you don’t have to spend time doing data entry, so it frees up a lot of time for organizers to do other things. The other thing it also frees up is just training time – you don’t have to teach people how to cut and print turf if they’re running distributed canvassing.

Who should consider running a Distributed Canvass program for their campaign?

Everyone should use MiniVAN and everyone should use distributed canvassing! What’s been unique about this beta program is that folks have been using it in really creative ways. I do think it’s particularly helpful for folks who don’t have the time or resources to actually cut and distribute turf. It’s also helpful if you have volunteers who are physically far away from an organizer; if you have a rural county that is really self-organized, you can just create a universe for them and give them the list number and they can work their way through it. So really anywhere that you’re tight on time and resources, distributed canvassing can be a great tool.

When will this be available, and how can I get it set up?

It’s available now, it’s in beta testing and we are more than happy to turn it on for folks who would like to be part of the beta program. Send an email to your Account Manager or Client Support person and we should be able to get it turned on right away.

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