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Nelson Mandela is IT mandala

7 June 1999

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It was five years ago today... There's plenty of controversy surrounding e-voting these days. Ireland recently abandoned plans for electronic ballots, while in the US the saga seems set to run and run. In contrast, the UK seems quite taken on the idea.

Back in 1999, South Africa was already taking bold steps towards an electronic future. It was quite a project, as our in-depth coverage proved (extract shown below - click on headline for the full, unexpurgated version):

Nelson Mandela is IT mandala

By Kathy Gibson in Capetown
Published Monday 7th June 1999 21:39 GMT

South Africa may sit at the bottom end of the Dark Continent, but when its citizens went to the polls last week (2 June) in the country's second fully-democratic election, technology helped to make the process as painless as possible.

Memories are still fresh of the two and three-day queues that voters endured to make their mark in the 1994 election and the Independent Election Commission (IEC) - the body charged with ensuring a free and fair election - was determined that this shouldn't happen again. Howard Sackstein, chief director: delimitation & planning at the IEC, comments: "We realised that disparities could either be perpetuated or wiped out through technology." The first challenge the organisation needed to overcome was that of basic information. "We didn't know where people live," says Sackstein. "So the first process was to create a map of the country."

With technology partner Andersen Consulting - which developed and co-ordinated the entire technology effort of the election systems - the IEC created an electoral map of South Africa using a geographical information system (GIS). The Surveyor-General supplied maps of South Africa and these were overlaid with data from last year's census, telecommunications infrastructure supplied by Telkom and even information on the location of schools from the Department of Education. To produce the 75 000 maps created using GIS technology, the IEC set up the largest print centre in the world, deploying 10 large-format Hewlett-Packard plotters. More significantly, setting up the entire GIS system and producing workable and informative maps of the country took just 13 months - a task that could more realistically be expected to have taken three to five years.

The next challenge was to create a technology infrastructure in the field. "We embarked on a study of what technology we could use to communicate with 435 electoral offices in the field - many of them in rural areas," says Sackstein. Because of the lack of existing basic infrastructure in many areas the IEC decided to leapfrog ahead into the satellite era. Telkom therefore installed satellite dishes and wide area networking capabilities to all the offices. Together with Telkom, IT reseller and system integrator Datacentrix installed a Gigabit Ethernet WAN infrastructure running on Cabletron equipment. With a total of 1500 computers to be placed in the 435 local electoral offices, many of them in outlying areas, training and education became the next real issue...


The rest of this article - and there's plenty in it for those of a technical bent - can be found here

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