Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/1999/06/07/nelson_mandela_is_it_mandala/

Nelson Mandela is IT mandala

Technology smoothes SA elections

By Kathy Gibson

Posted in Business, 7th June 1999 21:39 GMT

Exclusive to The Register 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. "We really had to build the capacity of the people of South Africa," says Sackstein. "In many areas people had never seen a computer before. It was an invigorating learning experience." The logistics of installing this number of computers alone is staggering. Tenders for all aspects of the supply and installation of the IEC Election 99 system had been won by Datacentrix, to a total value of about R50-million, and the company was given just 17 days to install 1500 PCs, 44 servers and related local area networks in the field. The equipment had been pre-ordered from Hewlett-Packard's production and co-ordination facilities in Europe, and cargo space on incoming flights was also pre-ordered to hasten the delivery of the computers. With an order of this magnitude, the IEC insisted that part of the business be passed on to black economic empowerment companies. Datacentrix, in a joint venture with Kwetliso, therefore identified a number of relevant companies that would be involved in the vast undertaking. During the 16 working days it took to install the remote sites, services from black economic empowerment companies Langraphix, Axion, Micro Tech, ACL, Ubuntu, PDK, DTP and Camelot were employed. Siltek Distribution Dynamics installed and configured the pre-determined software on all machines. Once all the electoral offices were up and running, and communicating effectively, the IEC turned its energy to finding an efficient way of registering the voting population. "We realised the only way to do it was to not have to data capture all the information," says Sackstein. "In addition, we had to find a way that was convenient for people who were not necessarily literate. "So we searched for technology that would enable us to use barcode reading machines in the 15,000 registration stations around the country. "This allowed a registering voter's barcode to be scanned in about 30 seconds, and in nine working days we had registered 80% of the eligible population of South Africa. "Once again we had relied on technology to deliver an enabling process. Using a satellite-based WAN and the barcode readers we were able to compile, consolidate, verify and compile the voters' roll in a unique period of time.” On election day itself and the days following it, the compilation and consolidation of information from the polling stations become the next priority. "We realised that nine days to consolidate and verify the election results is not acceptable," says Sackstein. "Each day that goes by erodes the credibility of the election - and in the last election a lot of information was closed to the media. "So we developed a system that allowed us to use technology to effectively manage what was happening in the 15,000 polling stations around the country. "We needed sufficient infrastructure to allow the 261 000 staff members to report problems and successes, voter turnout and other issues." Telephone communications at all the polling stations was set up by Telkom, using fixed-line services, with the last of 1600 new lines going in on the morning of 2 June. All information - and problems - from polling stations and local electoral offices was consolidated at the IEC's election headquarters at the Pretoria showgrounds. Once again, logistics played an important role: the 12,000 square meter building was rented for one month, and setting-up began on 15 May. A staggering 600-PC network, with 25 high-end file, application and database servers was installed and working in record time, by Datacentrix and black economic empowerment partner Yashu. Connecting this infrastructure was 35,000 meters of UTP (universal twisted pair) cabling and 3000 meter of fibre optic cabling as well as 3000 meters of electrical cable. In addition, electronic replicas of the national and provincial ballot papers with LEDs were constructed to display election results as they were captured on the system. The R3,5 million worth of software donated by Microsoft SA formed an Internet-based system running a common user interface. Systems on the back-end included NT Server, SQL Server, Internet Information Server, Transaction Server and Microsoft Exchange. Client-side PCs were loaded with Internet Explorer as the front-end running applications and Microsoft Office. Telkom provided a 350-agent call centre as well as a mobile exchange, fibre-optic and microwave technology. This necessitated the installation of an additional microwave tower and an additional cellular tower. "The infrastructure allowed us to take all the unique elements of the election and consolidate them under one roof," says Sackstein. "It also gave us the ability to manage information while offering a level of transparency for the political parties and the media - the election was no longer behind closed doors. "The database was developed not just to collect the election results but also to allow us to manage what was happening in the files." On election day itself, once the doors of the polling stations were closed at 21:00, IEC staff members counted the votes, which were then signed off by the party agents. They then telephoned the results through to the IEC's call centre in Pretoria, where 350 data capturers input the data into the SQL Server database on the HP PC-based network. Back at the polling station, staff announced the results and stuck a copy of the results to the door of the polling station. They then loaded up the ballot boxes and, taking their copy of the results, travelled in to the local electoral office. Results were then faxed to the IEC from the 435 local electoral offices, using the satellite and telecommunications infrastructure already laid down. Arriving through 120 lines dedicated to this purpose, they were data captured once again and the results compared with those already called in. Meanwhile, each polling station's results were also captured by local electoral officials in the local electoral offices and transmitted to the IEC, thus allowing a third check to be made. If all the figures tallied, the results were displayed as confirmed, while any mismatches went back to the verification officers to be checked. "We have seen that the deployment of relevant technology has been remarkably effective, delivering a service to the people of South Africa that we can be proud of," concludes Sackstein. ®