GIS Technology Enables Fair and Fast Elections

BOSTON (06/05/2000) - Think back to that last big IT project you worked on.

Remember the number of endless details and people to coordinate, the scope creep and, worse, how it seemed as if every officer in the company was watching? Just imagine the pressure if the whole world had been watching.

Well, last year, the whole world was watching Mandla Mchunu, chief electoral officer, and his information technology team at the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). And their project was daunting. In 1997, Mchunu was charged with ensuring that South Africa's second post apartheid elections were democratic, fair and fast.

It "was clear from the onset," Mchunu says, "that we needed to use technology as an integral part of the election process."

He and his team also had less than one year to plan and implement the project and deliver the elections.

It sounds like a recipe for failure. Worldwide experts said the data collection would take three to five years. South Africa's 1999 population of 43,426,386 was nearly three times that of Florida. Some citizens didn't have permanent addresses and were unable to read or write. There was no infrastructure in place to dependably gather and transmit electoral data. Plus, there was heightened publicity and intense political pressure.

But failure, says Mchunu, "was not an option." Any failure in the delivery of a sound election, he added, would affect the perceived health of South Africa's democracy, affect its economy and have implications for the country's status as a role model for the region. Besides, the international scrutiny of the elections wasn't focused on "who was elected" but on "how they were elected," Mchunu notes.

The technology the team chose to implement as the backbone of the electoral process was a geographic information system (GIS) because, Mchunu points out, "key to the success of the elections was the compilation of an accurate voters' roll." The team created a customized, continuous spatial database with electronic maps of the country, accurate to 2 meters in urban areas. This information, overlaid with 1994 census information, determined the 14,500 voting districts, based on many spatial and demographic parameters, where people would first be registered and then could vote. "At the peak of the process, we recorded 44 million transactions to our database in a 24-hour period," Mchunu says.

Next, a means of communication to the local electoral delivery mechanisms was needed. In less than six weeks, the team trained staff and implemented a satellite-based wide-area network communications infrastructure. Some of these areas had never had data communications services before.

In addition to connecting local election officers to the IEC, the communications infrastructure also served as a basis for the registration process. Mchunu says they were able to register 9.7 million people in the first weekend alone.

When it was time to vote, this communications system enabled the team to disseminate results in real time on large-scale GIS maps so the media and political parties could map the progress. The elections took 14 hours, with 16.2 million people voting.

The most gratifying moment "was the evening when the final results were announced," says Mchunu, reflecting on the IEC's success with the election.

"Leading-edge technology provided our organization with the ability to invigorate pride in our country and our people."

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