Carter Center, College of Computing Team Up Again for Election Monitoring

June 1, 2010

Testing a mobile phone-based system that promises to improve
the efficiency of election monitoring in countries around the globe, a
three-person team from the College of Computing accompanied a group from the
Carter Center to monitor the use of electronic voting technology in the
Philippines’ May 10 election.

“Georgia Tech has been active in eDemocracy for several
years now,” said Mike Hunter, research scientist in the Georgia Tech
Information Security Center (GTISC), who traveled to Manila with two Tech students
and the Carter Center team. “The field is ripe—both for bad guys and for us to
step in and establish some best practices.”

Often when monitoring teams are dispatched to observe
elections, their destination is a nation whose communications infrastructure is
limited. Observers typically record their data on paper, then compare notes
when teams reassemble at day’s end. Hunter said researchers in GTISC and
elsewhere in the College of Computing had been working on a system that would
enable election observers to use an SMS (text-messaging) network to record,
transmit and evaluate their reports in real time to a central computer that
merges the data and allows for comprehensive analysis.

Hunter called the “beta test” of the system a definite
success.

“Across the world, from developing countries to Manhattan,
SMS and cellular coverage are becoming ubiquitous,” he said. “No one had any
problems transmitting their data.”

Though the May 10 Philippine election, in which offices from
the presidency to the national legislature to local positions were decided, was
free from these difficulties, Carter Center delegations are regularly sent to
observe voting in countries troubled by alleged political corruption, social
unrest, war—or, too often, all three. The team will talk to election officials
and develop a checklist of questions or issues for observers to watch.

But on election day, circumstances can change quickly.
Observers may be out of contact and unable to receive new instructions or
compare data until they return to base. The SMS-based system (which for this
test used several Google Android-based smartphones) directly addresses that
shortcoming.

“Within 15 minutes of the day starting, I felt like we
accomplished a lot,” Hunter said, adding that the delegation’s command center
began evaluating incoming data and recommending changes in observation strategy
just minutes after the polls opened at 7 a.m.

Though the Carter Center was called in specifically to
observe the use of electronic voting technology in the Philippines, this was
mere coincidence. The GTISC system had nothing to do with voting method; it
served only to facilitate the observers’ data gathering and analysis, and could
be used in any election regardless of the voting method involved.

The greatest benefit to GTISC, Hunter said, was receiving
some “on the ground” wisdom about how the monitoring system should work. He
said his two students “received a crash course in dealing with last-minute
problems.” Since the monitoring system is designed to support a specific
observation plan, when that plan changes, the system needs to change too.

“It may seem trivial, but given how helter skelter things
can be in an election setting, we need to set up the system so questions can be
changed up until the last minute,” Hunter said. “Having this device in your
hand, you want to take full advantage of it. It can enable game-day changes to
observation plans, especially in rural or remote areas.”

He also learned that some Philippine election officials
appeared intimidated by observers interviewing them and recording data on a
digital device. “You can never have enough real-world tests,” he said.

“The biggest surprise to me was how smoothly the application
ran,” said Karthik Rangarajan, who’s pursuing his master’s in information
security. “On the Command Center side, there were no bugs, and that was just
amazing because it was handling a relatively large volume of messages pretty
comfortably. I've never deployed software I've written in the real world, so it
was an amazing experience.”

“Seeing eDemocracy deployed in the streets of Manila drove
home the point that in this case, our ostensibly technical project wasn't
really about technology at all,” said Duncan Osborn, who graduated in May with
a bachelor’s in computing engineering. “We constantly sought the guidance of
the Carter Center personnel that would be using our technology in the field.
What makes this project unique is that it was built from the ground up to allow
a person, any person, to use our system. I saw firsthand in the Philippines
that approaching human social problems requires human-oriented technology.”

The Philippine trip is the latest example of partnership
between the College of Computing and the Carter Center. In 2003, then-Dean Rich
DeMillo
accompanied a Carter Center team to Venezuela to observe that country’s
presidential election. And College researchers also have coordinated with
Carter Center officials to support the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in
Liberia, which under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is struggling to emerge
from two decades of bloody civil war.

“This partnership was a dream come true for my group,”
Hunter said. “This was a real world situation, with a real customer—and a
demanding customer, which is what you want. The suggestions we got from the
Carter Center team were invaluable.”

“As election observers, we are very interested in the role
of technology on the electoral process,” said Avery Davis-Roberts, assistant
director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “However, we have only
recently begun to think in more detail about the ways in which technology can
impact our own work. The Carter Center’s democracy program has been
working with the College of Computing at Georgia Tech to develop practical
tools for observers that make the most of SMS technology and allow for rapid
data aggregation.

“This has the potential,” Davis-Roberts continued, “to be a
real benefit to observation missions where the quick collection of information
from around the country is an absolute necessity.”