How technology helped world’s largest democracy

From monitoring of polling data to 24/7 live feeds, digital technology helped India conduct the 2014 elections in a transparent and successful manner

anita

Anita Karwal | December 29, 2014



Illustration: Ashish Asthana

Elections conducted around the world these days are relying a lot on different technologies given the sheer scale and size of the databases involved. The numbers that one is dealing with in an election are mind-boggling. India, for example, has six recognised national political parties, 42 state political parties, and more than 1,000 unrecognised ones.

In the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the election commission of India (ECI) used more than 1.5 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) and deployed more than five million polling staff across 9 lakh polling stations. This does not include the security personnel deployed for the purpose, which certainly would be more than 2.5 million that were deployed during the 2009 general election in India.

Besides, several thousand observers, videographers, digital camera operators, special trains, helicopters, buses and jeeps, tractors, motorcycles, bullock carts, mules, camels, and millions of supervisory staff were also deployed. Add the number of officials engaged and logistics used in pre-poll phase and one realises why India’s general election is always a subject of interest for the global media.

Technology is the enabler
Try to locate an eligible or a missing voter from a population of 1,210,193,422, spread over a geographical area of 3,287,240 sq kms, distributed over 640 administrative districts, 5,924 sub-districts, 7,935 towns and 640,867 villages across India and the mind suddenly goes numb. Reason would dictate that only a machine can perform such tasks, but ECI is no machine. It is a constitutional body consisting of barely 300 persons as its permanent staff at New Delhi, and just about 25-30 persons at state HQs. In fact, most election management bodies (EMB) across the world are similarly small-sized.

The EMBs, like the ECI, could not possibly manage all of these with the handful of officials that they usually have. It is, therefore, imperative that EMBs utilise some form or the other of technology for at least one or more of its activities. However, going by my experience of managing elections, I would like to caution that it is important that we do not lose ethos and spirit of the exercise while utilising any form of technology for election processes.

In India we are proud of the fact that we conduct our elections in a free and fair manner and hence it is important that any technology that is used during the exercise must be relevant, scalable and transparent. Since the clients are so large in number, the technology also needs to be necessarily user-friendly and inclusive in its approach. What’s more, most elections around the world are focused on ensuring error-free rolls and hence accuracy is another key aspect that cannot be ignored.

It is also important to understand that elections happen in public domain and hence there is hardly any room for making errors. This mandates that EMBs do scrutinise the ethical aspects of technologies being deployed for the purpose.

Last but not the least an election is like a stage show, where there is no scope of a re-take. What this means is that the typical pilot and testing phase that a technology deployment can go through is a luxury that EMBs do not enjoy. In majority of cases, technology needs to be straightaway applied on poll day on a huge scale. Hence,  elections related technology has to be efficient, cost-effective, flexible and sustainable.

Using the Gujarat assembly elections of 2012 and the general elections of 2014 as the reference points, I broadly look at four areas where technology can help simplify the complex electoral processes and has been effective in the past.

Electoral registration
This is an important process, as important as the polling itself, for any error in registration of eligible voters can make the entire exercise a farce. To make sure that electoral registration is complete and without any possible human error, we not only used online tools in Gujarat, but also decided to set up Matdata Suvidha Kendras (MSKs) or voters facilitation centres and make use of the existing eGram centres.

Online & mobile initiative: The entire electoral roll of the state was made available on the state election commission website (www.ceo.gujarat.gov.in) in pdf format complete with search facility using only the first and last name and district name or simply the electoral photo identity card (EPIC) number. Online registration, modification of details and deletion facilities were also made available to the voters online. For the first time voters, the website had contact details of the designated person in each college to register them. The website also allowed applicants to verify the data entry made against their application. This helped reduce the number of typo errors in the card. It also provideed date wise status of application and also the reason for rejection, if any.

Similarly the SMS based query system enabled citizens to seek information through a pull system by simply sending SMS to a designated number. The system helped citizens to check out whether they were enrolled in the electoral rolls and whom to contact for getting enrolled. Similarly, GIS mapping and related information of all 45,383 polling stations were made  available online for everyone to see.

The MSKs: Matdata Suvidha Kendras were opened in all 225 taluka headquarters of Gujarat, including at district headquarters. The MSKs were established as an integrated model with the already existing Jan Seva Kendras (JSK) in the state.

The JSK provides more than 90 services at a single location. We simply opened MSKs within the JSKs so as to benefit from the high footfall and gain maximum from the existing state infrastructure. The MSKs were designated to provide services like issuance of duplicate EPICs and various forms. They were  also responsible for providing contact details of booth level officers, location and details of polling station, accepting of filled forms for registration of name, modifications or deletions. The MSKs emerged as a one stop shop for registration, deletion, modification and change of photographs of electors in the electoral roll.

eGram: With over 12,900 eGrams in the state located within each revenue village the state election commission in Gujarat decided to integrate its services with the centres and reach out to the doorsteps of villagers. The centres helped the commission issue registration forms to the electorates in the remotest corner of the state. It also helped facilitate submission of registration forms and online data entry for inclusion of name, modifications or deletions in the electoral rolls in real-time at the village level. Similarly, the eGram centres also provided search facilities to the voters and made it easier for them to obtain copy of electoral roll, thereby bringing in more transparency.

Grievance redressal mechanism: A pan India public grievance redressal system developed by the ECI converges all complaints from different origin points—telephonic, email, SMS, letters—into one system and ensures SMS communication to all levels for follow up. The national and district helpline including the toll free 1950 number of the ECI also went a long way in building voters’ confidence, and ensuring free and fair election.

Technology for administration
Mobilising and effectively managing the entire election process, people and logistics itself is a massive task and the ECI used technology to the hilt, without which it would be nearly impossible to handle such a massive exercise in such a short span of time (yes, a short span despite the fact that the general election in India was completed in nine phases spread across a month).

What helped the ECI was the robust electoral roll management software or the ERMS.  Built on Oracle 11g platform the web-based software was the key to all online data entry, checking and disposal of applications for registration and deletion of names.

The ECI also used online reporting system till the districts level during elections enabling reporting of all cases of violation of model code of conduct, cases of paid news, violation of campaign expenditure norms, as well as law and order situation on a daily basis. This also enabled ECI to closely monitor all such violations and disposal of complaints.

Speech recognition technology: With the help of the technology developed by CDAC, a unique intervention was possible for speedy identification of paid news during elections. While data recognition software was used for recognition or conversion of news information, tagging and searching of news was made possible by scanning of newspapers. ECI also used the optical character recognition (OCR) tool for quick scanning and analysis of newspaper reports. Besides, speech recognition software was also used for transcribing audio and video news feeds that also allowed one to create annotations at a jiffy.

Training tool: Short video clips (below 2.5 MB size) were prepared on dispersal of polling parties, mock poll, sealing and display of EVMs, process to be followed at close of poll and action to be taken during the polling. These clips were then shared with presiding officers and polling officers using WhatsApp. In addition to the mobile networking tool, the EC also effectively used the satellite communication channel in Gujarat to successfully train over 45,000 booth level officers. This was done through one way video and two way audio arrangements at the Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geomatics.

Driving voter education: Increasing penetration of mobile phone provides an opportunity to practically reach out to almost every citizen, directly or indirectly. During the 2014 general election we were able to use phone and messaging apps with great success. Different messages and appeals to the voters, especially on the day of poll and the day before the poll, were prepared and disseminated through mobile phones to about 50 lakh mobile users with the help of NIC. Android based apps were developed and used for name search and name registration facility and for addressing queries and complaints during the election.

Use of social media: In 2012 assembly elections in Gujarat, campaigns such as the MyVoteMyRight.com were used to encourage and educate youth for ethical voting and voter turnout. Election related services were put on this common platform. In the 2014 elections, Gujarat systematically utilised Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp for social messaging. The state election commission created more than 400 original messages, storylines, advertisements and quickies  for this purpose.

Awareness through e-Mamta: The national rural health mission tracks pregnant mothers through local health workers. Database of cell numbers of the women beneficiaries is compiled, by the health workers and officials. Making good use of the database and reach, messages for registration and process of registration were continuously sent through SMS through the e-Mamta system in Gujarat.

E-Pledges: This was created through a mix of traditional radio and digital technologies. Red FM set up an E-Pledge board at a heavy traffic crossroad in Ahmedabad that had a meter which instantly recorded and displayed each click on the pledge. With more than 25 lakh pledges, this was a big hit. Similarly the concept of pledging to vote through WhatsApp also helped motivate people to vote.  Besides, in remote districts in Gujarat, such as Amreli, with low internet connectivity, moving message display (MMD) boards were used for displaying messaging and announcements.

Technology during elections
Polling day is like a yagna and it is important to ensure sanctity of process as much as the event itself. During the 2014 elections we effectively used webcasting and web streaming technologies to beam polling live from sensitive booths. This was aimed at strengthening the law and order situation by creating a deterent, since live streaming meant the whole world was watching it. This helped in effectively monitoring at district, state and ECI levels. Also, since over 450,000 civil and security personnel were to be trained, and monitoring was a complicated task, the training was web streamed to the state HQs from the training venues all over the state.

SMS based reporting system: Over 5,000 zonal officers, each having responsibility of 9-10 polling stations on poll day, used the reporting system to give activity wise and hourly reports on pre-poll day and poll day through SMS to a central server. Through this system we were able to immediately get reports of faulty EVMs, law and order situation or voter turnout every two hours.

Smart election monitoring system: This system created an integrated platform for monitoring of various field officers to get a real time picture of the ground situation. The massive data that was generated from the officers on the field was made available in a user friendly format.
An Android app was also developed to monitor vehicle checking, model code of conduct violations, video surveillance, check electoral malpractices and amenities at polling booths. Additionally, the EVMs stored before and after polls were webcasted live, 24/7 using IP-based cameras for complete transparency. The URLs were given to all the candidates and their agents who could also keep complete watch on the strong room.

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