It's not every day that information technology plays such an integral role in bringing democracy to a war-torn country, but that's exactly what took place during January's historic elections in Iraq.
By setting up a unique worldwide network of polling stations, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) gave Iraqi citizens living abroad a chance to vote in the election.
The Geneva organization, whose mission since 1951 has been to assist and help refugees migrate and find new homes, relied heavily on IT to conduct the out-of-country voting program for Iraqi citizens.
The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which the Coalition Provisional Authority created in May 2004, reached an agreement late last year with IOM to create the worldwide polling network for the Iraq elections.
"The biggest challenge IOM faced last year was organizing the out-of-country voting for Iraq with very tight preparation and very special circumstances," says Bernardo Mariano-Joaquim, IT chief for the organization. "I was happy to see a good response and outstanding effort."
In less than 40 days, the systems team set up 800 registration and polling stations, spanning the globe from Australia to the United States.
More than 280,000 Iraqi nationals showed up at the polls in late January and were able to vote in the Iraq National Assembly Election, the first democratic and free election in the country's history.
"It was a huge logistical undertaking," says Stephen Lennon, IOM's program liaison officer in Washington. "In a short amount of time, we had to set up in 14 countries. We had to make agreements with governments. We had to deal with local, state and county authorities."
IOM launched an online voter site, at www.iraqocv.org, where Iraqis with questions about the process could get answers.
The team also set up a call center, the Voter Information Centre, that responded to queries from more than 1 million voters. Voters could contact IOM staff members at the center by phone, text message or e-mail. The center was able to provide answers in Arabic, English and Kurdish.
"I strongly believe the voter center was beneficial," Mariano-Joaquim says. "Imagine if we had had to rely on other means of communication to reach out to Iraqi communities spread out in different time zones."
For the election itself, IOM deployed a communications and IT infrastructure to 36 cities in 14 countries. To get the vote out, IOM members sent e-mail to Iraqis living in-country asking them to spread the word about the election to friends and family who had moved abroad, Mariano-Joaquim says.
To support the systems for the election, IOM established a joint operations center in Amman, Jordan, that provided around-the-clock technical support to the countries where it had deployed polling stations.
The operations center relied on an extranet to communicate with IOM field offices abroad. The extranet included an online application for tracking and reporting any problems that arose during the election process. Additionally, the extranet let the election organizers receive real-time voting statistics from the field polling stations.
The IT team also developed a polling list report that amassed data for each country's results. The list report also let IOM track sensitive election materials, such as voter registration books and ballot pads. Additionally, IOM managers tapped a separate application to track resources allocated to the election program, including its human resource expenses.
Tracking the Tally
Specifically keyed to the election, a registration database stored pertinent information about each voter. By developing databases for processing election results and voter registration data, IOM was able to start counting voters early in the election process and reduce its turnaround time on tallying the results, Mariano-Joaquim says.
The voter registration database was especially useful because it centralized the process despite its global nature and the information source became transparent to election supervisors.
Iraqis provided the initial information for registration in paper books. IOM hired data entry clerks to review and edit the information before archiving it in the database. That way, the data was clean and consistent, ensuring its integrity and the integrity of the voting process, Mariano-Joaquim says.
Without all these IT resources, "it would have been difficult to operate on such a short deadline," he says.
Securing the election process was also a fundamental initiative for IOM. So, before undertaking the Iraq election project, it implemented network intrusion prevention and detection programs from Cisco Systems of San Jose, Calif. For added security, IOM used 128-bit encryption, constantly monitored the infrastructure and used third parties to update its security applications.
In the process, Mariano-Joaquim says, IOM learned some security lessons that could benefit all agencies.
"Governments should continue to take reasonable steps toward implementing appropriate security controls and balance risk versus cost. They also must manage security concerns against confidentiality, privacy and integrity to mitigate risks."