Seamless Solutions Hide Convention Wrinkles

SAIC, AT&ampT and others help integrate the message with the medium

A seamless, integrated solution was one of the few demands each of the national conventions shared in common this month as the Republican, Democratic and Reform parties attempted to showcase their parties' platforms with technically enhanced precision.


The Republicans, for instance, enlisted Science Applications International Corp. to deploy Defense Department-tested groupware technology at their San Diego event. The solution was designed to augment the Republican's goal of broadcasting a more polished and admittedly "scripted" portrait of a party well in control of itself and its constituents.


Ross Perot's Reform Party touted its event as the first genuine electronic convention to nominate a presidential candidate by actually allowing votes to be cast on the World Wide Web. The fact that only 1,700 votes out of 1.3 million ballots were gathered electronically could be attributed to the relatively early stage of the technology's development, party officials said.

By the end of this week, the pleasures and pitfalls of computers and communications will have unfolded at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The party plans to enhance its image by broadcasting its message using elaborate multimedia technologies over the public Internet and a large internal intranet.

For the Chicago event, network administrators installed an intranet site integrated into the Internet to serve as the convention's Delegate Communications System.

By installing Web cameras throughout the convention center, the Democrats hope to offer Internet surfers an alternative to national television coverage.

"We want to allow the public to experience a convention in any way they see fit, as opposed to how TV producers wish them to experience it," says Stan Gorski, AT&T/Lucent Technologies director of the 1996 DNC.

Some 56 DCS stations -- one for each delegation -- have been placed on the convention floor. Each station consists of an NCR computer terminal and a touch-screen monitor connected to the network via integrated services digital network so that multimedia teleconferences among delegates in Chicago and in home states can be supported. Delegates will be able to use the touch-screen monitors to vote for their candidate.

The exact cost of the DNC network was not available at press time, but Gorski says that AT&T commitment alone exceeded $2 million.

Taking a Conservative Approach in San Diego

In more ways than one, Republicans worked hard to make sure San Diego would not be a repeat of the 1992 convention in Houston. In addition to being politically disruptive, the 1992 convention suffered from a power outage that knocked out the entire computer network, paralyzing mission-critical applications for hours.

As a result, says Bill Proffer, director of the information management laboratory for San Diego-based SAIC, more than a year of planning, countless hours and approximately $4 million went into selecting robust and established technologies designed to keep the convention on the straight and narrow. Uninterrupted power supply devices were attached to every mission-critical unit, and the dozen or so servers that underpinned the 500-node network used mirroring technology to provide additional back-up.

"We had Windows NT running on a number of large Compaq servers. We had Windows 95 on the desktop, and Lotus Notes was used for groupware on the NT servers," said Proffer.

Twelve locations were attached to a wide area network that used a combination of high-speed fiber optic lines, frame relay and a switched integrated services digital network to link the convention center with other venues in the city and around the country.

But groupware applications would turn out to play the key role in helping the Republicans mold their message. Indeed, according to Mike Griffes, the RNC's consultant on information systems requirements, it was the scripting technology on Lotus Notes that helped keep speakers lined up and the agenda on track.

"We wanted to provide [the Republicans] with the tools to pull off a polished, well-scheduled convention," says Griffes. "And controlling the time was essential because we wanted the proceedings to end each night by 11 p.m. Eastern time," he says.

To accomplish this, the Republicans built a speech database in Notes that was married to the proceedings system, allowing presentations written on the network's word processors to be forwarded directly to the teleprompter on stage. Despite the orderly performance seen by viewers, chaos characterized the environment all the way up to the podium, as speakers and handlers wrote, rehearsed and rewrote speeches.

"In some cases, there were some 30 versions that were imported and exported on the network between drafts and what not," says Griffes.

By Wednesday night GOP officials had enough faith in the system's ability to track documents accurately that speakers were making changes up until they approached the podium.

"I remember seeing [former education secretary and author] Bill Bennett sit down at one of the word processors with his sandwich and write his speech literally 45 minutes before walking out to the podium. So for all the scripting in the political sense, there was a lot of spontaneity occurring that was supported by the technology," says Griffes.

"But the biggest testimony to our delivering the goods was when [retired general] Colin Powell finished his speech 40 seconds before 11 p.m. Eastern time. They were able to go right to the local news," he says.

Reforming Conventions

The Reform Party's automation program, by contrast, was quite modest and cost Ross Perot -- who funded the whole event -- less than $30,000. But according to Michael Hicks, the Reform Party's director of information services, that was more by design than because of fiscal limitations.

"We decided to reduce conventions down to what they need to be: three hours worth of speeches, a pep talk and then the vote," Hicks says.

"Since we had downsized the convention, we put the adequate amount of computing to go with it. Consequently, this was primarily a Web-driven initiative," he says.

The crowning technological moment for the Reform Party came with the balloting. In addition to sending ballots through the mail, members of the Reform Party could log their vote through the Internet or by touch-tone phone. The process was audited by Ernst & Young. Some 88 percent of the (1.3 million total votes cast came by regular mail, 8 percent were phoned in, and only 4 percent were transmitted via the Internet, according to Reform Party officials.

"Some people have criticized the number of votes that we received overall. But that is very simple to explain. This is a first-time event. We had about a 6 percent return on the voting [Editor's note: AP News Service reports response was roughly 4.3 percent], and when you compare that with the primaries this year in Texas, which had a 20 percent response, we don't think we did that badly. To introduce a new process and produce the return that we did, we were very happy," says Hicks.


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