Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What the Definition of That Is

This week, some of the country’s brightest minds will converge in a large city to consider how a new wave of technology can help them  inspire their target market of voting-age citizens.
They aren’t going to the Consumer Elections Show in Las Vegas, but they might as well be.  They will be discussing many of the same gadgets, tools, and marketing methods featured at the Show.
Instead, election officials and academics will be meeting in Washington, D.C., for an Election Assistance Commission roundtable webcast that debriefs the presidential election.  This is an advance of the annual Election Center legislative conference that begins tomorrow. 

This will be the first time many of us have seen each other in person since the infamous long-line comment stated by president Barack Obama in his November acceptance speech that, “We’ve got to fix that.” 

“That” refers to several-hour lines  in a couple of states last November.  I suspect the president has forgotten he said, um,  that.  But some legislators haven’t, already drafting bills that are more goodwill gestures than practical measures. 

Defining “that” will be as elusive as defining, “is,” used by a different president 15 years ago.
But election administrators understand the workings of the sausage that comprises, “that,” and election sage Merle King eloquently explained this during the ES&S National Advisory Board meeting yesterday in Florida. 

He’s now in D.C. today, hosting the roundtable.  I’m typing this en route, preparing to join the participants and other election officials at the legislative conference.
Yesterday, Merle explained that root causes of “that” come from components of the overall voting system, of which voting machines are only one piece.
The other pieces come from such elements as pollbooks, electronic pollbooks, ballots and ballot-on-demand devices, voter lookup features, polling place locators and mapping applications for smartphones and computers.
One of Merle’s points is that “that” rarely included voting machines, which performed well.  “That” is a fallout of how election administrators utilize these other components.
Orchestrated well, mimicking a systems administrator, and things go smoothly.  Bumps in the components, such as a slow pollbook worker or problems with an electronic pollbook, and lines happen--I mean, "that" happens.
Election administrators must be IT managers, he said. 

I go further—we have to be IT visionaries.  We have to braille the culture to know as much about everything as we can, drawing linkages to elections from seemingly unrelated companies and applications.  That's a pretty massive undertaking but one our voters (consumers) do naturally.

We must understand the personal devices and applications our voters are using.  We must understand that smartphones drive behavior and are an opportunity for innovation in voting and outreach.
We need to understand  tablet devices and begin looking at data related to tablet use differently than data related to smartphone use.  We have to know which devices are emerging, the applications that users are downloading in their daily lives, and how that user expectation carries into voting. 
For instance, users more and more often are signing for credit card purchases and online activities with their fingers on tablets and smartphones.  They will expect to be able to register to vote or apply for an advance ballot in this manner.
Fat-fingered Freddy’s signature isn’t going to match his penmanship.  Women with long fingernails will experience frustration navigating tablets, but this gives us a chance to associate these experiences to touch-screen voting machines as a more relatable way to explain the answer to "I pressed this candidate and this one came up," experience.
And, speaking of the Consumer Electronics Show, Ford and General Motors announced in Las Vegas plans to encourage developers to create applications for their vehicles.  What does that mean for elections? 
Voters who drive but are disabled, for instance, might soon have a way to send a beacon to a tablet inside the polling place so a worker can know to come out and offer curbside voting.  Or, the voting location services, designed for smartphones, might shift to voice-based, with info popping up on the user’s radio screen.
These things have nothing to do with voting as we know it.  But, the thing is, everyone is a voting expert.  That's not a facetious comment.  It's true.

Most people regularly vote at least in the largest elections and if that’s the only time they vote, they bring in two or four years of pent-up consumer experiences that they compare with something they understand—voting.
It doesn’t take long for these voters to think about how gizmos, electronics, applications, social networking, tablets, and smartphones would have fixed “that.”  As IT leaders/election administrators, we have to be ahead of that expectation.

I remember just a few years ago arguing, literally, with our county's IT department that our website had to function with the Sarari browser.  I was convinced the iPhone, just introduced, was going to be a data game-changer.

Their response was that Safari wasn't a player in the browser wars.  It wasn't, but rather than proactively meet needs, they wanted to wait until usage inched from five percent to 10 percent.

I won that fight, eventually, but suffered in the "team player" category.

The changes ahead, though, make that futuristic IT insight elementary. 
That’s Merle’s point, and it is bound to be a topic for the next couple of days.  The IT mindset is one that I’ve been committed to since the day I arrived eight years ago this week. 

This much I know:  “That” will be fixed with “IT.”  

Here’s Merle's presentation: