Democratic Convention to Showcase Video Using Microsoft Silverlight 2 Beta

A year ago, long before Barak Obama's rise as the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, the party convention's IT team began preparations for a blogging and multimedia party.

The historic nature of this year’s presidential campaign is not lost on a core group of IT staff ramping up for the Democratic National Convention, to be held Aug. 25-28 in Denver.

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Election 2008: Technology Issues Will Play a Key Role

Record-breaking turnouts in primaries. The victory of Sen. Barack Obama, the first African-American nominee, over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the strongest woman to vie for the nomination, after a grueling year-long fight. All that action has created a momentous flow of media attention pointing toward Denver’s Pepsi Center as the venue for a climactic political scene. (The campaign also garnered interest from the IT community; read about donations to Obama, Clinton and presumed Republican nominee John McCain from CIOs and technology vendors.)

The excitement about the Democrats’ nomination battle crested June 3, after Obama claimed the nomination. But Brook Colangelo has been thinking about the convention for a while already. He started work last June as director of technology for the Democratic convention committee. Colangelo said that the 2008 campaign’s excitement invigorates his six-person team as it aims to forge a “world-class IT organization” in support of 1,500 to 2,000 internal users and, with the help of partners, to transform the Democrats’ event into the “most interactive, innovative and forward-thinking convention ever.” (Read about Republican’s plans for a Web 2.0 convention.)

Colangelo says the aim of his technology plans is to enhance the excitement at the convention and build on it for those watching. “One of our biggest objectives is how we can bring down the walls of the Pepsi Center and use technology to reach out to those who have already been participating in the process and keep them engaged throughout probably the most historic nomination in history,” said Colangelo, who also worked at the 2000 and 2004 conventions.

Two of the most important ways the Democratic National Convention Committee hopes to achieve its goals are through high-definition, gavel-to-gavel streaming video and through a “state blogger corps” that will sit on the convention floor with the individual respective delegations. Plans also call for video available via the convention’s YouTube channel.

“In the political space, those are certainly considered to be cool things to have right now,” said Julie Barko Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University’s graduate school of political management.

Barko Germany said they are also new ways for a political convention to use technology. “The political world is in love with video on the Internet” to craft messages, mobilize a base of support and perhaps even demystify what’s largely a political insider’s event, she said. Independent bloggers play into the “fascination with being more open and bringing voters in,” despite any potential fears by convention organizers of losing control, she added. (Also read The Web 2.0 Campaign for the White House.)

Selecting and credentialing bloggers, from a pool of more than 400 applications, to represent each of the 50 states and U.S. territories may be a fresh concept, but the technology is not. The DNCC simply needs to provide cables for high-speed Internet access to enable each blogger to post from the convention floor. Plus, its demconvention.com[link] site will display the external links to the blogs and provide a mechanism for visitors to sign up for RSS feeds. Beyond that, the bloggers largely will be on their own.

Democrats’ Plans Rely on Beta Version of Silverlight 2

The technology behind the high-definition streaming video, by contrast, is a pioneering venture. The DNCC plans to use Microsoft Corp.’s new Silverlight 2 cross-platform, cross-browser plug-in to deliver rich media and interactive applications. Silverlight 2 isn’t even due for public release until the fall, so the DNCC will use beta software, according to Microsoft.

“There are some incredible applications that have been built on this platform, and it’s becoming more and more popular,” said Aaron Myers, the DNCC’s director of online communications, mentioning NBC’s plan to use Silverlight 2 to stream high-quality Olympic footage. “Some of the features that you can bring to video on Silverlight, without revealing what we’re going to do, are pretty impressive – things that other people are not doing in video.” (NBC Sports also plans to use Silverlight in its web-based videos during the upcoming Beijing Olympics.)

One of Silverlight 2’s distinguishing characteristics is that, as a subset of Microsoft’s .Net Framework, it can be used with .Net development tools. Silverlight 1.0, released a year ago, had “little uptake because it was essentially a JavaScript-centric media player plug-in,” according to Gartner Inc. Silverlight 2, in contrast, is a substantial technical step forward for Microsoft as it strives to compete with Adobe’s popular Flash and Flex, a Gartner report in March stated.

Democratic convention officials said they are aware that Silverlight 2 is still in beta and reiterated their confidence in the new release and the convention’s partnership with Microsoft.

But anyone considering the technology for this summer has some questions to weigh. Ray Valdes, a Gartner analyst, said he views Silverlight 2 as “in effect, a 1.0 release.” He added that it’s reasonable to ask, “Will the technology be bulletproof on this high-scale endeavor when it hasn’t been released yet? How many users will go to the level of downloading the plug-in?”

Microsoft said its Silverlight 2 beta plug-in is a quick 4 MB download for users. A company spokeswoman added that Microsoft is committed to providing a “stable, quality release” that will automatically update with the final Silverlight 2 release. She said customers such as Hard Rock Hotel Inc. and British Broadcasting Corp. are already using Silverlight 2 beta 1, replete with “deep zoom” capabilities, with no issues to date.

Colangelo said, “We have sufficient confidence that the technology will be out there, robust and available to our end users.” Myers added that viewers who aren’t equipped for high definition will still be able to watch and get a great experience.

Convention-al Networking

The Democratic National Convention expects to use a lot of networking gear to support the activities at the convention in August in Denver. A sample:

  • Estimated miles of cables that the DNCC has already run to set up its systems: 43
  • Estimated number of miles of copper to be used in the convention: 160
  • Estimated number of voice grade circuits that will be used in the convention: 2,500
  • Estimated number of data lines that will be used to wire the convention hall: 3,000

Democrats’ Coalition of Tech Partners Also Includes Open Source

The DNCC will be pursuing its plans with no developers on its staff. Microsoft, the DNCC’s “official software and HD Web content provider,” is building the multimedia applications with a partner, Vertigo Software Inc.

Microsoft is working with another partner, Infusion Development Corp., on a Silverlight- and SQL Server-based delegate voting system that will provide up-to-the-minute delegate vote totals. Other custom applications include delegate- and carbon-footprint-tracking systems.

To cope with the challenge of ramping up a state-of-the-art enterprise in roughly a year, with limited funding (the party would not disclose its budget for this project), the DNCC partners with vendors that provide technology and services as in-kind contributions.

“We don’t pick a partner, a program, an application because a partner wants to give it to us,” said Colangelo. “All the technology that we use has mapped to a business requirement. We’re not building technology for technology’s sake.”

Along with Microsoft, “official providers” announced to date are: AT&T, for wireless communication services and equipment, including the staff’s BlackBerry devices; Broomfield, Colo.-based Level 3 Communications Inc., for the communications network that will deliver live analog and high-definition video broadcasts, downloads, streaming and general content; and Denver-based Qwest Communications International Inc., for wire-based voice and data services, including high-speed Internet.

In addition to consulting and custom applications, Microsoft is providing business productivity, e-mail and real-time collaboration applications, including Exchange Server, SharePoint, Office Communications Server and Live Meeting. The DNCC also is using Microsoft’s Virtual Server 2005, with Windows Server 2003, to maximize server utilization, in keeping with the convention’s “green” focus.

The DNCC, however, is not using Microsoft technology exclusively. The Web site will run open-source Apache servers on BSD Linux, along with Windows servers. Site content and staff blogs are handled by the open-source SilverStripe content management system and framework, according to Colangelo.

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