by Lisa Banks

Q&A: NSW Electoral Commission CIO, Ian Brightwell

Feb 16, 2011
GovernmentGovernment IT

The NSW electoral commission’s CIO, Ian Brightwell, speaks to CIO Australia about the challenges of implementing IT in the lead-up to next month’s state election.

How long have you worked for the NSW Electoral Commission and where were you working prior to this?

I started working as CIO in 2006 and prior to that I was a consultant in the organisation since 1999.

What does an average day look like for you?

During the lead up to the election, an average day is pretty much until eight or nine o’clock at night and you drag yourself out of bed the next day. It’s a very hectic period.

What projects are you working on in the lead-up to the NSW state election next month?

We have a number of key systems that have to be implemented and rolled out. Probably one of the key things to understand in this event environment is that the development of software and the deployment is very different to many different organisations.

We have the challenge of basically meeting a hard deadline that can’t be moved, we have to go live on specific dates and when we go live on those dates, often the systems have to come straight out of tests and there’s no ability to tune them or have a few days of rough riding – they have to work first time and with some systems, they are only operational for two or three days and then they’re put to bed again. It’s a very different environment to organisations who have the parallel run – we don’t have the luxury of that.

It’s quite a stressful environment, but we tend to do things a bit differently. We tend to have peer resources physically on site, actually managing things through operational periods – people who develop the software are here and work with us through the operation, and we have interesting ways to test functional testing and go through live testing.

You can’t go into these things thinking that you’re going to follow a normal software deployment approach – it is nothing like that.

We’re implementing major initiatives, including an automatic enrolment of voter project as opposed to having them fill out forms, and we’re planning for this election to put some 80,000 people on the roll and we would imagine in the next few years this would reach 100,000.

Because of the technology in the polling place, we can now offer election day enrolment votes. We believe there were around 50,000 people turning up at polling places on election day and disenfranchised. They were eligible to be enrolled, but not on the roll.

What we can now give them is an opportunity to check if they are on the roll anywhere in the state and then using an identifier, like their drivers licence, we can actually enrol them and allow them to vote on election day. That’s only possible because of some of the technology initiatives that we’ve taken.

What are some of the other challenges that you face in your role?

We have to set up 93 offices for the course of the election and they’re procured and only available for three months. We then have to deploy 600 machines with internet connections, so that in itself is an enormous challenge because from when we get the keys to a premise until when they have systems up and working, we have that done within a month.

We have a couple of data centres that we have to establish for the event and this is on top of running our own internal data centres and as we scale up, we obviously have to provide capacity for these systems because they tend to scale very quickly and we have to monitor the demands that are on it as we go from virtually no demand to a large number of users.

What do you spend your time doing in between elections?

The cycle tends to follow an initial concept phase and requirements definition, which then has to be done in parallel with process engineering work that we have to do and then you get into a software development lifecycle, where you’re developing specifications in software that’s basic functioning testing.

The deployment phase tends to be very different as you get closer to the election.

What are some of the biggest issues affecting CIOs?

There’s no doubt that there’s a lack of new graduates coming out with software developing skills. We run a mixed on-shore, off-shore model and we’re finding increasingly that the ability to get software developed on-shore that are more than 2000 function points is very difficult at the right price point to get the job done.

The key challenges are just keeping up in an event environment where every two years we run an event and we tend to move with trends. From the last NSW election in 2008 to now, we completely virtualised our environment, which has been a terrific advantage to us.

To gain a lot of flexibility and utilising our hardware capacity by having virtual slices has given us some real benefits. We don’t use virtualisation in the same way that many other organisations do, because in our off-season, we have very low CPU usage but we need lots of different environments for developments and testing. Once we get into the production mode, we tend to take our capacity and use a lesser number of environments but use most of the capacity focus for production.

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