SMS takes center stage in 2004 election count

Thanks to the ubiquity of the mobile phone, the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) will no longer have to set up 200 desktops at its Operations Quick Count tabulation center. For Monday's polls, election returns from the country's more than 200,000 voting precincts will be directly forwarded to the Namfrel headquarters at the La Salle Greenhills gymnasium via SMS (short messaging service), more popularly known as texting.

A first in the country's elections and in the world, this new system in the Namfrel quick count operations was made possible through the collaboration of volunteer information technology firms Imperium, OpenS2, Somersault and Synapse.

"On election day, there will be two Namfrel volunteers assigned in every polling precinct: one tasked to forward the results indicated in the election return and another to confirm the accuracy of the data," Namfrel volunteer and technical committee head Augusto "Gus" Lagman said. Data sent by these volunteers will then be forwarded to the Namfrel headquarters where it will be integrated into the national tally.

Namfrel's army of volunteers on the field have been pre-registered prior to the elections to ensure that only the election results coming from certified volunteers will be included in the Quick Count tally. Each of the volunteers has been provided with a unique identification number which they need to key in before their report can be integrated into the main database.

Using their mobile phones, volunteers will send the information they will gather from their respective precinct's election returns either via Globe or Smart. Both telecommunication firms are supporting Namfrel's Quick Count this year.

Aside from setting up temporary "cell sites" in the areas surrounding La Salle Greenhills in preparation for the anticipated network congestion, the two telcos will also provide prepaid credits to the Namfrel volunteers on the field.

To report the election results from areas not covered by either Globe or Smart, volunteers would have to go to nearest town where there is a cell phone signal, or proceed to the preassigned Namfrel provincial headquarters which have access to both a landline and an Internet connection. Although SMS technology has proven to be highly reliable, the group has prepared a backup -- e-mail -- in case texting fails to get the results to the headquarters.

"This new system is expected to not only speed up the quick count, it will also significantly boost the accuracy of the results," said Lagman. Data sent via SMS will be automatically and electronically encoded into the main tally, eliminating the need for human encoders. This is the reason why the number of encoders and tabulating PCs in the La Salle gymnasium will be significantly reduced this year.

Namfrel's automated tabulating process has been made possible by a software program created for the poll watchdog by local IT whiz Fernando "JR" Contreras and his team at software firm OpenS2. Using the program, messages received via SMS will be automatically reformatted and integrated into the main tally.

"As it is, GSM (global system for mobile communication) is already encrypted so we are certain of the authenticity of the data that will go into our tally," said Contreras.

This entire tabulating system has been provided to Namfrel at zero cost. Lagman disclosed that if Namfrel were made to pay for it, it would have cost them between 50 million pesos (US$896,000) and 100 million pesos -- discounting labor cost.