Thursday, 28 January 2010

Poll machines tried, tested in Benguet, Taguig, etc.

By Delmar Cariño, Vincent Cabreza
Inquirer Northern Luzon

BAKUN, BENGUET—“Kaman di baw” (So, that’s how it works) was all he could say after the voting machine read each long ballot in seconds.

Like his town mates, 40-year-old farmer Wilto Paniki trekked to the Ketagan-Cabatan Elementary School at Sitio Beto in Barangay Dalipey here on a cold Wednesday morning to see how the automated election machine looked.

Paniki and many teachers who watched from the sidelines said they were amazed when the machines read each long ballot in a matter of seconds.

“How I wish I could try voting now,” Paniki said.

In the capital town of La Trinidad, 83 km away, Marilou Madayag and Catalino Tabangin, Smartmatic’s regional coordinators, said the exercise was a success when the capitol received the transmissions from Bakun a split second after receiving a text message alerting them about the delivery at 11:10 a.m.

Two precinct count optical scanners (PCOS) were delivered to this remote town by a team from the Commission on Elections (Comelec) and supplier Smartmatic Corp.

Testing in mountainous area

The group wanted to test how altitude, temperature and the enveloping canyons of a mountainous region would affect the machines in this part of the country when these are used for the May elections.

It also wanted to test how fast the results could be transmitted from the precincts to the municipality to the province and finally to the Comelec main office in Manila.

On Wednesday dawn, the temperature had plunged to 11.4 degrees Celsius in Baguio City.

Blind spots

Telephone signals reaching Bakun, 86 kilometers from Baguio, were unstable, making parts of the town “blind spots” for mobile phones, said lawyer Teopisto Elnas Jr. of the Comelec’s election and barangay affairs department.

Barangays Dalipey and Cabutotan were two of several areas in the country that the Comelec selected for Wednesday’s nationwide simultaneous field testing of the PCOS.

Field tests were also conducted in Pateros; Taguig City; Naga City; Cebu; and Lake Sebu, South Cotabato. The transmission used mobile and satellite networks.

Two machines were sent to two precincts in these areas for the field tests, which were aimed at simulating the transmission process on Election Day on May 10.

Smartmatic, the firm that was contracted to supply and administer the automated voting for the May elections, set up a municipal election booth here and a data retrieving facility at the provincial capitol in La Trinidad to receive the transmissions.

Ten test ballots were fed into the PCOS, much like how offices feed paper into a fax machine.


But the field test revealed technical glitches which authorities must now review as Comelec proceeds to evaluate the future of automated elections, said Angelo Timoteo de Rivera, director general of the National Computer Center.

A member of the Commission on Information and Communications Technology, De Rivera monitored the tests from the provincial capitol.

The transmissions from Bakun arrived later than expected due to a slight miscoordination with the operators of the machines receiving data for municipal board of canvassers (MBOC).

The MBOC was stationed at the town hall in Barangay Ampusongan in Bakun, a two-hour travel from Sitio Beto.

But it took the MBOC more time setting up the computers when the scanners at Dalipey transmitted the simulated results.

The PCOS read the pre-marked 10 ballots at an average of 15 seconds each.

De Rivera said government technicians foresaw problems with transmission, based on the equipment that is available for the May polls.

Smartmatic’s machines were intended to enhance the speed and efficiency of delivering the voters’ information to the canvassing bodies, he said.

He said government was assured that most towns in the Cordillera Administrative Region have access to DSL (digital subscriber line), more commonly known to Internet users as the fiber optic cables that provide access to the web.

“The DSL is the most efficient way for transmitting the data, but there are remote towns which may use wireless Internet modems or even mobile telephones,” he said.

Their operators tried to transmit the results using a wireless modem at around 10:34 a.m. as soon as the MBOC signaled that it was ready to receive the data.

The wireless modem failed so the Bakun team used the satellite web relay called the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN).

The provincial canvassing board in the provincial capitol tried to transmit the data to the Comelec office in Manila at 11:20 a.m. using a wireless modem, but it took the team until 11:35 a.m. to do it, De Rivera said.

Training needed

Aida Paplonot, a teacher of nearby Palidan Elementary School, said the PCOS looked complicated to operate. The teachers must be trained well to avoid confusion on Election Day, she said.

Lawyer Julius Torres, Comelec regional director, said the machine was easy to operate. “Once you learn the system, it’s like operating an ATM,” he said.

He said the Comelec would be deploying 1,788 scanners to the Cordillera.

Despite the delay in the setting up of the machine, the field testing here went smoothly, said Elnas. “We wanted to see our deployment capabilities and the required degree of security,” he said.

He said there would be two kinds of equipment to be used for every clustered precinct in the May elections to ensure that the results in far-flung areas will be relayed without delay to the MBOC.

Wireless modem will be used if the signal from telecommunication companies is clear while BGAN will be used if the signal is unstable, he said.

Those who observed the tests here and in La Trinidad said these things needed to be addressed: Mastery of the protocols for the operation of the PCOS and the readiness of the MBOC’s computers to receive the results.

Snag in Pateros

There was also a glitch at a Pateros public school, according to Comelec Commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal.

The data from the school was not immediately sent, prompting the Board of Election Inspectors (BEIs) at the precinct to replace the machine’s subscriber identity module (SIM) cards.

“We changed the SIM card and it was able to transmit data so it means the system works,” Larrazabal said. He declined to identify the mobile networks used.

The card is used to store information in mobile communication devices.

As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, the Comelec said it had yet to receive the results from the two precincts in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.

Nevertheless, the Comelec declared the transmission field tests of the PCOS machines successful.

Comelec officials said 9 of the 10 machines used in the tests were able to send data to the various canvassing centers and servers.

First to transmit

In Cebu, the field test was successful, according to Comelec provincial supervisor Lionel Marco Castillano.

“In fact, we were informed that among the areas involved in the field test, Cebu was the first one to transmit to the national level,” Castillano said.

Cebu was able to transmit to the national level the results at 10:45 a.m., Castillano said. The field tests were conducted in Barangays Bairan and Alfaco in Naga City, about 20 km south of Cebu City.

Castillano said Barangay Bairan, which did not have any signal from mobile phone companies Smart Communications, Globe Telecom and Sun Cellular, was chosen to find out if the result could still be transmitted without the signal of the three firms.

On the other hand, Barangay Alfaco only has the signal from Globe Telecom.

Castillano said the PCOS machines assigned to the two barangays successfully read the results of the test ballots that contained fictitious names of candidates.

Both barangays Bairan and Alfaco, a mountain barangay, successfully transmitted their results to the city board of canvassers via satellite BGAN, he said.

Even if the field test was successful, Castillano said this was not yet a guarantee that will result in a smooth poll automation this May.

Mock elections

“This is why, there will be mock elections to be done,” he disclosed.

In Cebu, the tentative schedule would be on Feb. 6, when Comelec and Smartmatic would hold mock elections in Barangays Bulacao and Mabini, both in Cebu City.

Castillano said the voters of these barangays would go to the precincts to vote although fictitious names of candidates would still be used.

Larrazabal described the results of the transmission tests as “very good.” With reports from Kristine L. Alave in Manila and Jhunnex Napallacan Inquirer Visayas

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