Elections: One of CBC/Radio-Canada’s Longest On-going Technology Projects

As Canada’s national broadcaster, election coverage is more than a big deal at CBC/Radio-Canada and it shows in a variety of ways. CBC/Radio-Canada’s bilingual coverage of provincial and federal elections is one of our most enduring legacies, as well as one of the most critical broadcast processes within the Corporation’s IT Department today.

What most people are not aware of is that, even though election results are broadcast almost immediately after polls close and most of the counting is complete within three to four hours, all election results are not final until election offices have verified their data – usually, weeks after an election is over.

We know that it sounds impossible, but such is the nature of election coverage.

The Challenge: Data

One of the largest challenges in any election scenario is ensuring that results data are processed in a timely and accurate fashion. When dealing with a federal election, CBC/Radio-Canada must process hundreds of transactions from polling stations across the country. All of this happens in the timespan of only a few hours and these results need to be made available to all internal resources, two distinct television and radio broadcasts, as well as both the CBC.ca and Radio-Canada.ca websites.

Meeting the Challenge

Enter the CBC/Radio-Canada General Election System (known as GES). Elections and the associated technologies to cover them have been in place in various incarnations over the years, dating from the 1977 mainframe version to the modern application we have in place today. At their core, each of these systems embraced the client-server approach of a centralised data store (or database) gathering and storing results from individual polling stations, and a client version of the system allowing the Editorial and Elections teams to review and analyse the results specific to a particular riding, candidate, or party.

Election results data are provided by the Canadian Media Election Consortium, of which CBC/Radio-Canada is a member. The role of the consortium is to provide a single source of data for participating Canadian broadcasters as well as to reduce costs (rather than each broadcaster having its own results-gathering operation). Through multiple channels (including manually calling individual polling stations that have not made electronic reports), the consortium provides electronic election results to CBC/Radio-Canada.

Depending on the size of the election (Provincial vs. Federal), the rate and volume of data received by GES from the consortium can range from 15 results per minute to over 175.

The Great Number Crunch

The intrinsic value of the Election system is its ability to not only capture election data, but to present it to the Editorial, Production, and Decision Desk teams in a way that facilitates accurate decisions in spite of limited data sets. This work is accomplished with the client version of GES, known as Spectrum. Incorporating the ability to review trends on election night, as well as past results in particular ridings, Spectrum offers a wealth of information that allows the relevant teams to make informed decisions. In addition to this information, the system has also been designed with algorithms to predict riding and election outcomes based on computational models devised by Media teams.

Architectural Decisions – Distributed Processing

In an effort to scale the system to cover elections of almost any size, GES was designed to use a distributed processing model. This means that a portion of the “number crunching” of the results takes place in a centralised fashion and another portion, the more intensive processing, actually takes place on each Election Client PC. Moreover, this model also allows for efficient data transfer, as it means that relatively small amounts of data need to flow across the wire from the centralised database servers in Toronto and Montreal for each client PC. Consequently, this design maximises efficiency in regions where bandwidth is not as plentiful as it is in our major centres.

Globally, this distributed model gives Media teams the flexibility necessary to work with a responsive, up-to-date, local version of Spectrum, which frees GES to focus on the task of processing transactions pouring into the system from the ridings involved in an election.

Figure 1 – Distributed Processing Across Multiple Platforms

Figure 1 – Distributed Processing Across Multiple Platforms

Spreading the Word

Once the results have been gathered, the numbers have been crunched, and the editorial decisions have been made, the task of sharing these results with the general public begins. From an integration perspective, this means that the French & English Television, Radio, and Web teams need timely access to the same result data in GES.

In the case of Television coverage, the Election system addresses this need by directly integrating with third-party On Air Graphics systems. This integration allows results ranging from riding-specific reporting to big-picture boards, such as vote share, seat change, and regional breakdown to be dynamically generated with the freshest vote counts when requested to be shown on the air. Using this approach gives our Editorial teams the flexibility to broadcast programming that is unique to our viewers and their needs, both regionally and nationally, and in both official languages, all whilst maintaining consistent reporting of results.

In a similar fashion, information is provided to the CBC.ca and Radio-Canada.ca Web teams for election site pages and online maps, so that our online audience can see the most up-to-date results at any time during the course of the election whilst ensuring that the results are synchronised with coverage on CBC/Radio-Canada’s other platforms.

The IT Elections Team

When explaining the inner workings of the General Election System, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the talented group of IT subject matter experts who design and support it. The group includes Solution Architects, Developers, Analysts, Desktop Support Personnel, and Senior Project Managers who look after the care and feeding of the General Election System. This dedicated team supplies the knowledge, agility, and flexibility to provide yearly releases of the software, event coordination and coverage, as well as the long-term planning and strategy that integrate the system and its Media Partners across all platforms. No discussion on the Election system can really be considered complete without mentioning the work and diligent attention to detail that this team contributes to elections and their coverage.

Moving Forward

As with many other IT organisations, CBC/Radio-Canada’s Elections team is constantly pursuing technologies and strategies that will enable greater flexibility and, ultimately, better storytelling abilities to our partners, the Media. Some of the technologies that we expect to drive continuous improvement over the next few years include the shift from physical to private Cloud-based infrastructure, which will facilitate greater access to the Election system, as well as flexibility in terms of where election teams can work and access results. Another trend that is expected to factor heavily into future system development is the migration to smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Finally, new integration with on-air touch screen technologies has also meant that the same results data are now being used for interactive maps and graphs, which on-air personalities can use to visually (and dynamically) present results[1].

Elections – More than the Sum of Their Parts

As with all live events, the telling of a compelling and unified story involves much more than just the sum of its parts. While the General Elections System provides an important foundation to tell the story of a particular Election Night, countless hours of research, graphics preparation, production, editorial meetings, and rehearsals come together in a short timeframe to produce the coverage our audiences have come to expect from CBC/Radio-Canada. Behind it all is the General Election System, quietly ensuring that results are available and accurate. Perhaps even more ironically, a successful Election Night Broadcast is one where the Media and our audiences are not even aware that such a system exists.

[1] Perceptive Pixel Board

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