IVR Ensures the Validity of Foreign Elections

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When voters in Kenya and the Ukraine go to the polls this month, speech technologies from Angel.com will be there to make sure the elections run smoothly.

The International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington-based independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that sends delegates to foreign countries to observe elections and report on violations of fair election practices, will use Angel.com’s Virtual Call Center and IVR Survey applications to automate the reports that delegates file from the field in those countries. IRI first used the applications during local and presidential elections in Nigeria in mid-April.

The delegates, who are all volunteers, travel to designated countries to watch the polling stations open, and to look for any balloting process irregularities, like stuffing the ballot boxes, inconsistencies in counting, and harassment of voters. Prior to using the IVR system, they recorded their observations by hand in a notebook, which they turned in when they reached IRI’s headquarters within the country hours or even a day or so later. It typically took IRI at least two or three days after the polls closed to file its full evaluations.

During the Nigerian elections April 21, IRI fielded 59 delegates from China, Hungary, Poland, the United States, and a handful of African nations. They monitored more than 100 polling stations throughout the country, and reported what they saw to IRI’s leadership in real time through the IVR. Among the alleged irregularities they reported were underage voting, voter registration list errors, stuffed ballot boxes, group voting, party observers and police instructing individuals on how to vote, a lack of privacy for voting, insufficient or falsified results sheets, and early closings.

Members of the IRI delegation, which was split into 17 teams, sent 92 calls through the IVR during the day, reporting those activities as they happened. "The biggest benefit of the Angel.com IVR is the benefit of real-time information. As reports in Nigeria poured in from across the country, we were immediately able to see what was happening throughout the region," says Shawn Bieghle, IRI’s director of information technology and telecommunications. "I could see all the data coming in live as the elections were going on, from our headquarters location in Abuja, Nigeria. By the time the polling stations closed in the evening, we had all the information we needed to file our reports and go to the press with our findings.

"It was quite interesting to watch information that used to take a day to a day-and-a-half to come in and be input now coming in live," he recalls.

Though Angel.com would have helped design, build, and deploy the IVR, Bieghle did it himself in two hours using Angel.com’s online Site Builder interface and toolkit. After figuring out what he wanted the call flow to be, he condensed the questions from the three-page written form and cut the entire reporting process down to eight questions.

"It was my first experience with IVR design, but the way Angel.com laid out the process was so logical and intuitive that it really was that easy to set up," he says. "A great advantage of Angel.com is the empowerment. The user-friendly and intuitive solution enabled me to easily create my own application.

"Now when delegates walk out of the polling station, they can pull out their satellite phones and call into the IVR to report the results. It asks for their team number, what polling station they were monitoring, and a series of other questions," Bieghle reports. If the prompts do not provide sufficient context, delegates have the option of leaving a voicemail to provide more details.

Since IRI’s founding in the early 1980s, the organization has sent delegates to observe more than 130 elections in more than 40 countries around the globe. It had been seeking to simplify and speed up the reporting process for some time, and considered a number of options.

"We’d been looking for ways to get what our people see in the field back to our offices more quickly," Bieghle says. "There are digitized forms that can be put onto a PC or handheld, but the problem is that if the laptop is lost, damaged, or stolen, all the information is lost. There are also specialized scanners for reading and recording documents, but they can be very expensive."

An added problem that Bieghle encountered was that many of the third-world countries where IRI delegates go often lack an adequate communications infrastructure, meaning that cell phone and Internet communications are often difficult, if not impossible. If the infrastructure's in place, it often is not very secure. Satellite phones give delegates a clear and reliable means of transmitting their data, even under the worst conditions, Bieghle says.

Bieghle first learned about Angel.com in November 2006, and immediately signed up for a free 30-day trial. "As soon as I heard about the Nigerian elections, I jumped on the chance to use it," he recalls.

Both the Virtual Call Center and IVR Survey applications that IRI uses are completely hosted, sitting on Angel.com’s secure servers. "It doesn’t touch my network or servers at all," Bieghle says. "I don’t have to dedicate a network, servers, IT people, or routers. It’s all done behind the scenes by Angel.com."

That’s a huge benefit to IRI, whose small IT department supports more than 500 people in 49 countries and programs in 70 countries. "When we get in-country, there’s no set-up time needed," Bieghle says. "We literally give a 10- to 15-minute introduction to the delegates
to train them on the use of the satellite phone and the system and that’s it."

"It really is that easy to set up and deploy," agrees Kelly Brighton, director of marketing and communications at Angel.com. "Shawn can take the same application and bring it with him wherever he goes, and not have to change all that much."

IRI pays Angel.com a monthly fee for hosting the applications. Fees vary depending on how much the system is used, and typically involve per-minute charges. For some international calls, additional toll charges might apply, according to Brighton.

Angel.com has designed, built, and managed applications for more than 1,600 customers, but it considers the IRI deployment "really unique." "We’ve never had anything like it before, but the beauty of Angel.com is that we have an application that you can customize
on the Web," Brighton explains. "An IVR can solve virtually any business problem. It’s really up to you where you use it and how. It worked well in Nigeria."

Using the delegates’ input, IRI determined that Nigeria’s election fell below the standard set by previous Nigerian elections and the international community, but Bieghle remains optimistic. Data collected by the IVR could pressure internal electoral reforms within the
country, and convince other nations to push for reform as well.

"I never felt, when I got into IT, that what I would do could have such an impact on the lives of people," he says. 

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