AfriGIS, a location-based services company, provided the GIS services, mapping software and a number of datasets to the IEC during last week's general election in South Africa.
Magnus Rademeyer, AfriGIS MD, says that the accurate positioning of voting stations within voting districts was an important factor in ensuring that the voting process proceeded smoothly on election day.
"Voting districts and stations were determined in accordance with provisions set out in the Electoral Act and focused on allowing the optimum number of voters' unimpeded access to vote. Since 2004, the voters' roll has grown by 2,5-million to 23,1-million and the IEC's challenge was to analyse and amend voting districts and stations where necessary," he says.
For example, in recent years, many new housing developments have been built which created the need for new districts and/or the repositioning of voting stations. The population dynamics, available infrastructure and the capacity of voting station venues had to be analysed and decisions needed to be made on new districts and voting stations.
The GIS team, made up of AfriGIS and IEC staff, then mapped the amendments and distributed approximately 165 000 maps of various sizes for each registration weekend and a further 80 000 maps for the Election Day.
AfriGIS also assisted the IEC in the development of voting station finder tools found on the IEC web site, which enabled voters to type their residential address and find the appropriate voting station.
During the registration weekend in February 2009, more the 161 000 people used the tool to verify their voting station details. A different version of the application was used at the IEC call-centre by agents to answer voters' location related questions.
AfriGIS has been providing a range of GIS services to the IEC since 1998, and during this time the capability of GIS technology and availability of spatial datasets has increased dramatically.
"The technology has evolved substantially over the years and the spatial analysis and the power of the Internet have made a huge impact on the IEC's ability to plan elections," Rademeyer says.
Since the last election, the IEC has concentrated on acquiring new datasets and maintaining existing datasets diligently. Spatial data is sourced from government departments, municipalities and a number of commercial vendors.
"There are many spatial factors that need to be taken into account which ordinarily would not be thought of. For example, analysing which voting stations were covered by cellphone coverage and exactly which networks provided coverage in that area," says Rademeyer.
"Some voting stations only had coverage from one network, while there were voting stations that were not covered by cellphone reception at all. Maps were therefore generated to display cellphone coverage, which was factored into the planning of the election. Areas not covered by cellphone communication were then covered by contingency communication plans to ensure support was available to those voting stations."
Examples of other maps generated included the number and demographics of registered voters, the availability of facilities at voting stations and progress of staff appointments.
Rademeyer says the links between maps and the country's democracy may not be immediately evident, but when people see how the results of the elections (right down to each municipality and voting station) are displayed visually on a map, the power of maps to convey information becomes evident.