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New Orleans CIO: Katrina spurs Internet election

New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert has initiated an Internet-voting project that will allow displaced residents to cast ballots in the next mayoral election.

The city of New Orleans is preparing for a February mayoral election with an ambitious plan to provide Internet-based voting to its residents, now displaced and dispersed throughout the U.S., according to the city's chief technology officer.

Greg Meffert, the New Orleans CIO recognized in recent years for designing an award-winning, interactive Web site and a citywide surveillance system rivaled only outside the U.S., said today that one of his priorities is to provide a secure Internet voting system. Meffert said the IT plan calls for kiosks similar to those used by e-ticketed passengers at airports.

"If I told you, 'Hey, we're going to do Internet voting for real, in a real election, and you're going to vote and use kiosks,' you'd think I was smoking something," said Meffert in a telephone interview with today. "But I have to do that now. Because what am I going to do? Open poll stations where there are three people in an entire city block?"

Just as Hurricane Katrina will necessitate rebuilding the historic city, it has forced the New Orleans technology team to rewrite their technology timetable and remake themselves as providers of essential city services.

"So, out of this tragedy you're getting an opportunity to do a lot of common-sense things – and without that pushback, people saying, 'Hey, look, the old system works.' Well, no, it doesn't," Meffert said. "It's gone." There is an opportunity in New Orleans now, Meffert said, to do "true government reorganization initiatives" through IT projects.

Katrina DR lessons

Read our New Orleans CIO interview: Part One

Executive Guide: Disaster recovery

Meffert plans to model the New Orleans Internet voting system on the controversial model the Department of Defense had proposed using for overseas military. The Pentagon scrapped the idea in February of last year after critics questioned the ability of the system to detect fraud and protect against malicious computer attacks.

It's not traditional hackers that worry people like Bruce Schneier, CTO of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. and author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World. "It's not the kids who write viruses," Schneier said. "I'm worried about people who want to steal elections. It's not hackers. It's actual criminals. I think it would be a huge mistake," for New Orleans to attempt Internet voting now, Schneier said.

Meffert said the Internet voting proposal has already been approved by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the city's registrar of voters. "The model that we're looking to the most is the airport check-in kiosks," Heffert said. "That data is going to be sitting on those kiosk machines in a secure way. We're going to keep it, if you will. It's not going to one big database in the sky.

Because what am I going to do? Open poll stations where there are three people in an entire city block?
Greg Meffert
New Orleans CIO

"To prevent any kind of abuse, it's going to be a level of authentication that's equal or superior to what you do now, " said Meffert, who is working with Microsoft and Ciber, Inc., a systems integrator, on the project.

Asked whether the project was already under way, Meffert said: "Yeah, because it's necessary. It's not a gee-whiz plaything... It's a real issue of how we get democracy to continue here."

Katrina forces CIO into new role

In recent weeks, Meffert has hauled neighbors from floodwaters and necessary IT equipment from a flooded Office Depot store, fielded calls from Air Force One and stepped in as acting mayor.

During his first official stint as acting mayor, Meffert recalled, he sat down with state and federal officials and said: " 'OK, guys, what's the major problem today?' They said 'Problem one: Corpses are clogging up the sewer and water drains.' Well, who in the hell ever prepares for that? There's no degree in that. Just incredible stuff for a tech guy."

This week, Meffert was able to leave town briefly to see his wife and two sons, who were evacuated to San Antonio, Texas, when Katrina was forecast as a possible catastrophic event. Meffert viewed his New Orleans home from a Blackhawk helicopter recently, and said that while it was "pinned in" by water, it would likely be salvaged.

For a man known in this city for his intellect, Meffert said that using his hands to reach drowning victims, pulling people from rushing waters, remains his most lasting image of Katrina.

From an IT perspective, Meffert said, he went from having limited experience in emergency operations to "having a Ph.D. in disaster recovery."

Check out tomorrow for our complete interview with New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert.

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