The 2016 election is more than two years away, but there’s no time to waste for the California Secretary of State’s Office, which is working to modernize applications that are vital to the elections process.

In a recent interview with TechWire, CIO Chris Maio of the Secretary of State’s Office, said his staff is on pace to launch in 2016 a replacement of the state’s voter registration database and a consolidated application that automates the office’s business processes.

Maio discussed issues such as procurement and IT workforce that are keys to success.

TechWire: What projects are on your plate right now?

Maio: We’ve got two major projects in the hopper. They are VoteCal, and California Business Connect.

VoteCal is a $98 million project to replace the CalVoter statewide voter registration database. We’re deep into this [latter] one. We have an SI [systems integrator] on board. We’re doing really well, you can look at the project status reports and you’ll find that we’re green on pretty much every measure. We’re expecting a handful of pilot counties to come up in the summer of 2015. The remaining counties will be cut over in waves with the final counties coming in around March 2016. We’re in advance of the 2016 election cycle and I’m really happy about that project.

Business Connect is a $27 million project. This one also has an SI on board already, and this application is going to do a remarkable thing. If you look into the business programs division of this department you’ll find that they still do things with paper. If you hold a trademark in California, it’s stored on paper, on a 3X5 index card.

So we’ve got a range of databases all the way from a cardfile up to a mainframe the corporations sit on. It’s VSAM architecture. I’ve got the Uniform Commercial Code filings all sitting within a very old VB application in client-server architecture, and I’ve got anything you can think of in between. We’ve got access databases, we’ve got spreadsheets, we’ve got small SQL server applications, we’ve got Oracle-based applications, and it drives my staff crazy.

We’re really looking forward to having a consolidated application that automates everything that the division does. VoteCal is supposed to implement in 2016, based on the current schedule. Business Connect [will implement in the] summer of 2016.

In the middle of doing those things we also ran small projects. We finally implemented online voter registration. That was a big deal. A small project with a massive impact. It took nine months from nothing to the application launch, and within a 30-day period of time, nearly 1 million people used that thing to register to vote. On the last day to register to vote I had a crew all watching metrics for the servers, metrics for the network and bandwidth, and it handled [the traffic] with plenty of headroom. In April we redeployed it with a new front end because the original wasn’t quite as accessible as it should have been. It only offered English and Spanish, and it didn’t behave nicely on mobile. So we redid the entire front end and optimized for mobile, so it will run on [everything] all the way down to a handheld, all under a single code base.

We worked with the CSU Accessible Technology Initiative to ensure that every control every bit of text, ran through those guys to make sure it met accessibility standards. And we tilted it up in eight more languages. We won a Best of California Award for that, and a nod from NASCIO [National Association of State Chief Information Officers].

TechWire: So what’s next on the agenda?

Maio: The next one in the hopper is the Cal Access replacement. That one is in the feasibility study stage at this point. In 2011 the hardware platform Cal Access sat on crashed. It was an old GS80 digital box. We were able to bring it back up by running it in a virtual platform where we have a hardware emulator sitting on top of the VM. So imagine an Intel-based piece of hardware instead of an Alpha-based processor, and on top of that I have a virtual head, on top of that runs Windows, and on top of Windows I have this thing from Stromasys that does a GS80 hardware emulation and on top of that I’ve got True64 UNIX. The application resides inside there.

We’ve got a multi-layer cake. We’re looking forward to replacing it, because it’s highly complex and the usability of that application isn’t where it needs to be. We’re not expecting RFIs within the next 12 months. We’ve got to get the project approved through the Legislature and the earliest we could do that would be next session, 12 months from now.

We’re also going to replace the phones. We still run an old PBX-based Sun system here. It’s seen better days. We have some issues with the middleware it runs on — servers that not many people know how to fix, and if they crash, it has the potential to impact our ability to answer calls on the voter assistance hotline. So we’ve kicked off an effort to replace our phone system. And that’s probably going to occur within the next 12 months or so. I’m looking forward to that because it opens up capabilities beyond what we have today.

Every year we staff up the voter assistance hotline and 80-90 percent of the calls are polling place lookup. The VoIP system would allow me to interface the phone system with back-end databases like VoteCal, so the visitor can speak to the phone and have it recognize their voice: “If you’d like to look up your polling place, please press 1,” and then it can ask them, “What’s your street number?” “What’s your ZIP code?” “What’s your street name?” and then it can poll the back-end data and say, “Oh, your polling place is the fire station on such and such a street.”

[Right now we have 15 to 30] people answering the phone and 80 percent of the calls could be shifted to an automated system. So [the number of people answering phones] drops dramatically to only those who need to talk to a person. It’s also positioning us to [use] whatever the Business Connect database will hold. So you could check the status of your filing, say your entity number, and it can come back and tell you what work queue it’s sitting in, and the anticipated wait time for that. So that will make the phones do some work for us instead of just sitting there.

This story was originally published by TechWire