Centre's veteran tech team tested by debate prep

This article, written by reporter David Brock, ran in the Danville Advocate-Messenger on July 14, 2012. To read the original article, click here.
A group of battle-tested techies at Centre College will play a vital—albeit a largely invisible—role in the success of 2012 vice presidential debate.
The lifeblood of campaigns and media organizations has always been information, but in the age of wireless communications and social media theres an even bigger premium on speed. Art Moore and his team are responsible for building from scratch the pathways through which billions of pieces of data will course before, during and after the Oct. 11 event.
“It isn’t overwhelming for us, but it definitely creates a kind of intensity we are not accustomed to,” says Moore, who served as Centre’s director of information technology and part of the steering committee during the 2000 debate and serves in the same capacity this time.
Remarkably, Moore’s first-hand knowledge of debate preparation is the rule rather than the exception on the staff.
All six of the people who dealt with the early dawn of cellular telephones and a relative luxury like the internet 12 years ago are still in place. This time, however, they are tasked with assembling the infrastructure for a very tech-savvy temporary city.
If anyone can appreciate the proliferation of technology it’s Moore, a former mathematics professor at Centre who helped create the College’s computer science program and the campus network. It didn’t take him long to recognize the degree to which the data and telecommunications demands of a major political event has changed in the last decade.
The internet was considered such a luxury in 2000 that the Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t even make it a requirement. Back then, the IT department worked to patch the campaigns in to the College’s own network at the last minute.
Cell phones were not yet appendages, meaning the major undertaking was setting up analog phones similar to the cordless devices most people had in their homes. Political staffers and media types were among the early cell phone adopters, though, and increased demand sent organizers scrambling to find a temporary tower.
That introduced people to large portable antennae on trailers known now as COWs (Cell on Wheels). The major provider at the time, Cingular, didn’t quite go the way of the rotary phone, but the brand no longer exists since AT&T purchased the company’s owner, BellSouth.
For this year’s debate, the College must not simply provide internet access, but also set up two networks completely independent of Centre’s own.
As with the electrical system in the debate hall, the debate commission requires redundant capabilities as a fail-safe in case one of the systems goes down.
Hosting the crowd of ravenous bandwidth consumers will require two separate one-gigabit systems, with one provided by AT&T, the other by Time Warner. To put this in perspective, Centre’s network services coordinator Shane Wilson says the typical home internet hookup has 10 megabits of bandwidth, or about one-hundredth the capacity of one of those temporary systems.
This time around, the cell phones will be smarter and more plentiful, meaning more COWs with antennae topping 100 feet high will be more common and companies will also bring even larger COLTs (Cell on Light Truck).
“It is a drastically different telecommunications landscape than it was 12 years ago,” Wilson says.
Despite the barnyard acronyms, the major cell phone providers—AT&T, T Mobile, Verizon and Sprint will all have a presence—provide a futuristic fix that creates pop-up data capacity that can be used at major events all over the world. Wilson said Danville is fortunate for a town its size to already have more than one cell phone provider with a large tower to help absorb some of the demand.
There is also no substituting one technology for the other, so Wilson said wireless and landline service must be available virtually everywhere someone could want to use a phone. The media center in Sutcliffe Hall alone will have nearly 1000 phone lines and internet hookups.
Moore’s focus ahead of this year’s debate is primarily working with vendors to get sponsorships and equipment that is too expensive to be purchased for a one-day event. It is often a give-and-take, but Moore said the companies the College deals with on a regular basis have come through big already.
“It’s not just physically what you have to have here on hand,” Moore says. “You also have to think about where you are going to find it.”
Computers and printers must be installed in the dozens of work stations in the media center, as well as the nerve centers established by the campaigns and the multiple layers of post-Sept. 11 security necessary at an event with global implications. Moore notes it is not as simple as asking for a certain number of computers or other equipment, because many of the devices must be configured in specific ways to suit their users.
The task is made more challenging by the fact there is competition for every piece of equipment that will make up the massive temporary inventory. Most of the companies providing the equipment are also working with both the Democrat and Republican conventions, as well as the presidential debate sites, meaning there are logistical concerns and often competing interests.
Even tracking down seemingly more old school technology, such as televisions, poses a challenge because of the volume and specificity of what must be installed. Dave Frey, Centre’s associate director of IT, is charged with bringing in 150 thin 42-inch flat screen TVs for the media center.
One of the unique requests Frey must also fulfill—and an example of the amusing details the crew seize on when things get hectic—are two 55-inch “vanity monitors” which must be on the stage in the debate hall. Their purpose is to allow the candidates a chance to check themselves to see how they will actually look on television before they stride to the podium.
Making sure the grid is fully functional for the debate requires daily attention, and Moore estimates 40 to 50 percent of staff’s time has been spent on debate-related business during the summer months. In addition to preparing the way for the visitors, the IT department is also busy trying to technologically hook up the various academic and athletic activities displaced by the debate.
There are headaches. However, Wilson said confronting some of the singular challenges of debate preparation brings added appeal—and consequence—to each day. Consulting with the Secret Service or the head of a major television network tends to break up the monotony of a typical work week.
It’s far too early to glimpse the finish line, but members of the IT department say they learned a lot about themselves when the masses descended on Danville expecting big city connectivity.
“This will happen because Centre will not allow it to not happen,” Moore said.
For more about the upcoming vice-presidential debate at Centre, click here.

By |2012-07-19T15:57:24-04:00July 19th, 2012|News Archive|