Elections are always a hectic and demanding period. Journalists must visit some of the many voting sites across South Africa, conduct interviews, and the media must report and analyse results. Politicians agonise over these results. And voters pay close attention to the progress and outcome of one of the most critical events in the country.
Since 1994, South Africa has held a total of 12 parliamentary and municipal elections, each covered in increasing detail by news agencies. Increasingly, the Internet has become pivotal to this process, and millions of South Africans log onto news sites to track results. News24 has been front and centre, delivering election numbers and matching them to a map as they are released. And it’s 24.com’s job to ensure this goes smoothly – which is why for the 2021 elections, its data, software, and design teams radically upgraded the Media24 election coverage system.
“It’s a great improvement,” says Pieter Gerber, Head of Core Platforms and Architecture at 24.com. “We can deliver results faster and in more detail to our readers and journalists, and I don't have to be up for 48 hours straight anymore!”
The results are visible to all. Head to the News24 Election section and interact with the impressive vector-based map. Here, you can access a national view and then zoom down to the provinces, municipalities, wards, and even voting districts within neighbourhoods. It’s slick, informative and impressive – and the result of excellent work by 24.com.
Coverage built from scratch
24.com is the division behind Media24’s digital technologies. Media24, home to prominent brands, including News24, Netwerk24, City Press and Huisgenoot, embraces digital technology to continue evolving and competing. It’s 24.com’s job to realise those digital ambitions.
Because of 24.com’s behind-the-scenes role, many people, even professionals in the technology sector, haven’t heard of it. Yet 24.com is one of the best tech outfits in SA and consistently operates at the cutting edge of what is achievable with today’s cloud solutions and software systems.
The improvements to News24’s election coverage and map are great examples of this work, says Gerber. “In the previous elections, the maps and data coverage were very hands-on. Now, they’re automated and very, very fast.”
The former election coverage system was dated. It relied on on-premises systems, making load allocation a constant headache. Its map results dashboard was cumbersome, limited and heavy on resources. To introduce improvements, 24.com decided to design a new system from scratch.
The reengineering focused on data processing and the map dashboard, using new technologies, cloud features and online caching to develop an ultra-fast and highly automated solution.
Super-fast data processing
The first step was to address the data processing, which previously required a lot of resources to produce the displayed information.
“The amount of data we receive from the IEC is enormous and updated very quickly on top of each other,” says Eduard de Klerk, Solutions Architect at 24.com.
“In the past, we’d convert this data to the expected displayed information by means of repeated processing, mapping, and transformation of the supplied results. But this created other problems and required us to keep intervening with changes to ensure accuracy.”
Introducing chunks of data from the supplied database into the system was inefficient. To improve both speed and accuracy, the data team introduced automated data processes using 24.com's new cloud architecture. The new system replaces the entire database with minimal processing in under a minute.
“In previous years, the teams tried to do the mapping and transformation themselves,” says De Klerk. “There would be mistakes, and they’d have to run code constantly in the background to fix stuff. But after the change, every time we got that data, we took it as a complete and fresh copy and destroyed what we had, putting the new data in place. It's super-fast.”
A new standard in election maps
Invigorated with cloud systems and this massive improvement to process election data, 24.com set to work to develop a new map system. The previous raster-based mapping had several bottlenecks.
“The map system was slow and difficult to maintain,” says Jannik Richter, Software Solutions Architect at 24.com. “It also limited what we could do, such as how much you could zoom into regions, and the amount of data we could store in the map itself. We wanted to do a lot more but that meant making a new mapping system.”
Richter and his team had put in substantial effort for previous elections, gathering geospatial data to ensure their maps were accurate. While they could provide information to map users, the older map system couldn’t accommodate that detail with enough depth and speed. 24.com built a new cloud-hosted vector map solution that dynamically changes as new data becomes available.
The new server also lets 24.com embed all the spatial data in the map system, improving its dynamic performance even as millions of requests hit it every second. To speed things up even more, they used Cloudflare caching
Elections at your fingertips
While this article cannot do justice to the incredible work and skill that went into rebuilding 24.com's election coverage system, the results speak for themselves.
The News24 election coverage map is a fantastic example of dashboarding done right. It is elegant, responsive, and intuitive. The background data is accurate and fast, making the News24 election dashboard one of the quickest and most reliable sources for South Africa's election results.
Modern digital technology deserves some of the credit. But the election map showcases the excellent talent, collaboration and opportunities inside 24.com. It is the result of people working together and a group that lets its engineers, architects, coders and designers do their best work. These teams have transformed a manual, resource-intensive system into a streamlined, cloud-powered example of digital at its best.
“The previous engagements were literally, I think, three days and three nights,” says Gerber. “People were working in shifts, staying awake and making sure the system stayed up, that the data coming through was correct. Now it almost takes care of itself, and we can look at new features. It really shows what you can achieve with the right talent, resources and goals.”