Tech Problems at #GC80

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Problems with internet access and voting devices slowed activity and tested patience in the House of Deputies throughout the 80th General Convention in Baltimore. Geoffrey T. Smith, the church’s chief operating officer, sent an email to the church’s executive leadership team Wednesday saying that a full report on the problems was underway.

In the email, which was obtained by Deputy News, Smith expressed concern about “the public perception about the events that took place and issues related to Wi-Fi” and said he wanted his colleagues to have “a better understanding of what went on.”

The problem that affected all voting members of convention during the first morning session “was due to a software bug on our wireless controller,” Smith wrote. “The software bug caused our access points to not pull enough power once they reached over 150 wireless clients. As a result, they became overloaded and were rebooting on their own.”

The church center’s internet technology staff “did a temporary fix during lunch to force higher power levels to the access points and people were able to vote without issue during the afternoon session.”

Yet the Deputy News live blog of the afternoon session of the first legislative day begins: “All the General Convention’s technical problems have not been resolved, but the House of Deputies is debating its special rules of order, X002. … We will keep you updated when the Wi-Fi is in our favor.”

Additionally, almost every piece of legislation passed by the house in its earliest sessions passed on a voice vote, so the voting system was not seriously tested.  When it was, it frequently caused delays.

The church center’s IT staff installed “a software upgrade overnight to stabilize the system and improve reliability,” Smith wrote.

“While time to test the system was extremely limited by last-minute change requests that took away staff time [in the run-up to convention], he continued, the church center IT director acknowledged that the problems encounter on the first day of the convention “were known to Apple, and IT takes responsibility for not having fully anticipated this.”

In the remaining days of convention, “we had a small population of users (typically 30 or so out of 802) who after awaking their iPad from sleep mode, could not gain connectivity to the Wi-Fi network,” Smith wrote. “This happened at the start of the day or after returning from a break.”

The staff believes the problems were caused by “a bug in on the operating system” of some of the rental iPads, and the fact “a percentage” were set to look for a mobile connection, Smith wrote. This caused them “to not function as desired when connecting to the Wi-Fi network.”

Once the settings on these iPads were corrected, he wrote, “those users and others were able to access vBinder and vote without issue.”

Deputy News has no knowledge of those particular voters’ experience, but voting did not proceed without issue. Deputies continued to struggle with the balky voting system, and were urged to vote on their phones, laptops or personal tablets. To facilitate this opportunity, the link and codes for voting were projected on screens in the house. As a result, every deputy and alternate—including those not certified to participate in a session—were able to vote on their personal devices.

An analysis of vote totals and margins suggests this did not alter the outcome of any election, but the vulnerability was noted aloud from the platform during the first session in which the codes were offered, and Deputy News is aware of one deputy who voted from their hotel room.

Smith also asserted in the email that “Anyone using a computer or non-iPad did not experience any issues with the wireless network.”

Canon Michael Barlowe, secretary of General Convention responded, writing, “Thanks, Geof. There was consistent false reporting about the ‘wifi’ issue, even though I kept saying that was not the issue.”

It is not clear to those of us at Deputy News who Smith or Barlowe spoke to in arriving at their conclusions regarding the Wi-Fi. But for the record: Our team repeatedly lost connectivity to a couple different dedicated networks on and off throughout the convention and struggled to perform the simplest reporting tasks such as accessing websites, updating email templates and refreshing our live blog—let alone uploading video and photographs, which, on occasion took hours. We were all working from computers.

Conversations with several deputies indicated they faced similar problems and switched to using their phones.

We are grateful to Amanda Skofstad, the church’s public affairs officer, and Fiona Nieman, deputy for convention and meeting planning in the General Convention Office, who were involved in securing the last-minute workaround that gave us the erratic Wi-Fi access we did have. On the eve of convention, it appeared there would be no dedicated Wi-Fi in the House of Deputies media area, and none in the offices used by the President of the House of Deputies and her staff.

The church has an uneven track record in providing the media the tools and access required to do its work. This was a particular problem at the 2015 General Convention in Salt Lake City. Episcopal News Service’s coverage at that time was being directed and distorted to achieve the political ends of the church’s senior staff, none of whom had experience or training in journalism. (This development led to the creation of Deputy News as an alternative news source.)

In addition, the media covering Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s election faced significant restrictions imposed by the General Convention Office in capturing photos and video of his first post-election public appearance in the House of Deputies. As a result, many media outlets lacked high quality imagines, and coverage of that historic event was not as prominent as it might have been.

By the 2018 convention, the excellent journalists at Episcopal News Service were once again being allowed to function as journalists, and control of access to the floor of the House of Deputies was in the hands of the president of the house, and not the General Convention Office. But the House of Deputies has no control over convention-related technology, and, as the experiences of this convention make obvious, challenges continue to arise.

As convention planners look ahead to the 2024 convention, it is imperative that a church eager to share its good news with the general public make it easy for the media—including photographers, videographers and live streamers—to cover our next presiding bishop’s first public appearance—which happens in the House of Deputies.