Business Mirror - Lessons from the Iowa App-ocalypse

13 February 2020

By James Jimenez | Business Mirror

Unlike the Philippines, where only a handful of people get to actually decide who runs for office, political candidates in the United States are chosen via a popular vote. This is what happened last week when members of the Democratic Party gathered in caucuses and cast ballots to determine which among the Democratic contenders would get the most number of votes and, therefore—after all the other States have similarly voted—go on to become the Democratic candidate for President. Obviously, this was a significant and truly memorable political event. Sadly, it will probably be remembered more as an app-ocalyptic disaster.

The Iowa Democratic Party rolled out a mobile app designed to tally caucus votes. It was a hybrid system where caucus workers would manually count the caucus ballots and enter tallies into the smartphone running the app, which would then automatically consolidate the reports. It was supposed to make things go smoother and faster. Instead, nearly everything that could go wrong, did.

Many caucus workers reported being unable to either download the app or log in, while those who successfully got it to work, found that using the app wasn’t as easy as
expected. For the most part, app users were slowed down by both their lack of familiarity with the app and the level of reporting detail in a system which, for the first time in caucus history, required alignment counts. With transmission errors and report inconsistencies mounting, many opted to give up on the app and to just call the results in, jamming the phone lines for hours. In the end, the Democratic Party had to rely on their paper trails.

The postmortems are still ongoing, but what we know so far about how things unfolded, leading up to that spectacular failure, constitute a series of teachable moments which we—for obvious reasons—would do well to learn from.

1. There was a rush to production. The app was built in less than two months. This means the development was rushed, which, under the best of circumstances, would inevitably result in coding errors. With the unreasonably tight schedule, there would also clearly be insufficient time for rigorous testing, practically ensuring that bad code would not be spotted, much less corrected. Deploying such a hastily built election app—intended for use in a Presidential election—without so much as a dry run is egregious.

2. There was no oversight. First of all, the app developers were clearly believers in “security by obscurity” since the whole development process was shrouded in secrecy. Worse, when the US Department of Homeland Security offered to help test the app for security flaws, the Iowa Democrats declined. In addition, the app was released through a beta testing platform, which allowed it to sidestep app store review processes performed by Apple and Google.

3. End-users weren’t ready to use the system. Although training was available before the caucus, not everyone took advantage of it, and it doesn’t appear to have been
required by the Democratic Party. I’m only speculating, but I can imagine how many might have thought that it would be a simple thing for them to learn how to use the app on the fly. Worse, people running the show might have assumed that all the potential users would have roughly the same level of technological proficiency.

4. There was no change management. Still speculating, but it seems that the transition to the new reporting system—a change, instituted in 2016, that saw the process become significantly more detailed and complicated than people were used to—may have been inadequately managed. At the very least, the rule makers were not shy about building complex rules. Ideally, the more complicated the rules are, the more effort should be expended in making sure that everybody who needs to get it, gets it.

5. The paper trail saves the day. Were it not for the paper trail, the results of the caucus would probably still be unknown or be in more doubt than it is now. Fortunately, the caucus workers used worksheets and other paper records in conjunction with the app. So, when reporting via app was no longer working, they turned to the robust paper trail and, despite the resulting delays, things finally got going.