Generally, with a fiasco as comprehensive and high profile as that of Iowa’s caucus app, there are multiple failure points at play. What’s not at all in question is that there were some major technical glitches with the app – a fact that its maker Shadow, Inc. readily acknowledged fairly early on in the process. Intended to allow precinct and party officials to report caucus results more efficiently, the IowaReporterApp encountered problems almost immediately on the day of the caucus. Some precinct officials couldn’t download the app on their personal phones. Those that could sometimes couldn’t open the app or couldn’t log in. Connectivity problems also appeared to be an issue. All said, it appears that only a quarter of the chairs in Iowa were able to use Shadow’s app. In a statement, Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price, chalked the error up to a “coding issue.”
“As part of our investigation, we determined with certainty that the underlying data collected via the app was sound. While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system. This issue was identified and fixed. The application’s reporting issue did not impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately.”
But if the problem had been merely in the lines of code and everything else was done well, we likely would have had a mere blip on the radar, or no issue at all on voting day.
Why, you ask? Because other systems and procedures would have stepped in to fill the gap. To borrow a concept from the engineering field, each of these fail-safes or duplications in functionality is known as a redundancy. For example, behind every (exceedingly rare) plane crash these days is usually the failure of many, many redundancies. If a sensor gives a faulty reading, there are multiple ways of verifying the correct information. If a small part fails, there is a different component to fulfill that same function. If an entire system on an aircraft fails, there is an entirely separate system that will take over the same functionality. Similarly, the IowaReporterApp’s redundancy was a separate system – paper backups. Also from Troy Price’s statement:
“Because of the required paper documentation, we have been able to verify that the data recorded in the app and used to calculate State Delegate Equivalents is valid and accurate.”
Still, this is just a system redundancy. The data from Iowa still shows inconsistencies and the real disaster is perhaps the widespread loss of faith in the results. What makes the failure of Shadow, Inc.’s app so avoidable is that it neglected the “non-technical redundancies” – the people and processes that support the technology, ensure its proper use, and step in to act when it fails.
According to reporting by The New York Times, the app used by the Iowa Democratic Party was “quickly put together in just the past two months,” nowhere near enough time to get the technical details right and certainly not long enough to do the sort of testing, user feedback, and change communications needed for something so complex and historically significant. Furthermore, there’s the issue of training, where you need to account for the different types of users – some of whom may not have much familiarity with smartphones, much less security measures like two-factor authentication. Indeed, there were widespread reports that the precinct chairs weren’t adequately prepared or instructed on how to use the app, and that they found it difficult to impossible to download, install, and boot on their smartphones. The list goes on. Rather than staffing up appropriately or building an automated phone system to key in results, the Iowa Democratic Party relied on a team of human operators that was far too small to handle what should have been a foreseeable volume of calls.
All these are symptoms of a lack of investment at the level of people, communication, processes, and culture. Indeed, the launch of a similar app went off mostly without a hitch in 2016 because they ensured they had the right resources and accounted for the failure of people and systems in their planning. So it may be difficult, but it’s not rocket science. And we decided to write about it not to lay blame on a particular party, but to call attention to a common issue that plagues many technology implementations.
There are many lessons to be learned here, but one that stands out is the universality of human problems in technical systems and what happens when you fail to account for it. This is the purview of change management and we’ve written extensively about it in the past because it’s one of the core tools for successfully planning for and rolling out technology systems – especially CRM implementations. Change management practice helps to address the human side of undertaking change by understanding the perspectives, motivations, fears, values, and habits of people involved in or affected by projects.
No one can build a perfect software system or evaluate risks with absolute certainty. We can, however, minimize headaches with good project management and change management – building robust systems with both technical and human redundancies.
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