The Iowa Caucus Mobile App: What Went Wrong?

The Iowa Caucus Mobile App: What Went Wrong?

The 2020 Democratic Iowa Caucuses did not go according to plan thanks to a custom mobile app called, ‘IowaReporterApp’. The key US election event spiraled into chaos as the results of the Caucus could not be tallied due to an initial coding error. Ultimately, the app’s reports were also deemed inconsistent, and widespread anger ensued after the regional event coordinators could not gain access to the system.

The Iowa app was created to automate several steps in the official vote tallying process ahead of the US Primaries. Its design challenge was to record vote totals from each district, calculate the number of delegates that should be given to each candidate and store those results in Google Cloud.

Designed and built by Shadow, Inc. (a for-profit entity claiming to specialize in building custom software solutions for progressive political campaigns and organizations), the Iowa app was built on top of React Native—an open-source development platform—and experts found dangerous flaws in its code, including hard-coded API keys.

Kasra Rahjerdi, one of the Android experts who examined the app, summarized her alarming findings this way:

Honestly, the biggest thing is—I don’t want to throw it under the bus—but the app was clearly done by someone following a tutorial. It’s similar to projects I do with my mentees who are learning how to code. They started with a starter package and they just added things on top of it. I get deja vu from my classes because the code looks like someone Googled things like ‘how to add authentication to React Native App’ and followed the instructions.

In other words, the Iowa mobile app was most likely built by citizen developers rather than professional custom software engineers, representing the grave reputational risks that citizen developers pose to the organizations they serve.

In the case of the Iowa Caucuses, the damage was severe; negative headlines ran in all major news outlets for 6 days after the event. For an application that was supposed to lend a sense of modernity and connectedness ahead of what is sure to be an explosive US election cycle, the Iowa App failed far beyond its scope, leaving many to question the credibility of the Democratic Party as a whole.

Shadow, Inc. charged the Iowa Democratic Party 63,000 for using the app, which is comparable to the price they might have paid to a professional custom software engineering house backed by a robust history of case studies and experience. There was no appreciable cost savings for the enormous risk Iowa took in hiring citizen developers, and Shadow, Inc’s failures did not stop at the code.

Those familiar with the app’s development cited a lack of transparency throughout the entire development cycle and a period of deployment, testing, orientation, and training that was far too short (16 days). Experts who examined the app also noted that the testing that was performed was inadequate.

This leaves Iowa Democrats, as well as Democrats across the country, with an embarrassing scandal at a time when they could least afford one, and the managers who will undoubtedly lose their jobs because of this fiasco will be answering questions about the failed project for years to come.

So, what can organizations do to prevent a disaster like the app that did so much damage at the Iowa Caucuses? Choosing an experienced software engineering house, with a proven development methodology, is vital to the success of your project. Designing apps with the EndPoint Modeling process is one way to eliminate the risks of untested software and failed deployments.

EndPoint Modeling supports transparency between developers and stakeholders and includes milestone testing and approval so that customers are never taken by surprise or subjected to flawed, sloppy or ill-designed work. EndPoint Modeling uses a precise and disciplined approach that allows for contractual guarantees, thereby safeguarding the reputation and effectiveness of the organizations that use it.

Do you have questions about what EndPoint Modeling can do for you? Do you have knowledge of what went wrong at the Iowa Caucuses or experience you would like to share in regard to high-profile app deployments? Let us know in the comments. We love to hear your stories!

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