Romney’s Orca Offers Valuable Tips for Data Apps

Fail Whale.

In the end, Orca turned out to be a beached whale.

This time last week, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign had a sizable portion of its Election Day hopes pinned on a Web-based app named “Orca.” Designed by Microsoft and another firm, Orca would allow swing-state volunteers to update Romney headquarters in real time on which supporters had turned up to vote; with that information in hand, the campaign could make additional calls to draw still voters to their local polling place.

But according to a rather extensive rundown offered by Ars Technica, Orca was nothing less than an epic fail. Field volunteers reportedly received no training in Orca until Election Eve, when they received a massive instruction and voter-roll file in PDF format—complete with dozens of pages they needed to print. The mobile component was “supported by a single Web server and a single application server.” Volunteers who actually tried to access the Web app found it inaccessible.

Nor was that the end of Orca’s problems. “I worked on the Colorado team, and we were called by hundreds (or more) volunteers who couldn’t use the app or the backup phone system,” one unnamed source within the Romney campaign told Breitbart. “The usernames and passwords were wrong, but the reset password tool didn’t work, and we couldn’t change phone PINs. We were told the problems were limited and asked to project confidence, have people use pencil and paper, and try to submit again later.”

Some volunteers tried to access the Orca Web app by typing in “http” before the URL, when they should have been inputting the “https” that denotes a secure connection. “The problem is that they didn’t auto-forward the regular ‘http’ to ‘https’ and as a result, many people got a blank page and thought the system was down,” another volunteer told Ace of Spades. “Setting up forwarding is the simplest thing in the world and only takes seconds, but they failed to do it.”

Net result: tens of thousands of volunteers ended up being far less effective just when Romney’s campaign needed them most, all thanks to some severe IT issues. Fortunately, there are some fairly simple takeaways from the debacle:

More Servers: If it’s true that the Romney campaign decided to run a critical app off a single Web server and a single application server, that was a massive snafu, especially considering the anticipated amount of traffic. It was also a somewhat odd decision, considering how many organizations facing a similar “crunch point” tend to err on the side of too much redundancy rather than too little.

Stress Tests and Dry Runs: Every complicated endeavor—Web or not—deserves a dry run and a stress test to make sure things go smoothly when the time comes.

Train Your People: No matter how intuitive an app or dashboard, the people using that software need training in how it works. In a perfect world, the Romney campaign would have given its volunteers several days—if not weeks—to train on Orca before Election Day (which could have doubled as a fantastic stress test). However, the campaign might have also wanted to keep major parts of Orca a secret for as long as possible, which would have hindered any training attempts.

Don’t Give Your Software a Competition-Killing Nickname: According to reports, Romney named its app “Orca” in response to the Obama campaign’s decision to nickname its own voter-roll app “Narwhal.” For anyone who doesn’t watch Animal Planet on a regular basis, orcas eat narwhals. If the name of your app screams “competition killer,” and the competitor ends up destroying your offering with regard to performance, it’s an unnecessary embarrassment.

Cross Your ‘T’s and Dot Those ‘I’s: It’s one thing to ensure your Big Data app works properly—but it’s just as important to ensure that secondary operations, including URL forwarding and password reset—operate as planned.


Image: Miles Away Photography

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