Since last week’s election, tech blogs have lit up with criticism of ORCA, Mitt Romney’s publicity-blitzed stealth app. It was touted as a high-tech game changer that supposedly would have allowed field staffers and volunteers to communicate in near-real time with Romney HQ. Through the magic of mobile, the brass would know if targeted voters in key precincts had or had not made it to the polls. If they hadn’t, the ground forces would be marshaled, hustling to get supporters to vote and maximizing Romney’s turnout.
I need to be clear that this is not liberal schadenfreude but a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when you put a critical piece of tech in place not only at the last minute, but clearly before it had spent time with QA.
Web developer and blogger John Ekdahl , who volunteered for the Romney campaign, has posted a tragicomic piece on ORCA’s colossal failure, a near play-by-play look at just how low things can go. The most telling part of his story: ORCA wasn’t even an app.
Now a note about the technology itself. For starters, this was billed as an “app” when it was actually a mobile-optimized website (or “web app”). For days I saw people on Twitter saying they couldn’t find the app on the Android Market or iTunes and couldn’t download it. Well, that’s because it didn’t exist. It was a website. This created a ton of confusion. Not to mention that they didn’t even “turn it on” until 6AM in the morning, so people couldn’t properly familiarize themselves with how it worked on their personal phone beforehand.
ORCA’s development began during the primaries, when Romney analysts became antsy over what they perceived as deficiencies in turn-out and voting processes. They brought in the obligatory experts to develop the Web app, but given the little time they had from discussion to launch, it must have been a leap of faith to believe it would be fully programmed and vetted in time for November 6.
Now, it’s pretty much agreed that ORCA’s failure had nothing to do with Romney’s loss. For his supporters, it may have been a frustrating time waster but it didn’t impact the final numbers. The data crunchers, a la Nate Silver, used tried and true statistical tools and methods to predict the outcome with fairly accurate percentages. There was no new magic involved.
No doubt apps will be used during elections the near future, although it’s unlikely old fashioned door-to-door canvassing and phone calling will disappear any time soon. But both kingmakers and developers across the political spectrum are sure to take into account what ORCA did wrong, and move forward with far more sophisticated and greatly enhanced programs once they do.
- The Unmitigated Disaster Known As Project ORCA [Ace of Spades HQ]