Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Iowa Caucus 2020–What Happens When Software Doesn’t Work?

It’s too early to tell exactly what went wrong with the Iowa caucus this year but I suspect it will wind up being a case study in several ways. Political Science will look at it for sure. So, I believe, will computer science and software engineering people. We’re hearing complaints that the app, used for collecting the results, didn’t work. As is often the case early on we don’t know exactly what “doesn’t work” means or where the fault lies.

The Iowa Democratic Committee made the counting more complicated for one thing. That may have driven the need or assumption of need for an app. Was that complexity part of the problem? It could be. If the app wasn’t intuitive (cue to HCI people) or the users were not trained well enough than complexity could be a problem.

Was the app itself faulty? Were the communications protocols not robust enough?  Was it the servers on the backend? Little about that is public yet. I guess we’ll find out eventually.

Eventually there will be results as there is a paper trail for all of the voting. Or so we are told. The biggest problem long term is trust. Trust in the Iowa Democrats to run a solid caucus process. Trust in the company who wrote the app to do a good job. And maybe even damage to trust in apps for reporting election results as a concept.

While some are content to make fun of the Iowa Democrats others are crying about conspiracy and about manipulating the vote. The political science people will have a field day with that I suspect. I tend to suspect incompetency over malice. Malice is hard to do in secret.

For us teaching computer science I think the lesson we need to take and to share is that there are big stakes in developing software. The consequences of the software working correctly are big but the consequences of the software not working can be even bigger. And harder to predict.

1 comment:

Garth said...

This is an example of why a trial run is so important. There was also the idea of installing it on personal phones that did not go over big.

I saw an interview with the guy who is the communications director for the Republican National Committee. Some of his comments make me understand why our two party system is in such trouble. He was a stone cold idiot. A conspiracy theorist all the way. At one time I voted a straight Republican Party ticket. Now I look at the person.