Many things went wrong with Romney's campaign for president, but one of the biggest was the epic failure of the campaign's big-data app for getting out the vote, called Orca. When the campaign needed it most, Orca was beached.
Politico has an excellent summary of the problems it says that Orca had. Among them were that the Romney campaign kept it secret and didn't beta-test it before it was rolled out on Election Day. That meant that the people who it was designed for -- the thousands of volunteers across the country -- didn't have a chance to learn how to use it before it was launched. And Orca kept crashing throughout the day.
The system was designed to identify likely Romney voters who had not yet voted on Election Day, and then get them to vote. But it continually crashed and people didn't know how to use it. Here's what Politico has to say about the consequences:
The numbers in the interface never moved, leaving officials in Boston and out in the states "flying blind" -- a phrase used by several people. The workers on the ground didn't know what doors to knock on or what efforts to make with which voter targets who had not yet turned out --- some efforts were made but they were slow and more cumbersome. And the campaign officials also generally didn't know which precincts to send auto-calls into to try to boost turnout -- especially in precincts in Ohio, where there is no party affiliation in the general election. Instead of targeted information, all they really had to work with was the generic raw vote tallies in various counties.
There's an even more damning inside account by John Ekdahl at Ace of Spades, who was involved as a volunteer. He says that he had worries about the system from the beginning:
"Working primarily as a web developer, I had some serious questions. Things like 'Has this been stress tested?', 'Is there redundancy in place?' and 'What steps have been taken to combat a coordinated DDOS attack or the like?', among others. These types of questions were brushed aside (truth be told, they never took one of my questions). They assured us that the system had been relentlessly tested and would be a tremendous success."
Things went downhill from there, by his account. He said, for example, that people were told that Orca was an "app," and so people tried to find it to download it to their smartphones. In fact, though, it was a website. This caused a great deal of confusion among the people who were going to use it:
"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 [on election day], so people couldn't properly familiarize themselves with how it worked on their personal phone beforehand."
His conclusion is an especially bitter one:
"So, the end result was that 30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. Like driving people to the polls, phone-banking, walking door-to-door, etc. We lost by fairly small margins in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado. If this had worked could it have closed the gap? I sure hope not for my sanity's sake.
"The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of GOTV efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters). Wrap your head around that."
No matter your politics -- whether you're a Romey supporter or Obama supporter -- you should read the Ace of Spades account as a cautionary tale about how not to deploy a big-data app in politics or business.