What we can learn from the Iowa Caucus app meltdown

If you’re in North America no doubt you’ve at least heard of the debacle in Iowa. In short, the Iowa team deployed a new app to help collect data from over 1600 precincts. It used to be done with pen / paper but, since it’s 2020, everyone’s first impulse is to say “tech can make EVERYTHING better”

Let us stop you right there

Tech + good people + organizational willingness and planning can make everything better.

Tech alone will almost always fail.

How can we be so certain? Because the tech deployed to Iowa is eerily similar to what we do. We deploy technology to over 60 countries to help collect, analyze, and share data.

Since we’ve deployed this thousands of times, we’ve learned a few things that could benefit ALL projects regardless of whether they’re for global health (what we do) or politics (what happened in Iowa).

  1. It’s easy to blame the developers. Don’t do that -- we’ve seen report after report that the dev team that built this app is full of recent code school grads. That may be the case, but developers (with or without experience) need a team around them to help make sure what they are building is up to the task. Does it work in remote areas? Do non tech savvy people understand how to use this app? Developers represent about 33% of the workload. The other 66% comes from client (to make sure they understand what they bought), the implementing team (to confirm it works in the pre-determined use cases), and from project managers (to ensure they’re on time for delivery).
  2. Make technology a first level priority — we see this frequency in global health. Clients know they need tech. But they don’t budget for it. And don’t make it a first level part of their organizational planning. In the Iowa caucus, they only worked on the app for several months before Monday’s caucuses. From the outside, it looks like the technology considerations were a bolt-on. An afterthought. If you’re going to successfully deploy a technology solution to solve a problem, you need to start thinking about it from the very beginning. Weave the tech throughout your process and understand what success looks like. The (over used) saying really applies here: you can have fast, cheap, or good. But you cannot have all three. Be thoughtful about which you pick.
  3. People are more important than tech — we say this as a collection of technologists. We love to code and build things! But if people aren’t integrated throughout your tech stack, you are going to fail. What we mean is the folks implementing the solution must understand all constituencies. Who’s inputting the data? Who’s consuming the data? And why? Where are they doing it? Does the UX represent the technologists or the people consuming the technology (this is a *really* important point that is often overlooked).
  4. Technology cannot improve bad process -- this seems to be a common thread in what happened in Iowa. The tech contributed to what seemed to be a bad processes. Phone lines were jammed, tech was deployed late, people weren't trained, etc. The bad tech deployment helped shine a light on what was the broader problem: poorly thought out or implemented processes across the board. If you're sitting there thinking "wow, we are doing things really really poorly. Tech will fix it!" you need to re-evaluate things.

    The big takeaway is to plan early. Plan often. Test throughout. And feel free to give us a call if you need help :)
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