Taking Digital Seriously – What We Can Learn from the 2020 Iowa Caucus

Taking Digital Seriously – What We Can Learn from the 2020 Iowa Caucus

by Cheryl Contee • Data Management •

As an activist and technologist who works to support progressive movements, I’ve been following the 2020 Iowa Caucus intently. I don’t know about you but for me, it was the next big game coming right after SuperBowl Sunday – let’s get loud!

Yet despite the hard work of so many organizers, volunteers and everyday citizens in Iowa, the results were delayed with operational challenges and the political impact of the Iowa Caucus has been blunted. There’s been a lot of focus on the failure of the app that was designed to help modernize and accelerate the delivery of caucus results. Many articles have rapidly been written to dissect what went wrong.

From the NYT

Given less than two months to build an app for reporting caucus results to the Iowa Democratic Party, Shadow produced technology that proved difficult to download and use and ended up delivering incorrect tallies. Iowa’s Democrats blamed a “coding issue” in the app, and the party said it would resort to a time-consuming manual tally based on information called in by precinct chairs or pictures sent on their smartphones — the same ones on which they could not make the app work.


State records show the Iowa Democrats paid the firm $63,183 in two installments.

Shadow was put into a race that engineers at the most well-resourced tech giants, like Google, said could not be won. There was simply not enough time to build the app, test it widely to work out major bugs and then train its users.

Gerard Niemira, CEO of Shadow, told Bloomberg Media: “an app has a useful role to play in a caucus because precinct chairs are often required to conduct calculations and track multiple rounds of voting.” I agree!

The question here isn’t: was creating an app a good or bad idea? Of course it was a good idea. Innovation has an expanding, inexorable role to play in how our democracy functions. Yet it’s still the case that many people aren’t taking digital seriously and that folks are not yet understanding how closely tech and organizing must work hand in hand for success. 

If digital had been taken seriously for the caucus, there would have been a bigger budget allocated and more hands on deck earlier. There are real limits to what even seasoned, sophisticated, rapid-response-ready technologists, — including us here at DBT — can accomplish overnight. Everyone has known for a long time when the caucus would be held and yet surprisingly too little time and resources were provided to build and test this particular app, given the importance of the task at hand. 

Talented techies use a combination of art and science to create game-changing solutions. Those with experience understand that the human element is key, especially when new tech and new processes are being introduced. The budget here was too small and the timeline too tight to create the best solution. Sometimes the best option is to make the tough decision about what’s feasible and in this case, the better technological choice might have been to a) keep the old school phone-based process with which people were familiar and b) use this year as an opportunity to gather data about wish lists and pain points in the current process that a future app might solve. The best software development process doesn’t employ a top-down approach but is ideally co-created with input from the people who will be on the front lines using it.

Overlooked all too often is the need to sync the tech build with the needs and skills of its end-users. Going forward, all organizations must ensure that, beyond the app’s functionality itself, that there is enough time, energy and financial resources put into ensuring there is sufficient user testing, workflow analysis, training, organizing, tech support, redundancy, security, surge capacity and load-testing, documentation and all the other critical elements involved in creating software that empowers the people for whom it’s being built. Ultimately people have to be central in the building of new products and processes at every stage of strategy, design and development. That’s how we approach our work with partners at Do Big Things – we begin and end our cutting-edge collaborations to build new narrative and new tech by asking the question: how can we best uplift and support the people our work will serve?

The 2020 Super Bowl halftime show with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez required thousands of production team members, months of planning, rehearsals and military precision, a cast of at least 800 people and $13 million for a 13 minute performance. Can we apply energy and resources with the same priority and passion for our democracy?

It is my sincerest hope that the challenges encountered in Iowa this year spark more conversations about how we can take technology and technologists more seriously in the near future. Our future as a movement depends on it.