Unleashed! Project Orca, the campaign killer whale

Big data fails big time for the Romney camp as its smartphone app crashes spectacularly, right on schedule for Election Day

First, let me assure my faithful readers that Notes From the Field is not evolving from a tech snark blog into a political snark blog. Really, I try to avoid writing about politics because it gives my editor agita whenever I do it, and I need somebody to sign those checks every month to keep me and Apache in dog food.

Bear with me, however, for my second politically tinged post of the week. Two days ago I talked about how big data helped President Obama win re-election. Now I'm going to talk about how big data -- or really, a complete and utter failure to utilize it effectively -- was instrumental in Governor Romney's downfall. It's a textbook lesson in how not to develop and launch a new product.

[ Cringely covers the other side of the coin in "The winner of this year's presidential election: Big data." And don't worry, folks, the tech trash talk will return next week. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

Coming into this election cycle, the Romney camp had a plan. It was going to rally the troops and beat the Obamanistas at what they do best: the political ground game. Its secret weapon was a smartphone app called Project Orca (I have no idea if that's an acronym or what it stands for). Technically, Orca was not a mobile app but a mobile website, which Romney poll watchers were supposed to use to keep track of every person who voted, then other volunteers could round up the stragglers and get them out to the polls.

John Ekdahl Jr., a Web designer and Romney supporter in Florida, wrote a devastating blog post about how badly the Orca program was bungled by the Romneyans. Everything that could go wrong with a new software rollout did go wrong. The only word to describe what happened on Election Day starts with a "c," ends with a "k," and has "luster" (along with a few other letters) in the middle.

Ekdahl says he received a 60-page PDF file containing instructions for how to use Orca and the names of every voter in his precinct at 10 p.m. the night before the polls opened. He was expected to print out all 60 pages and take them to the polls when they opened at 6:30 the next morning.

The first problem: Before poll watchers were allowed to enter the polls, they were required to obtain a poll watcher certificate from a local "victory center" (Romney headquarters). This small but essential fact somehow got left out of the PDF file. However, the advice to bring a chair to sit on was listed twice.

Ekdahl was turned away at the door. So he spent six hours on Election Day calling every "victory center" he could find, as well as the legal and info hotlines set up for Orca, without reaching a human.

Ekdahl went home and got online searching for answers. There he encountered other volunteers in a similar (but not swift) boat. They too lacked the proper poll-watching credentials.

Some had spent hours searching the Android and iTunes markets unsuccessfully for the Orca app, which, of course, wasn't really an app. Many tried and failed to log on to the Orca website, which didn't go live until 6 a.m. on Election Day. Romney's dev team had set up the site on a secure HTTPS connection, but failed to turn on forwarding from HTTP. Thousands of Romney volunteers dialed up the site using HTTP or WWW, got a 404 error, and assumed it was down. Later that day, the site did go down, crushed under so much traffic that the ISP decided it must be under a DDoS attack and shut it off, according to Ekdahl.

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