Project Orca: The Mismanaged Mobile and IT Solution That Failed Mitt Romney

11 Nov 2012

Much has already been written about the possible factors that led to Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama. But one deserved scrutiny because it was an unprecedented campaign tool. It was Project Orca, the mobile campaign strategy that was palmed off to volunteers who had little practical training in handling the technology.

Orca was designed to arm Romney's volunteers with IT tools to measure voter turnout. Monitoring voter turnout in real time and knowing which registered voters had turned up at the polling place could help campaign volunteers know which voters still needed encouraging. Campaign volunteers could then call and prod those voters.

John Ekdahl, a web developer who was also a Romney volunteer, detailed the mishaps of Project Orca at Ace of Spades HQ. "The entire purpose of this project was to digitize the decades-old practice of strike lists. The old way was to sit with your paper and mark off people that have voted and every hour or so, someone from the campaign would come get your list and take it back to local headquarters. Then, they'd begin contacting people that hadn't voted yet and encourage them to head to the polls. It's worked for years," Ekdahl wrote.

But Orca did not work, and it helped sink Mitt Romney by forcing his campaign team during the crucial hours of Election Day to rely on the media for voter turnout data.

Some of the problems in the deployment of Project Orca included the following:

  • Many Romney volunteers did not realize that they were using a mobile website instead of an app. Some volunteers even searched the Android and Apple app stores for Orca.

  • The users who realized they were being asked to use a website did not know that they had to type "https:" when they got a blank webpage. The regular "http:" did not automatically forward to the secure site.

  • The PINs that were issued to volunteers did not work in Colorado. Attempts to reset the password through the Orca site also failed.

  • Instead of a set of cloud-based servers, the "mobile" part of Orca available on the Web was supported by only one web server and only one application server. Numerous attempts by Romney volunteers to connect to Orca, coupled with bandwidth limitations, inevitably led the ISP, at one point, to block the network connection to the campaign's data center. "They told us Comcast thought it was a denial of service attack and shut it down," said Hans Dittuobo, a volunteer at the Boston Garden campaign headquarters.
  • The "beta-testing" period of Orca coincided with the high-stakes Election Day. No dry runs were performed to test how Orca would behave over the public internet. Stress-testing of Orca was performed via automated tools, which would show whether software components could handle expected loads. But there is a problem with relying only on automated testing tools. Automated testing rigs cannot show how the system looks at the end user's side.

However, according to Tom Krazit at Gigaom, Project Orca is the future of campaigning. The mobile solution can replace the cumbersome pen-and-paper way of tracking voters. If it worked, it would have provided the Romney campaign with timely voter turnout statistics. And having the crucial turnout data in real time would have given Romney volunteers a chance to goad potential supporters who had not yet voted. (KOM) Link. Link. Link.


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