'We Feel Really Terrible About That,' CEO of Firm Behind App That Ruined Iowa Caucuses Says

Elizabeth Warren’s shadow on a flag at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 2019.
Elizabeth Warren’s shadow on a flag at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, in October 2019.
Photo: Charlie Neibergall (AP)

CEO Gerard Niemira of Shadow Inc., the developers of the unfortunately named election app that caused Monday’s Democratic presidential caucus in Iowa to turn into a much bigger shitshow than it usually is, told Bloomberg on Tuesday night that he’s really sorry about all that. But he argued that the app was actually pretty solid, you know, so long as one overlooks the software bug that ruined everything.

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“I’m really disappointed that some of our technology created an issue that made the caucus difficult.” Niemira told Bloomberg. “We feel really terrible about that.”

“The app was sound and good,” Niemira added. “All the data that was produced by calculations performed by the app was correct. It did the job it was supposed to do, which is help precinct chairs in the field do the math correctly. The problem was caused by a bug in the code that transmits results data into the state party’s data warehouse.”

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That bug was “catastrophic,” he said.

Shadow was run in part by former staffers on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, according to the Los Angeles Times, and is owned by ACRONYM, a Democratic nonprofit run by 2012 Barack Obama campaign digital producer Tara McGowan. Neimira had previously worked at the San Francisco-based Kiva microlending platform, and Shadow co-founder Krista Davis worked on the Clinton team and spent eight years at Google.

The New York Times wrote on Tuesday that Shadow used to be known as Groundbase, and was on the verge of failure before ACRONYM acquired, refinanced, and rebranded it. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign said that it had ditched one of its texting products for failing to hit its “cybersecurity checklist,” the paper wrote, while “Few of its employees had worked on major tech projects, and many of its engineers were relatively inexperienced.” The Shadow app itself was reportedly hastily built in just two months for around $60,000.

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As of about 9:00 p.m. on Monday, reports of problems with the Shadow app had resulted in everyone from the campaigns themselves to caucus volunteers and CNN commentators starting to get pretty angry. But Niemira told Bloomberg the bug was fixed by 10:00 p.m., and that “caucus results that came from our app were sound and verified.”

Niemira also said that volunteers and officials had been trained on the app’s “‘sandbox’ mode” for weeks and that the main issue earlier in the day was “people having difficulty logging in for the first time.” (University of South Carolina computer science professor Duncan Buell told Politico that parties and developers’ practice of keeping election app materials secret is “dumb.” According to the New York Times, it’s not clear that the app underwent any rigorous testing and the Department of Homeland Security denied prior reports it had reviewed the app.) Most of the precincts chose not to use the Shadow app, Niemira told Bloomberg, and out of everyone given the option “We saw about a quarter reporting successfully through the app.”

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That caused a flood of volunteers to call in via phones instead, overwhelming the Iowa Democratic Party’s phone lines at the same time that the software bug caused the Shadow app to submit only partial data, triggering systems designed to catch bogus caucus results. According to Bloomberg, Niemira said that “Yes, it was anticipate-able. Yes, we put in measures to test it. Yes, it still failed. And we own that.”

ACRONYM has seemingly distanced itself from Shadow, and Nevada Democratic Party officials have scrapped plans to use the same app in their own upcoming caucus. Neimira declined to tell Bloomberg who their non-ACRONYM investors are or who serves on its board of directors.

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University of Iowa computer science professor Douglas Jones told the L.A. Times that mobile systems are a “security nightmare” and that the app “doesn’t sound like it was cost-effective.” He added that “I can buy a lot of temp workers and phone lines for $60,000.”

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The Iowa caucus results still aren’t in, with just 71 percent of precincts reporting as of 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.

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DISCUSSION

claykilgore
Mr. Clay K

It’s amazing how little compassion there is for technical difficulties. If there’s one thing regrettable about this from the outside, it’s forgetting who we are and making the event results more important than the people who did technical work intended to report those results. How quick we are to make others wrong. On a national scale, they must be tarred and feathered–ridiculed to the point of possibly not be able to get any work now. Is that what they deserve for causing panels of news pundits to wait for numbers?

It’s a shame. I’d bet most people reading (and writing) this can’t do the part Shadow did that worked. Shadow man said the problem was fixed by 10:00 p.m. But it was too late; the chaos had begun. Wait a minute! Who gave them just two months to develop, test and release? Are they the next to be flogged?

I made a human mistake once–a typo that printed 10,000 times on expensive paper. Correcting it cost money. I was horrified, and I figured I’d be fired. If I wasn’t, I should resign, just like in the movies. Instead, we discussed the problem and the recovery with compassionate questioning about what happened and what we could do to avoid something similar in the future. I was then allowed to get to the bottom of it, and it turned out that it was “trying to save money” that was the root cause and that the mistake happened with a vendor that supplied something old. They were fired for not being willing to discuss it. I wasn’t fired, stayed, and the mistake made me more careful and deliberate in the long run.

Knowing what it’s like to be a human mistake-maker is part of doing amazing work. Forgetting who we really are is part of being human. Making people wrong isn’t a great choice. I guess we all make mistakes.