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Biden supporters caucus in a Des Moines, Iowa, gym. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The disastrous rollout of the Iowa Democratic Party's new vote-reporting app Monday night looks to go down as a software train wreck for the ages.

The big picture: Coding disasters have been with us as long as there's been software, and in the past they've led to exploding space missions and lethal doses of radiation for cancer patients. In this case, the failure of a new app, followed by long delays with a phone-reporting backup system, seems to have crippled the calendar-leading Iowa Democratic caucuses — adding a fresh element of instability to our troubled election system.

Details: A statement by the Iowa Democratic Party released late Monday night said "The app did not go down, and this is not a hack or an intrusion."

  • But a letter from the Biden campaign to the Iowa Democratic Party said, "The app that was intended to convey Caucus results to the Party failed; the Party's back-up telephonic reporting system likewise has failed."

Between the lines: We don't yet know exactly what happened in Iowa. But it has all the earmarks of what engineers call a "cascading failure."

  • The app either failed in some way, or users simply found that they couldn't use it easily and resorted to the phones instead.
  • The phone system may not have been properly staffed since the app was going to take care of most of the reporting.

Background: The Iowa Democrats' app plan had raised questions about security, in an election climate attuned to fears of hacking and meddling.

  • In an NPR story on the app last month, the Democratic state chairman "declined to provide details" about who made the app or what kind of security testing it had undergone, but said that security was "a priority."

Our thought bubble: Vulnerabilities may have been less of an issue than usability.

  • The profession of software engineering has learned a lot about how to test products before distributing them.
  • But their testing regimen works best when deadlines are flexible and small numbers of real users can be exposed to a new program so it flaws can be found and fixed.

An election — or caucus — night offers neither of those conditions.

The bottom line: Iowa may have presented what software developers call an "edge case" — one that pushed Iowa's candidate selection process way over the edge.

Go deeper

The ransomware pandemic

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

"We are on the cusp of a global pandemic," said Christopher Krebs, the first director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in Congressional testimony last week. The virus causing the pandemic isn't biological, however. It's software.

Why it matters: Crippling a major U.S. oil pipeline this weekend initially looked like an act of war — but it's now looking like an increasingly normal crime, bought off-the-shelf from a "ransomware as a service" provider known as DarkSide.

Hollywood's wakeup call

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Decades of failures around diversity and inclusion finally caught up with Hollywood Monday, when NBC made the unprecedented decision not to air the Golden Globes next year following backlash against the group that hosts the show.

Why it matters: NBC has been airing the event exclusively for decades. Its decision to pull back speaks to how big the backlash against the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) has become.

Erica Pandey, author of @Work
22 mins ago - Health

There's a frenzy for summer school, but it may not be enough

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Kids across the country have fallen behind after more than a year of interrupted, unstable and inequitable virtual school. And they'll need to go to summer school to catch up.

Yes, but: It's not that easy. Kids are demoralized, teachers are exhausted, and it'll take more than one summer to fix the pandemic's damage.