President Obama’s online marketplace, Healthcare.gov, has become a poster child for bloated, inexpertly built websites. While more than 700,000 applications for insurance coverage have filtered through the mess, the site still won’t be sufficiently functional until mid-November—and the solution, as one specialist told the New York Times, will be to rewrite up to 5 million lines of code in the HealthCare.gov website. But why are there 5 million lines of code on this site in the first place?
Smaller code-bases aren’t necessarily better. As Slate’s David Auerbach points out, the number of lines is a fairly arbitrary metric: After all, “}” is a legitimate line of C++ code.
But length and organization of code can be highly indicative of a program’s level of simplicity—that is, the fewer lines of code, the simpler a project is for human beings to work on. The less you strive for simplicity, the more you (as the programmer) create opportunities for mistakes as the length of the code grows out of control.
As the above infographic by David McCandless points out, the HealthCare.gov website is purportedly 100 million lines of code—an absurd length for any web app, governmental or not. Even more conservative estimates that “5 million lines of code” will fix the app still dwarf the hundred thousand-odd lines of code that make up the average iOS app. Facebook only has about 10 million lines of code, about as much as Windows 8.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius blamed the contractors who built the site for its failures during her Congressional testimony. For their part, the contractors blamed the Centers for Medicaire and Medicaid (CMS) for giving the website a few bare weeks of testing before launching (when several months could have given them time to stress test for the high volume of visitors applying for health care). The Obama administration deployed a “tech surge” of additional experts last week to fast-track the code repairs, but other problems continue to plague HealthCare.gov, like a data server outage that took the website down from Sunday to early Monday.
HHS modified its contract with Quality Software Services, Inc. (QSSI), the private firm that built the data hub for HealthCare.gov and other tools, to repair the site. HHS said that they’d deployed more advanced monitoring tools to determine the site’s critical failures and claim to have shortened site loading times (from minutes to seconds). Which is all well and good, but we hope that the crack team of “tech surgers” led by former CEO and Obama economic advisor Jeffrey Zients gets the health care marketplace up to spec before the site becomes even more of a political football.