Friday, August 14, 2020

What went wrong with Covid-19 Contact Tracing Apps - PART I

Australia's CovidSafe App

ACS members back COVIDSafe app | Information Age | ACS

The new world of Covid-19

Last year this time, the majority of us were not even familiar with the term Covid-19. Everything that seemed ordinary back then is extraordinary today - walking outside without a mask, standing next to strangers on public transport, teaching a class of over 200 students in a seminar room, joining crowds in sporting and entertainment events. All these instances seem in another world and ages ago! Covid-19 has shaken every fabric of the society in every country around the world.In our current reality, social distancing is the new expression of love and care, masks have become a controversial sign of obedience or defiance, Zoom has taken over the new forms of social connections whether its education, meeting family and friends or online dating, and contact tracing apps seem to be the new global trend.

The Covid-19 has hit the world harder and faster than anticipated and not many countries were prepared for such level of global pandemic. To handle the situation, we have seen the measures introduced in different countries related to: social distancing, lock-downs, and contact tracing. The speed of the spread of this infection highlighted the limitations of manual contact tracing. Contact tracing is a critical part of dealing with this pandemic in order to quarantine the infected and slow down or curb the spread of the virus. 

There is always an app!

The numerous challenges presented by Covid-19, such as the incubation period and the asymptomatic super spreaders, have exacerbated the challenges of manual contact tracing. This pushed the governments around the world to look for alternative solutions to aid and expedite the process with technology and we saw a flood of corona-virus related apps launched in the first half of 2020.

Corona, Covid-19, Covid, Corona App, App, Program 

The idea is that an app will make use of Bluetooth and/or GPS technologies on mobile phones and will provide a low cost, low energy solution by interacting with other mobile phones in order to record community interactions for a period of time that may pose the danger of infection transmission. This digital solution offers great benefits in terms of instant recording of interactions and alleviates the limitations and biases of patients’ memory, and in theory it has been considered a very effective solution for the scale and level of Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the promised benefits of these contact tracing apps failed to materialise, to a large extent. No matter how technologically sound, these apps have not been able to provide successful outcomes. While there are several confounding causes for the failure of the contact-tracing apps, one important factor is related to the involvement of the users and whether the users’ requirements are considered and addressed by these apps.

Developed by the People, for the People?

Inspired by our previous research on the correlations between user involvement and system success, we were interested to explore the factors that limited the success and adoption of the Covid-19 apps. Among technical issues with the apps, these factors, include, the distrust of users, as well as disregard for the technological demographics of citizens during inception, design, and launch of the apps.

Our previous research established that the dissatisfaction of users can result in software project failures even if it is delivered on time, on budget and is of high quality. For societies with democratic values, the non-democratic and non-inclusive approaches adopted for any software development project could lead to dissatisfied users who would eventually distrust and reject the final product. The user dissatisfaction in many cases with Covid-19 apps is in line with our previous findings.

In Australia, the government launched a contact tracing app called CovidSafe on 26th April 2020, and there was a significant level of mistrust on the app since its launch due to several reasons, including among others, privacy concerns, technical issues, lack of transparency and no end-user involvement. As of 28th June after 6 million downloads, it was reported that the app has not  been able to detect any new cases. Furthermore, publicly available information on the app’s contribution to pandemic control and the usage of the app is scarce.

Our Australian case motivated us to study other contact-tracing apps launched around the world and explore their acceptance by the target community. We were interested to see the responses of the users of these apps to understand what social, economical, cultural, political and technological factors contributed to the successes or failures of contact tracing apps.

We have studied 21 countries in our research and downloaded the user reviews from both Apple and Google app stores in order to analyse the voices of the users for these apps. In this blog series we will be presenting our analysis of the various social dimensions around user satisfaction/dissatisfaction, staring with the case of Australia.

We collected all the reviews for the apps listed below in the table (for the duration of  1st January 2020 – 30th July 2020) from Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

Looking at the comments of users for CovidSafe app, and comparing them to the reviews coming from apps launched by others countries, we observed the following issues:

Lack of Citizen Involvement

Non- Responsiveness to concerns   

  • There were numerous issues reported on CovidSafe app related to Bluetooth, Battery and Data Consumption, however there was no engagement shown by the development team to respond to the authors of the reviews. Whereas there was effective developer-user communication seen in app reviews from New Zealand, Germany and India that helped in building people’s trust for the app. 

Lack of understanding technological context of Australian people

Ambitious technical assumptions without cultural considerations

  • The success of CovidSafe app was dependent heavily on the significant proportion of the population downloading and keeping the app active while in public spaces. This worked in countries like China, Singapore and India where people seem to have high levels of trust in governments and the national culture is heavily leaning towards collectivism. The voluntary download model in a democratic society such as Australia with much lower trust index in government, lack of transparency in the process, concerns of data privacy and the national culture leaning towards individualism is not ideal. The success of this app was based on a great deal of ambitious assumptions.

No End-User Experience

  • CovidSafe app works in the background. The users do not see any immediate results and/or any functionality and hence there is no user experience. All they see is a simple green screen to tell them the app is active and no further actions required. What's happening in the background is invisible to the users. In contrast, the Indian app Aarogya Setu shows updates to the people on the number of positive cases in their vicinity. Similarly, New Zealand offered a different solution, wherein people can create a digital diary of the places they have visited by scanning the official QR codes. Such features in Indian and New Zealand apps, unlike in the Australian app, gives an impression to the users that they are in control and hence an integral part of the process. For CovidSafe app, once the app is installed the only possible way to control it is to turn-off the Bluetooth which will stop the functions of the app.

 Interface of CovidSafe App


 Interface of NZ Covid Tracer App

Aarogya Setu App | NPCI - National Payments Corporation of India ... India's Covid-19 Tracker App Aarogya Setu


Waiting for successful outcomes

  • Australians are still waiting to hear any successful outcome from this multi-million Dollar app. This has further depreciated any motivation or trust that 6 million downloads showed since its launch. In Germany, it is reported that 660 people who tested positive for Covid-19 had the opportunity to warn other people via Corona-Warn-App. A significant number of Australian users commented that they uninstalled the CovidSafe app after it caused Bluetooth and battery issues and they do not see any positive contribution of the app in helping to stop the spread of the virus. 

  • The inability to fulfil the purpose for which the app was launched has also been observed in the UK Government’s NHS-Covid19 that was taken off the app stores (until recently when the UK government announced its second phase with Google/Apple Framework).

  • While currently Melbourne is going through the second wave of Covid-19, the state government in Victoria has accessed the data collected through the app around 400 times, but it is reported to not have revealed any single case that wasn’t known through manual tracing. Hence, Australian citizens are yet to witness any tangible benefits of the multi-million dollar CovidSafe application, at the time of writing this article.

In conclusion: 

Every country has their own unique struggle with the COVID-19 virus. For a successful technological solution in form of contact tracing app, the political and cultural context of the country cannot be ignored. Following or replicating the app framework of Singapore seems to have not worked in Australia. According to the Cultural Compass of Hofstede, Australia resembles closely to Germany when it comes to power structures and individualism in citizens, and hence could have taken similar steps to build public trust. In conclusion, and as established in our previous research, lack of user involvement and user dissatisfaction can lead to software project failure, despite meeting the time and budget goals. This was the case for CovidSafe, and in our opinion if the CovidSafe app was meant for Australians, then Australians should have been involved in the design, implementation and launch of it.


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