The great thing about the unfortunate community Covid-19 transmission case recently is that the person was a legend who kept frequent records of places visited. That, and the technology in the NZ Covid Tracer app made it easier for her to keep a digital diary that could be quickly shared with contact tracers.
It's not about technology per se in other words because it could've been done arduously with pen and paper, or by taking selfies outside shops for example. Covid Tracer made the process far less cumbersome, and the app worked well in the hands of a person who understood why scanning in is a must to keep virus transmission down.
With well-functioning contact tracing tech for smartphones built around the privacy-preserving Google-Apple Exposure Notifications Framework, it seems strange then that CovidCard boosters have woken up again to claim it was a missed opportunity that their clunky devices weren't adopted and funded.
It's hard to see how CovidCards, which aren't cards but rectangular tracking devices with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radio transceivers to send and collect proximity data, offer anything over and above the CovidTracer app.
Technologist Peter Lambrechtsen rattled off some pretty major cons with the device, starting with having to hang around your neck with a lanyard for the CovidCard's BLE aerials to have the best reach and signal quality.
Not in your pocket or elsewhere more convenient and safe, in other words. Having a lanyard dangling around your neck while operating machinery or working at building sites does seem suboptimal from a safety perspective.
Other points include not being rechargeable, no push notifications, contact data extraction requiring physical handover of the hardware token because there's no internet connectivity like smartphone apps, and privacy concerns because each device would need to be registered in a central government database or no CovidCard could be traced.
To be effective, it was suggested that CovidCard use should be mandatory in some way. Like, you don't get to enter certain facilities or public transport without the square thing dangling around your next.
By now the fundamental issue with CovidCard should be clear: it doesn't take advantage of the power of software and internet connectivity. Instead, it's difficult to upgrade and maintain hardware.
CovidTracer may have started off a bit meh, but it was upgraded and now has the Google/Apple ENF and Bluetooth tracing since last December. That's the advantage a software-defined solution brings.
CovidCard feels like a solution harking back to the Windows XP era, and not something that deserved funding for a small trial last year let alone a wistful second look in 2021.
That it nevertheless was trialled may have led to delays with the Google-Apple ENF with Bluetooth tracing being added to the Covid Tracer App, digital technology ethics researcher Dr Andrew Chen told me.
The final ENF specification was released in September; Covid-19 spreads rip-roaringly fast, yet Bluetooth tracing only appeared in Covid Tracer early December. Even allowing for development time and testing, that's a slow rollout.
This is not to say that wearables with BLE contact tracing ability aren't useful and smartphones are the only answer.
Wearables can be a good idea when paired up with a smartphone for better functionality, and with nicer design which means almost anything but a lanyard. Wristbands or rings for example, and make them look good.
Importantly, Chen told me that one goal of CovidCard was to improve digital Inclusion. Not everyone can afford a smartphone, or know how to use such devices and apps.
Yet they and the communities they are in need to be covered by fast and accessible contact tracing technology that can be trusted, and Chen is right about that.
How much did the time wasted, effort and money wasted on CovidCard delay more readily available contact tracing solutions that are inclusive for everyone?
The long and short of the digital contract tracing debacle is that there is no simple solution right from the start. There are many difficult questions along the way. For example, for society as a whole it's a net positive if criminals feel that contact tracing tech is safe to use for them.
This is so that they too get themselves tested and isolate, instead of spreading Covid-19, in the community or in prison, after the tech ratted on them which now appears to be the case with Singapore's contact-tracing app.
Any contact-tracing technology utilised has to evolve to keep up with a changing pandemic, but it shouldn't ever be a centrepiece per se and has to adapt to human needs. If anyone suggests otherwise, switch off and move on somewhere else.