The UK's National Health Service tapped New Zealand's Rush Digital for help as it ramped up its Covid-19 tracing efforts, the Auckland firm's chief executive Pavan Vyas reveals.
Rush Digital consulted to the NHS as a mid-September deadline loomed for compulsory check-in poster display. The New Zealand company advised on the best QR code format, and how to gear up for QR code posters to be generated en masse.
The privately held tech studio won the Ministry of Health's tender to be its private partner on the NZ Covid Tracer app. But the launch didn't go smoothly.
After the app's launch on May 20, hardly a day went by without a vox pop on the TV news, featuring punters who couldn't scan posters with it.
Dr Andrew Chen, a research fellow with Auckland University's Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, says the issue was that posters had been going up at cafes, shops, clubs and churches for a month by that point.
From the first lockdown in March, there had been demand from many organisations, small businesses and employers for some kind of check-in system, and many web developers rushed in to fill the gap.
"Most of them were well-intentioned but confusing," Chen says. Still, by the time the official NZ Covid Tracer app arrived, there was a mishmash of posters and apps. It wasn't that NZ Covid Tracer didn't work. Instead, the researcher collected example after example of people who were trying to use a third-party app with a poster made for NZ Covid Tracer, or NZ Covid Tracer with a third-party app.
"It would have been helpful if the Ministry of Health had taken a stronger position over all the private sector creating apps," Chen says. Some had what appeared to be Government or MoH badging.
It took a while until people realised that NZ Covid Tracer was the app that mattered (well, in almost all cases. From mid-year, a tweak meant it could take to other apps; Paper Kite's Rippl was the first to take advantage).
And it was not until August 19 that it was made compulsory for businesses to display the Government's official QR code poster.
Vyas says Rush Digital has had up to 15 staff working on NZ Covid Tracer on any given day. It always hit its deadlines, or at least to a margin of within days - no mean feat in an industry were projects routinely go twice over time.
The chief executive says both the MoH and Rush Digital pitched in with feature ideas, but the ministry, ultimately, decided which made the cut and, in which order.
At times, events higher up the food chain had a big influence on the app. Cabinet papers released in July, for example, showed that Cabinet considered mandatory NZ Covid Tracer QR code poster display in April, before deciding not to go with a compulsory order at that time (its view of voluntary display proved too sunny and, in hindsight, there was no appreciation of the confusion that would be caused by third-party posters filling the breach).
Chen gives Rush Digital high marks overall. He says it's done a good job on NZ Covid Tracer. It stands up well against similar efforts offshore. Most of its issues and feature delays, such as they've been, have been down to politics or communications, and have been minor against problems in other countries.
The first version of NZ Covid Tracer could have been rushed out the door in mid-April or earlier he says, but it would have been a simple digital diary app, with no ability to scan check-in posters. People needed an app to be useful. It would have been problematic trying to get over a bad first impression on that score.
NZ Covid Tracer has now gone through three versions.
The most recent, released earlier this month, added the key feature of automated Bluetooth tracking - so that, if you opt-in, wireless technology in your smartphone tracks who you have been in close proximity with, and for how long (as long as they have the same feature enabled for NZ Covid Tracer on their phone).
Singapore released a smartphone contact tracing app with Bluetooth on March 20.
Australia followed suit on April 26.
Why did it take until December for NZ Covid Tracer to get the same feature?
Vyas says Singapore and Australia jumped the gun. The Bluetooth tracking technology they introduced was too glitchy. There was just no good way, at the time, to get the different versions of strengths of Bluetooth on different phones to talk to each other without a mess of false-positives.
Chen says it was a good call for New Zealand to wait for Apple and Google to jointly develop their Exposure Notification Framework (which works under the bonnet to solve most problems with different types of phones communicating), and to wait for a few iterations until issues were ironed out.
The Auckland University academic says NZ Covid Tracer is now the equal to any tracing app anywhere.
And Vyas is proud of the way his company won the tender - Rush Digital began studying tech strategist Roger Dennis' work on the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in February and created an app to help small businesses prepare for a pandemic shortly afterwards - and the fact that more than 60 per cent of adults have downloaded NZ Covid Tracer.
Still, the blunt fact remains that few use it.
On the first Monday in December, before the Bluetooth upgrade, only 8 per cent of us scanned a poster.
And even during scares, such as the second lockdown in Auckland, Ministry of Health stats have shown us falling short of a million active devices per day.
Does that frustrate Rush Digital, as the app's developer?
Vyas frames the problem in broader terms.
"It's like, okay, now the challenge is: How do we design and operate the platform so that people actually use it, and then they feel the need to use it, and not just from an app perspective.
"If you've dined-out or been on a flight recently, you would have noticed that we're no longer disinfecting. We're still hugging in public, and not really thinking hard about social distancing.
The success of border closures and other measures mean Kiwis have become complacent amid the extended absence of community transmission.
"So it's a constant design challenge, and technology challenge over time, of how do we actually evolve a platform so that more people use it more regularly? I guess Bluetooth is a part of that," Vyas says.
Chen says a compulsory poster scanning law would not be enforceable, but would likely up participation regardless. However, he's not sure it would be viable from a legislative standpoint, and he's not sure that the Government would ever gain the social license (popular support) for such a move absent of rampant community transmission.
At the technical level, Chen says, there's not much more that can be done to get people to scan more posters (which is still necessary to track where you've been, as Bluetooth records WHO you've been in contact with).
Budget allowing, more work could be done to get NZ Covid Tracer to work with older phones.
And although he appreciates early decisions where made on the basis of reaching the most people the most easily, Chen says it's now time to expand beyond being an English-only app - a possible contributing factor to August's South Auckland outbreak.
He would also like to see more accessible options added for the deaf and vision impaired beyond the current vibration to signal a successful QR code scan.
Vyas says support for additional languages, and more accessible features, are on Rush Digital's radar now that it's had time to catch its breath.
Chen says we've now reached parity with other jurisdictions.
"Rush Digital have done a good job creating a functional app," he says. The issues that remain are "More around political processes and decision making."
Where to from here?
The word in the tracing community is that a Covid Card trial in Rotorua involving 1200 people has gone well.
However, Chen is dubious of the result - or at least the high level of acceptance and compliance. He says people involved in the trial were predisposed to view Covid Cards (worn around the neck on a lanyard) favourably.
A real-life rollout would likely be more problematic, as the NZ Covid Tracer app experience has shown.
The Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment on NZ Covid Tracer's budget to date and other points.