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Covid Tracer App updated as uptake lags

Monday, 20 July 2020  
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Return to home page editor Rebecca McBeth


The NZ COVID Tracer app is being updated at the end of the month to improve its compatibility and enable manual additions to the ‘digital diary’.

The Ministry of Health released the app in May to allow people to track their movements by scanning QR codes displayed at businesses and organisations, in order to assist contract tracing if there is community transmission of Covid-19.

The app has more than 600,000 registered users, around 15 percent of the population, but on average each user has only scanned a QR coded poster 2.5 times. 

At a briefing on July 15, Health Minister Chris Hipkins said that leaves New Zealand unprepared to track and trace if there is a new community outbreak of Covid-19.

“If that was to happen tomorrow, based on the number of poster scans we’re seeing, not enough New Zealanders would be able to remember their movements for us to efficiently trace who has been exposed to the virus and isolate them to stamp out its spread,” he said.

The Ministry says the main new feature of this month’s update is the ability to manually add entries to a person’s ‘digital diary’. This will allow app users to record visits to locations that don’t have a QR code, such as homes of friends and family.

The update will also improve the app’s compatibility, particularly with Android 6 and iOS 11. 

“We want as many people as possible to be able to use the app and are very aware that many people with older devices are likely to be from our most vulnerable communities,” the Ministry says.

The locations entered into the digital diary will continue to be stored securely on each person’s phone unless they choose to share their diary with the Ministry.

These app’s privacy settings mean that when a person with Covid-19 escaped isolation and went to a local supermarket, officials could not use it to see how many people had scanned into the supermarket at the same time and the Ministry chose not to send any alerts to people who were present.

Dave Parry, a professor at Auckland University of Technology’s Computer Science Department, says the fact it was not used in this case points to the wider problem with app, which is that, “it really doesn’t do anything that’s of benefit to the user”.

“The problem with many health system apps is they are designed based on what data the health system would like, rather than considering how people might be motivated to use something,” he says.

He argues that having a record of anonymised data going to a central system would have been helpful in the supermarket case and would be acceptable, as long as users were asked for consent. This would also show the public that using the app is helpful to the pandemic response.

Parry says an alternative idea for contact tracing, called a CovidCard, would be much more effective as they would not require users to do anything, except carry it with them. It also removes the tricky issue of ensuring an app is compatible with the huge range of smartphones in use.

The proposal, which Hipkins says is still being considered by Government, is for a low cost credit-card sized item which would log interactions with other cards nearby using Bluetooth technology.

The idea is backed by TradeMe founder Sam Morgan and was endorsed in a recent think piece written by Peter Gluckman, Helen Clark and Rob Fyfe on re-engaging New Zealand with the world.

However, doubts have been raised about whether such a device is technologically feasible at a sufficiently low cost and whether Kiwis would voluntarily allow their movements to be constantly tracked in this way.

If you would like to provide feedback on this news story, please contact the editor Rebecca McBeth.

Read related news:
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Bluetooth functionality to be added to contact tracing app

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