A new app unveiled today by the Government to dispense information about Covid-19 can be scaled up to help with pandemic tracking and diagnosing the illness. Photo: Screenshot of NZ Government WhatsApp channel

A new app unveiled by the Government to dispense information about Covid-19 can be scaled up to help with pandemic tracking and diagnosing the illness, Marc Daalder reports

A Government WhatsApp channel will help carry information pertinent to the Covid-19 pandemic to the nation’s smartphones – but that’s just the start, according to Bain Hollister.

Hollister is the co-founder and CTO of ClearPoint, a digital engineering company that helped set up the new app for the Government. In a pitch document released to Newsroom, the app is framed as “a critical tool to fight the virus, to track it down, and to eliminate it much earlier than is possible without such a tool”.

The programme was pitched as a Sam Morgan-led project titled New Zealand Emergency Line (NZEL) with plans to scale the app into something capable of “direct communication down to each individual user. Each citizen can assess their health status and we will map all symptomatic (and non-symptomatic) people down to a postcode level or better. NZEL will allow us to monitor the virus spread and better position resources closer to symptomatic populations.”

The official app is titled simply Govt.nz and Hollister emphasised that the Government had so far only approved the extant version, not the rest of the plan as outlined in the pitch document.

“Giving people in all parts of society as best as we can, information about the pandemic, the basics of hygiene, how to keep themselves safe, how to keep their families safe, it’s absolutely going to save lives – that’s the ultimate goal,” Hollister said.

Five phases

Hollister said it was clear that there was an opportunity to “to get information into the hands of people – literally in their hands, their phones – and establish a WhatsApp channel. Initially pushing out static information to inform people, but also we also have got the potential to offer a bit more functionality there, such as the ability for people to message back or check in.”

There are five phases to the app as pitched and its current incarnation is just the first – although the only one approved by Government thus far.

Phase two would involve the reassignment of some Healthline staff to provide real-time chat services through the app because “WhatsApp is a preferred interface for many citizens”. Phase three would use the channel as a self-diagnosis tool, asking a set of questions to users who say they are unwell and giving them a basic diagnosis and further instructions.

After that, things get a little more involved. Phase four would involve sending every user a daily message asking how they are feeling. If they’re unwell, it will refer them to the self-diagnosis tool and data can be collated. This data could then be used in phase five: pandemic tracking and mapping.

“The capture and geospatial visualisation of this data will allow us to see the virus move and change in almost real time,” the pitch document states.

However, Hollister says people shouldn’t worry about their privacy or the security of the app. “All parties involved with Govt.nz have security and privacy at the front of their minds.  We obviously deliver this service in a highly secure environment in lock step with the government controls on information security,” he told Newsroom by email.

A Herculean effort

The app is based on similar technology deployed overseas. In South Africa, an app built on the same basis has acquired 2.25 million users over nine days. An official World Health Organisation WhatsApp channel for Covid-19 has over 10 million users and is now the largest app on the platform worldwide.

Hollister isn’t only focused on New Zealand, however – he hopes to roll out similar applications in developing countries around the world, with a particular interest in the Pacific Islands.

“I got pulled out of bed on Saturday the 21st by Sam Morgan, who is, through his philanthropic work, well-connected into technology companies that serve the unmet needs of the world’s poorer people,” Hollister said.

“What that means is he is connected with a company out of South Africa called Turn.Io who had put a similar solution together and launched it for the World Health Organisation. He had been in touch with them and it became pretty clear as the pandemic started to move to New Zealand and Australia and we were entering lockdown that it was also applicable not just in New Zealand and Australia but for the Pacific.”

This involves making the New Zealand-specific app available in a wide range of languages, including Māori, Samoan, Tongan, Mandarin, Hindi, Cook Island Māori and Fijian. It also involves reaching out to Pacific Island nations to customise a version of the app for them.

Hollister and the rest of ClearPoint have been working nonstop for the past 11 days in an effort to push out phase one for New Zealand. Facebook has waived the costs of using WhatsApp’s business API for the development of government tools to fight Covid-19 and the Govt.nz project takes advantage of this subsidy. Now, the app is the New Zealand Government’s official WhatsApp platform for the pandemic.

“We know people are craving access to timely, accurate information and this is another way we can provide that by harnessing technology as part of the fight,” Jacinda Ardern said in a statement on phase one of the app.

“I want to acknowledge the role the private sector has played in this development, particularly Rob Fyfe and Sam Morgan, and I thank them and the people who have worked with them at no cost on this. Now, more than ever, is a time for public and private sectors to work together as we unite to help keep New Zealanders safe and to protect their businesses and jobs.”

Although the Government didn’t mention the ability of the app to scale up in its official statement, Hollister was equally ecstatic about the speed at which agencies, including the Department of Internal Affairs, moved. “Government staff from the DIA including [chief executive] Paul James and Chris East have been just fantastic,” he said. “We started Sunday night and launched Thursday – this Government can move fast.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

Leave a comment