As the country prepares to reopen, the lack of any Government support for the contact tracing that hospitality and retail are legally obligated to conduct has led to an influx of private sector proposals. Screenshot: Duckin

As the country prepares to reopen on Thursday, the lack of any government support for the contact tracing that hospitality and retail are legally obligated to conduct has led to an influx of private sector proposals, Marc Daalder reports

Could QR codes save the hospitality industry?

In the absence of any government contact tracing app or a forecast for when one will arrive, hospitality and retail have coalesced around a fragmented bunch of private sector tech solutions, most of which rely on QR codes.

According to the rules of Level 2, businesses that require face-to-face interaction must keep a register of all such interactions. If a patron ends up testing positive for Covid-19, the Government’s contact tracing teams will be able to use those registers to notify close contacts who may need to self-isolate.

During the brief period New Zealand was in Level 2 in late March, most businesses used a pen-and-paper sign-in sheet to log contacts. However, this raises a number of issues, from the basic hygiene of everyone sharing a pen to more pragmatic concerns like illegible handwriting or the fact that people could write down false information.

QR to the rescue?

Over the previous six weeks, businesses have gone from eagerly awaiting the Government’s digital solution for contact tracing to a frenzied rush for private sector tech solutions, as it has become increasingly apparent that the Government is not keen to roll out a contact tracing app with any urgency

While many contact tracing apps implemented overseas rely on geolocation data to track individual movements or Bluetooth pinging to determine when users come in contact with one another, neither of these suit the needs of businesses to log only the patrons that enter their premises, not passersby on the street.

QR codes have now emerged as the leading contender among a wide variety of private sector digital solutions for contact tracing. By pasting a sticker or poster with a QR code – really just a bar code that contains a bit more information – to their door, business owners can rely on apps or other software to do the hard work for them.

“I feel that there is a little bit of misconception that QR code is a fancy technology when it’s effectively just a bar code. I treat QR codes as being in the same category as texting in as a check-in mechanism or using a web form or signing a piece of paper with a pen,” Andrew Chen, a Research Fellow at the University of Auckland’s Koi Tū – the Centre for Informed Futures told Newsroom.

“The reason I group them together is that they have the same pros and cons at a high level. The main difference between them is usability.”

These solutions are all location-based, meaning they register an individual’s contact in relation to a certain location. Proximity-based solutions, such as a Bluetooth app, directly register contacts with other people. Location-based solutions therefore add an extra step: First identify the location, then identify potential contacts who were also at that location.

“The advantage of having the QR code system seems to be that it’ll be compatible with more devices, it’ll be easy to use. The downside is that it’s coarse granularity, so you’re not getting as detailed information about where people have been [as using geolocation data]. And you’re still having to then work backwards to determine who the contacts are, if you’re using location as the key piece of information,” Chen said.

Rippl to be adopted by WCC

One such solution is Rippl, developed by Wellington software company PaperKite and PosBoss, a company that helps businesses operate cloud-based point of sale systems.

Rippl, which launched last week, already has the backing of influential customers. Brian Campbell, the owner of the Miann group of high-end Auckland dessert restaurants, is an early sign-up.

“It’s a welcome solution to an industry preparing to welcome back customers in a more restricted world. It’s super easy to use, it meets the Government’s requirements around contact recording and, most importantly, it will keep our staff and customers safe,” he said in a statement.

Newsroom also understands that Wellington City Council has contracted with Rippl to provide three month subscriptions to the service – normally worth $49 – for free to Wellington businesses.

“We are giving you a heads up we will be encouraging Wellingtonians and Wellington organisations to use a single secure, contact tracing app called Rippl, to make it easy as possible for people to record their movements around Wellington Council sites and spaces, as well as funding the app to be used by other customer-facing businesses, community services and visitor attractions across Wellington city,” the city’s general manager of marketing and communications said in an email viewed by Newsroom.

“We will share more detail and links for how to register early next week and plan to launch the app publicly on Wednesday 13 May, but wanted to let you know so you have the confidence a single citywide solution is available.”

After Newsroom reached out to Rippl about the contract, WCC made the announcement earlier than expected on Monday afternoon.

Although it is an app, which poses potential issues around uptake, Rippl claims to have solved privacy issues by providing a totally anonymous service. Users download the app – without having to provide any personal information – and scan a QR code when they enter a participating business.

Contact logs are stored on the device, meaning no one else is able to see where a user has been. If a patron later tests positive, the Ministry of Health can contact Rippl, which will send an alert to all users’ apps to notify those who were in the business at or around the same time to contact the Ministry of Health contact tracing teams.

“There are a number of solutions emerging. For us, we want to use our digital skills and our understanding of the customer experience to say, how do we have something that’s fast? How do we have something that’s safe? And how do we have something that’s private? Fast, safe and private,” PaperKite managing director Niloy Roy told Newsroom.

“There’s no administration work for the business. It goes direct from the health authorities to the end user. Secondly, all data stays on the user’s phone. Thirdly, Rippl never knows who the user is. It just knows that that user has got certain logs.”

Jonny McKenzie, founder of PosBoss and a member on the Rippl team, said hospitality outlets he had spoken with were keen to get their hands on a digital solution like Rippl.

“The response has been, ‘Great, we weren’t too sure what we should be doing,’” he said.

“Some are still trying to figure out how the pen-and-paper works, some are looking at free QR systems but then you’ve got personal details and privacy. And then others are just waiting for Government to hopefully solve a solution. But there’s limitations on that when you’ve got an opt-in solution coming out where venues are still told that they need to be keeping a log of everyone who comes through.”

Duckin goes app-less

Another potential solution is Duckin, an initiative launched by Wellington tech firm The PAC Group. Duckin is app-less, relying on users to scan a QR code with their phone cameras. Most smartphones are natively equipped to scan and process QR codes without needing to download any additional app.

Duckin QR codes redirect users to a web form asking for name and phone number, as well as optional additional information as required – such as an address, or how long the person expects to spend on the business premises. This data is encrypted and sent to Duckin’s database, but only a Ministry of Health private key is able to decrypt it.

The only information available to Duckin or the business is the time people entered and left and a first name. If a patron later tests positive for Covid-19, the Ministry of Health can reach out to Duckin to get the contact details of people who were at the business around the same time.

Aaron Waddington, one of the creators of Duckin, told Newsroom he sees six requirements for any system: Secure data, meeting the reporting requirements that contact tracers need, free for all to use, easily-audited, web-based with no app installation required and easy to use.

“There’s a lot of contact tracing solutions out there, we’ve seen them in the last week. But for those six requirements, very few of them meet these,” he said.

“The biggest concern I see is the data security issue, or the privacy issue. Data security’s a big thing. So we’ve decided to go with a solution that encrypts the data to a public key on your phone and sends the encrypted data to the server. So all we can actually see is the location you were at, a timestamp and your first name. Everything else is encrypted. I don’t want to hold anybody’s personal data.”

The diversity of options provides some benefits, such as allowing each to be evaluated for its respective strengths and weaknesses. But there are also drawbacks with this fragmentation, Chen said. Alongside Rippl and Duckin, he has heard about four or five other proposals as well.

“It’s a real worry that there are these different systems supposed to be used by different parties and if we want to get these integrated in with the Ministry of Health, they’re not going to listen to eight different platforms. That’s hard to integrate into manual contact tracing systems. I think the onus is still going to be on the Government,” he said.

“I think it was a missed opportunity for the Government to release something when we went to Level 3. Maybe they’ll still release something when we go to Level 2 but it would have been nice if there was a government solution that was standardised for everybody so the experiences are the same for everyone, everywhere they go to.

“I think as technology people we get trained into looking for problems in other people’s solutions. For every solution that’s been put up for contact tracing, somebody’s found something that’s wrong with it. There’s no silver bullet. Every solution has some weakness. We can’t say, just because there’s one weakness, we’re going to not use it,” Chen said.

“I think it’s important for people to remember that a lot of the technology squabbles around what is a good solution, what isn’t a good solution, really we’re fighting over 10 percent of the efficacy. And 90 percent of it is achieved regardless of which of these solutions we use. People just need to keep that perspective in mind. It’s probably better that we do something than do nothing.”

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