Analysis: The release of the Government’s contact tracing app was delayed by a month, leading to concerns the long wait hampered its uptake, Marc Daalder reports

The Government’s official contact tracing app was released a month after it was originally due.

Since its May 19 debut, the NZ COVID Tracer app has been downloaded and registered just over 580,000 times and 75,000 unique QR codes have been printed out for business premises.

However, that number could have been far higher if the app had been rolled out with better communications and prior to a variety of private sector competitors, Andrew Chen, a research fellow at the University of Auckland’s Koi Tū – Centre for Informed Futures told Newsroom.

“At a high level, if there was more coordination and leadership on this system, then we might have more compliance and have built up more of a habit of using these sorts of systems,” he said.

Documents about New Zealand’s response to Covid-19, proactively released by the Government on Friday, show the app was originally scheduled for an April 20 launch. The initial release would have just allowed users to submit their contact information to the Government, but a May 1 update would “allow the user to record their close contacts and locations they have visited”.

The importance of collecting that contact information has been reiterated in recent days, as the Government’s inability to disclose how many people wrongly left managed isolation without a test for Covid-19 can be traced to an IT oversight and out-of-date contact details.

The remainder of the document’s discussion of technological solutions is redacted to protect “the confidentiality of advice tendered by Ministers of the Crown and officials” and to “enable a Minister of the Crown or any department or organisation holding the information to carry out, without prejudice or disadvantage, commercial activities”.

However, the app did not debut on April 20. It wasn’t until May 18 that the Prime Minister hinted at a forthcoming “digital diary” app, which ended up on the app store late the next evening. In the end, the first release of NZ COVID Tracer had both the contact information function and the ability to scan QR codes, recording locations that users visit.

A May 13 Cabinet paper indicates the app was ready for release before the country moved to Level 2. Chen sees this as a missed opportunity.

“It’s a little bit baffling that the app wasn’t ready by the time we got to Level 2,” he said.

Beginning with the move to Level 2 on May 14, a vast number of businesses reopened. Restaurants and cafes could allow groups of under 10 to be seated and served while retail shops opened up for face-to-face sales.

However, most of these establishments were required to engage in some form of contact tracing, either with a digital solution or pen-and-paper. In the absence of an official app, a bevy of private sector solutions sprung up.

By the time the Government’s app was released the next week, each business already had a QR code or two. Adding yet another led to confusion and made the app more difficult to use for those who aren’t tech-savvy, Chen said.

“That fragmentation has many potential impacts, from ability for contact tracers to use that data through to developers spending a lot of time on what is essentially duplicate apps. But I think most important was that it had a negative impact on usability. When you have a negative impact on usability plus a voluntary system, inevitably it leads to lower uptake,” he said.

“It’s noted in one of the documents that there are private solutions already being developed or already out in the marketplace. I didn’t see any justification in these documents or any decision that had been made to say this is a good thing or a bad thing. Should we have one centralised system or should we allow there to be multiple systems floating out in the market? I don’t see that anywhere, unless it’s in one of the redacted bits.”

In addition to poor timing, the communications around the app were unclear. While Jacinda Ardern has fronted most of the big Covid-19-related announcements, she was nowhere to be seen on the day the app debuted, leaving the lower-profile Ashley Bloomfield to talk about about the functions and intent of the app.

Beyond Bloomfield’s initial announcement, there was little in the way of the protracted marketing campaigns that have accompanied other major decisions, such as the alert level changes. Chen says this indicates the Government was no longer prioritising the app.

“My feeling is that the Government decided to deprioritise this. It wasn’t a priority in the scheme of public health tools.”

The app was also developed without any public consultation. Despite the ideas for the app being in place by April 20, no details were provided until the Prime Minister’s vague description of a “digital diary” on May 18. This left little space for the Government to set expectations around how the app could be used by individuals and businesses and how it would fit into the country’s health response.

“I take [Privacy Commissioner] John Edwards’ point that you can’t design these kinds of systems in the public by committee. At the same time, I think we heard too little about what was happening and what the plans were,” Chen said.

Between the delay in launching app, the lack of clear communications and the decision to, two and a half weeks after in debuted, totally abolish any requirement for businesses to contact trace, the Government has essentially hamstrung its own response.

Uptake of the app has stagnated. It took 17 days for the app to reach 500,000 downloads and registrations, covering about one in ten New Zealanders. Over the next 20 days, just 80,000 more have downloaded the app. The average user has scanned just two QR codes since May 19, when most people have been to far more than two locations in that period.

Chen says this entire saga shouldn’t be a surprise – it’s a symptom of an “endemic” lack of understanding of tech in government.

“It’s important to understand that this isn’t something that’s limited to public health. In most place, government use of IT and tech is not good. I don’t want to say this is specifically the Ministry of Health’s fault. The way out of this is the Government needs to develop a capacity to understand how to use tech and then a capacity to use tech,” he said.

“When you haven’t done the prep work and then the shock happens, then you’re not going to respond well.”

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

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