Where did things go wrong with Canada’s COVID Alert app?

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In the summer of 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced the new COVID Alert notification app as an advanced technological tool to help track and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Nearly two years later, adoption has plateaued and questions remain as to whether the estimated $21 million spent to develop and promote the app was worth it.

“I don’t think the COVID Alert app has made a big difference in our fight against COVID,” Peter Loewen, director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, told CBC. Cost of life.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean it was a waste of money. We didn’t even spend enough money to really try.”

Peter Loewen is director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. He says at least 60% of Canadians, if not more, needed to download the COVID Alert app for it to be truly useful. (Alexis Mcdonald)

The COVID Alert app was launched in July 2020 for Apple and Android devices. The app uses Bluetooth signals to exchange random codes with nearby phones that also have the app installed.

Users are alerted if they have spent at least 15 minutes near another user who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Health Canada said Cost of life that the app has sent over 371,875 alert notifications as of January 31.

Jason Millar of the University of Ottawa says it’s “impossible” to know if Canada’s COVID Alert app has made a significant difference in helping detect positive cases or saving lives. (Submitted by Jason Millar)

But it doesn’t track users’ names, addresses, or location data, and doesn’t collect any data about whether a user is tracking at a testing center.

Without this key information, “it’s simply impossible to say that the app did anything significant,” said Jason Millar, Canada Research Chair in Ethical Engineering of Robotics and Technology. artificial intelligence at the University of Ottawa.

“You should be extremely skeptical of anyone claiming to be able to measure the success of the app in preventing cases or saving lives…There is no data that I have seen to support the claim according to which she did anything like that.”

According to Health Canada, the app “has been designed to provide [a] high level of privacy protection” and should not be considered a substitute or supplement to more detailed contact tracing.

Many more downloads needed: Experts

Health Canada said Cost of life that the application has been downloaded approximately 6.86 million times. If each download translates to a unique user, that’s about 18% of the country’s 38 million people.

Every province and territory had to sign up for the program for people to use the app. It has not been adopted by Alberta, British Columbia, Nunavut or the Yukon.

Loewen says the app would need to be downloaded by at least 60%—and preferably even 70 or 80%—of Canadians to be truly useful. But he says it’s incredibly rare for a single app to get this kind of widespread use.

“We may have designed a technology that needed such a high adoption rate that it just couldn’t be imagined that it would be adopted by so many Canadians,” he said.

Emily Seto is a research scientist at the Center for Global eHealth Innovation at the University Health Network in Toronto. She notes that not everyone who wants to use Canada’s COVID Alert app has a compatible smartphone to install it on. (Submitted by Emily Seto)

Emily Seto, a researcher at the Center for Global eHealth Innovation at the University Health Network in Toronto, noted that anyone without a compatible smartphone cannot download the app even if they want to.

This relatively low usage has been criticized over the past year and a half. Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie said last December that the federal government had “abandoned” the app, but he later returned to these remarks.

Health Canada said that while it continues to support the app, no major new features or updates are planned. It hasn’t received an update since August 9, according to Google’s Play Store. It received its last maintenance update on iOS five months ago.

Privacy versus function

Sheena Shand installed the app on her phone shortly after its introduction and received her first and only exposure alert a few weeks later.

But with no information on when and where she was exposed, it left her with more questions than answers.

Shand and her husband were in a cottage in a remote community in Quebec with little contact with other people, other than a grocery store near Val-des-Monts.

Sheena Shand, left, and her husband, Craig Irving. In the fall of 2020, Shand was notified by the Canadian COVID Alert app that she had been exposed to COVID-19. But without further information about the exhibit, she says she felt left in the dark. (Submitted by Sheena Shand)

“It was the only time I would have been with people,” she said Cost of life. And although she received an app alert, her husband – who also had the app on his phone – did not.

While Shand understands users’ need for privacy, she said she would be willing to give information to get a better idea of ​​when and where she might have been exposed.

“It actually made things a little more stressful that week than less stressful, which I think is what we were hoping for when we downloaded the app,” she said.

“I think we were kind of wise, crazy”

Loewen said the app could have been much more useful — and more attractive to download — if it used some of the data that other apps on many people’s smartphones already routinely collect.

“We didn’t have dinner parties in our family [home] at this moment. But if we had done it and I had been exposed, I wouldn’t have known if it had happened at that party or during a chance encounter on a streetcar or in a grocery store,” he said. -he declares.

Loewen pointed to Israel’s COVID-19 app, called Green Pass, which he used during a visit there last fall. Three hours after taking a COVID test upon arriving in the country, his negative result was uploaded to the app, allowing him to use it as a pass for restaurants, hotels and other public places.

This is a more integrated approach than that taken by the Canadian app, which does not connect to provincial evidence of vaccination documents such as QR codes.

People might have found the app more appealing if it offered more features, Seto added.

“You would probably download it more willingly if, for example, you could reserve [vaccine or testing] go through it. Or… maybe you could show your vaccination QR code,” she said.

Podium signs promoting the COVID Alert app are displayed on the day of its launch, July 31, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Loewen offered a more aggressive approach: He says the feds should have paid people to download it.

“That may seem like a lot of money, but when you think about the fact that we’re spending $2,000 a month paying people not to come to work, paying another $50 or $60 for people to try an app…I think it would have been worth it,” he said, referring to the federal government’s Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program.

“I think we were sort of a wise penny, a madman,” Loewen said.

Health Canada said Cost of life that $15.1 million of the app’s total $21 million budget was spent on marketing and advertising “to raise awareness and help increase Canadians’ use of the COVID Alert app.”


Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Andrew Nguyen.


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