Queensland, August 14 (The Conversation) On August 9, 2022, Australia’s COVIDSafe app was officially decommissioned and all of its features removed. People were encouraged to uninstall the app. News of its closure made international news.
In ceasing COVIDSafe, Health Minister Mark Butler said “the Albanian government acted to remove the useless and ineffective COVIDSafe app” and accused the former government of wasting “more than $21 million of money taxpayers on this faulty application”.
Was COVIDSafe a silver bullet, like the previous government, or a complete failure, as the current government wants us to believe? The writing was on the wall Designed to help manual contract tracers find positive COVID cases, the app launched in April 2020.
Flash back to the early months of the pandemic, and Australians were encouraged by then Prime Minister Scott Morrison to download the app, which he compared to putting on sunscreen when going to the outside and a ‘ticket to open our economy’.
For some, it was already clear that in 2020 the app was not going to live up to expectations. It has also disappeared from the vocabulary of politicians and calls for its removal have multiplied in 2021.
Overall, the app’s decommissioning this week should come as no surprise – there was also a strict sunset clause put in place in law during its initial development.
But is there a silver lining – can we learn anything from the COVIDSafe experience? Here is our dashboard.
Some Successes, Other Failures SUCCESS: Automating Manual Contact Tracing At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, most public health systems relied on manual contact tracing, a tool many initially thought would be ineffective in managing and controlling a rapidly spreading disease on a large scale.
One of the goals of COVIDSafe was to automate manual work, to aid large-scale contact tracer efforts. This goal has been achieved, although the value and effectiveness are questionable, as discussed below.
PASS: Mass Adoption Few systems have needed rapid, widespread adoption to the extent that COVIDSafe has. The application has reached the initially planned target threshold of 40%. There have been over 7.7 million downloads, with 3 million Australians downloading the app at the end of April 2020.
Getting so many Australians to download new and contested technology is an unprecedented achievement. While the number of downloads doesn’t tell us how many people were actively using the app, it does show some success in getting people to at least download and engage with it.
A significant challenge was also making the app accessible to a wide range of people with different levels of technological aptitude. Despite its questionable effectiveness, technical and registration issues, COVIDSafe has struck a balance between aesthetics and ease of use.
FAILURE: Improving the efficiency and accuracy of contact tracing The COVIDSafe app only identified two positive cases not flagged by manual contact tracing. This can partly be attributed to the success of Australia’s suppression strategy – the low number of cases in 2020 meant the app had not been fully tested “in the wild”.
As of November 2021, only 792 COVID-positive COVIDSafe users had consented to upload their data to the national database. Australian states have also introduced QR code scanning in public places (such as transport, shops, sports venues, cafes, hotels and restaurants) which overlapped with the role of the app.
Independent assessment suggests COVIDSafe was “an extra step that increased workload [for contact tracing staff] without adding any added value.
FAILURE: Easing Restrictions, Opening the Economy and Returning to ‘Normal’ The Morrison government has touted COVIDSafe as part of its plan to remove restrictions on society and open up the economy. COVIDSafe failed to achieve this as much of Australia continued to face tight restrictions and remained in lockdown until the end of 2021.
FAILURE: To suppress COVID-19 and its spread Another widely popularized goal of COVIDSafe was to control the spread of the disease. Despite the initial optimism around these applications, this goal has not been achieved.
It was unrealistic to expect a contact tracing app to suppress the spread of a virus whose epidemiological characteristics change over time.
Lessons for the future Developing good systems is a process. Understanding the failures and successes of COVIDSafe is a useful starting point to advance the conversation about what “digital contact tracing 2.0” should look like.
Avoiding Techno-Optimism An ideology of techno-optimism – the idea that there is a technological solution for every complex problem – was behind the development of COVIDSafe in the first place. Officials used metaphors such as “digital vaccine”, “sunscreen” and “path to recovery”, suggesting the app would protect individuals from infection and bring life back to “normal”.
In the development of health applications, the government should use “digital too” instead of a “digital first” approach. Health apps, especially those that are new and rapidly rolling out, should not be confused with medical solutions. Otherwise, we risk having unrealistic expectations and losing public trust.
Understanding COVIDSafe needs has shown that digitizing a manual contact tracing process does not necessarily make it more efficient. In a July 2021 report to Parliament, then-Health Minister Greg Hunt admitted that “the use of existing and well-established tracing processes has limited the need for public health officials to press COVIDSafe”.
When defining the scope and purpose of an application, we need to better understand everyone’s needs and existing manual processes.
Managing data volume During the development and launch of COVIDSafe, great attention was paid to privacy issues, Bluetooth connectivity, accessibility and mass acceptance.
But it seems that less attention has been paid to the needs of public health personnel. The application complicated the work of contact tracers who were quickly overwhelmed by the volume of data. Public health staff should have effective tools to manage incoming data; in this case, it would have helped determine which encounters should be checked for potential close contacts.
Preserving privacy Privacy considerations have been central to the development of COVIDSafe, with a series of measures applied across the app itself, its legislation and its use.
Future apps should be developed to give people control over the collection and sharing of their mobility data, so that users can select the appropriate options based on their personal privacy preferences.
So, was COVIDSafe worth the investment? Australia wasn’t the only country to develop a contact tracing app. Several German-speaking countries, France, India and Singapore have developed similar apps with varying success, while the UK, Italy, Latvia and others have told us about the exposure notification system developed by Apple and Google.
COVIDSafe reflects the urgency of early 2020 and the strong support for this technology from epidemiologists and other healthcare professionals.
It was also a bit like taking out an insurance policy that we didn’t really need: the initial public acceptance did not correspond to a low number of positive cases. It’s unclear whether a similar app rolled out in 2022 would have led to a different outcome.
All in all, it is difficult to expect a financial return on such an emergency investment. The app has given some people hope and comfort during the dark times of 2020, arguably providing a social payback. (The conversation) AMS AMS