In the year On August 9, 2022, the Australian CovidSafe app was officially discontinued, and all features were removed. People are encouraged to uninstall the app. Reports of the shutdown made international news.
In ending COVIDSafe, Health Minister Mark Butler said the “Albanian government has taken steps to cancel the wasteful and ineffective COVIDSafe app,” accusing the previous government of “wasting more than $21 million in taxpayer money with this failed app.”
Was COVIDSafe a magic bullet like the previous government or a total failure, as the current government would have us believe?
The writing was on the wall
The app was launched in April 2020, designed to help contract seekers find positive Covid cases manually.
Go back to the early months of the pandemic, and Australians were encouraged to download the app by then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who likened it to putting on sunscreen when going out and “the ticket to unlocking our economy”.
For some, it was clear that in 2020 the app would not live up to expectations. It also disappeared from the vocabulary of politicians, and calls for its repeal by 2021 were mounting.
All in all, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the app was discontinued this week — it also had a strict sunset clause in place when it was first launched.
But there is a silver lining – can we learn anything from the COVIDSafe trial? Here’s our scorecard.
Some pass, some fail.
Bypass: Manual contact search
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, most public health systems relied on manual contact tracing, a tool that many initially thought would be ineffective for large-scale surveillance and control of the rapidly spreading disease.
One of the goals of Covidsafe was to automate the manual process, to help the efforts of contact tracing. This goal has been achieved, although the value and effectiveness are questionable, we will discuss below.
Passing: Mass adoption
Few systems require rapid and widespread adoption as much as COVIDSafe has. The app has reached 40% of its expected initial rating. There have been over 7.7 million downloads, with 3 million Australians downloading the app by the end of April 2020.
Getting more Australians to download new and competitive technology is an unparalleled achievement. While the number of downloads doesn’t tell us how many people were actively using the app, it does indicate some degree of success in getting people to at least download and engage with it.
Making the app accessible to people with different technological abilities was a big challenge. Despite the questionable effectiveness, technical and registration issues, COVIDSafe strikes a balance between aesthetics and relative ease of use.
Failure: Improve the efficiency and accuracy of contact tracing
The COVIDSafe app helped identify only two positive cases that were not recorded by manual contact tracing. This may be due in part to the success of Australia’s suppression strategy – the low numbers in 2020 mean the application has not been fully tested “in the wild”.
In the year As of November 2021, only 792 Covid-positive Covidsafe users have agreed to upload their data to the national database. Australian states have introduced QR code scanning in public places (such as transport, shops, sports venues, cafes, hotels and restaurants) that overlap with the app’s role.
An independent review suggests that COVIDSafe is “an additional measure that increases workload [for contact tracing staff] without providing any additional value.”
Failure: easing restrictions, opening up the economy and returning to ‘normal’
The Morrison government has framed COVIDSafe as a key part of its plan to lift restrictions on the public and reopen the economy. As most of Australia continues to face severe restrictions and remains in lockdown until the end of 2021, COVIDSafe is unable to deliver this.
Failure: Suppressing Covid-19 and its spread
Another popular goal of COVIDSafe was to control the spread of the disease. Despite early optimism around such applications, this goal has not been achieved.
It was unrealistic to expect a contact tracing app to stop the spread of the virus as its epidemiology evolved over time.
Lessons for the future
Adjusting systems is a process. Understanding the failures and successes of COVIDSafe is a valuable starting point for advancing the conversation about what “digital contact tracing 2.0” should look like.
The ideology of techno-optimism – the idea that there is a technological solution to every complex problem – was the starting point for developing COVIDSafe in the first place. Officials used metaphors such as “digital vaccine”, “sunscreen” and “road to recovery”, suggesting that the app would protect individuals from disease and return life to “normal”.
In developing health apps, the government should use a “digital” rather than a “digital first” approach. Health apps, especially new and rapidly deployed ones, should not be confused with medical solutions. Otherwise, we lose unrealistic expectations and public trust.
As Covid Safe has shown, digitizing the manual contact tracing process does not make it more efficient. In the year In a July 2021 report to Parliament, then-Health Minister Greg Hunt admitted that “the use of existing and well-established tracing procedures limited public health authorities’ willingness to rely on COVIDSafe”.
As we define the scope and purpose of the application, we seek a better understanding of each person’s requirements and existing manual processes.
Manage data volume
As CovidSafe was developed and launched, much attention was paid to privacy issues, Bluetooth connectivity, accessibility and mass adoption.
But less attention seems to have been paid to the needs of public health workers. The application quickly complicated the work of contact seekers who were overwhelmed by the amount of information. Public health workers must be provided with effective tools to manage incoming data; In this case, it would help to know which experiences should be tested in order to test close contacts.
Protection of privacy
Privacy issues were central to the development of CovidSafe, implementing various measures around the actual app, the law and its use.
Future applications should be developed to allow people to control the collection and sharing of their mobility data, so users can choose 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 applications with varying degrees of success, while the United Kingdom, Italy, Latvia, and others have implemented vulnerability notification systems developed by Apple and Google.
COVIDSafe reflects the urgency of early 2020 and the strong support for such technology from epidemiologists and other medical professionals.
It was like taking out an insurance policy that we didn’t really want: the initial public acceptance was not matched by positive case numbers. It is unclear whether a similar application in 2022 will lead to a different result.
In general, it is difficult to expect a financial return on such an emergency investment. The app has given some people hope and comfort in the dark times of 2020, arguing that a Social return on investment.
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