COVID-19 Smart Apps Face Technical Problems and Slow Rollout

By Bruce Harpham Thursday, October 8, 2020

COVID-19 is the first pandemic of the smartphone device age. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 32 million cases worldwide, with nearly 7 million cases in the United States. Mobile apps are starting to play an important role, yet some of these anti-pandemic apps are more successful than others.

"COVID-19 Contact Tracker" on a smartphone.

Why Do COVID-19 Apps Matter?

Since COVID-19 quickly passes between people, a single person can infect many others. For instance, a single “super spreader” event in South Korea appears to have infected at least fifty other people. When public health authorities detect the spread of infection and direct people to stay home, there is a greater chance of reducing the spread.

Without mobile apps to detect possible infections, public health officials will have to rely on manual methods like interviewing and calling people. Since these traditional methods are relatively slow and labor-intensive, there has been a global push to develop mobile apps.

Anti-COVID-19 Apps in the United States

With approximately 21% of global COVID-19 cases, the United States is a crucial battleground in fighting the pandemic. As of July 2020, adoption rates for the contact tracing apps have been relatively slow.

As of August, approximately twenty US states have contact tracing apps in development or deployment. The following digital COVID-19 technologies are offered by some of the largest US states:

  • California (Population: 39 million). As of September 2020, state authorities are considering an app, but it has not been launched. Critics have raised privacy concerns.
  • Texas (Population: 29 million). The state government offers Texas Health Trace, a web app, for contact tracing. While it is not offered as a traditional mobile app, it does have significant features to increase accessibility, such as providing access in Spanish and American Sign Language (ASL). The digital service has also recently implemented multi-factor authentication. There is limited information about the adoption of the app.
  • Florida (Population: 21 million). In May 2020, the state of Florida launched StrongerThanC19, a free contact tracing app. Despite the app being available for several months, thousands of new COVID-19 cases continue to be reported daily throughout September.
  • New York (Population: 19 million). As one of the hardest-hit states in the US, many are watching New York’s response to the pandemic. In September 2020, the state launched a contact tracing app aimed at the State University of New York (SUNY) system, which has more than 400,000 students. Since the app is relatively new, it is unclear how effective it will be.

UK Announces Second Attempt at a COVID-19 App

The UK’s first effort at launching a COVID-19 app did not work well. Unfortunately, the UK’s first mobile app had a significant drawback — it would not work on iPhones. This technical limitation is crippling because industry estimates suggest that Apple has a 50% market share in the UK.

As a result, a new app is being designed for England and Wales. The planned roll-out of the app also recognizes the need for non-smartphone app users. According to the BBC: “An alternative system, such as a handwritten register, must also be maintained for visitors who do not have smartphones.” That alternative system is essential because approximately 5% of the population does not have a mobile phone, according to Ofcom.

Canada: Gradual Rollout of Contact Tracing

Similar to the United States, Canada has a somewhat decentralized healthcare system. The national app has some limitations. App users can only report a COVID-19 diagnosis in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Labrador, Ontario, and Saskatchewan. Due to privacy safeguards, the app does not collect personal information, such as the user’s location. While these privacy safeguards may increase comfort using the app, the lack of specific data (e.g., location data and contact information) may reduce the app’s usefulness for public health authorities.

What We Can Learn From Iceland

While Iceland is one of the world’s smallest countries with 350,000 people, it has been a leader in COVID-19 contact tracing app adoption. From a technical standpoint, Iceland has the advantage of high smartphone adoption, with 68% of the population using smartphones. Further, the country launched its contact tracing app, Rakning, in April 2020. By May, nearly 40% of the population had downloaded the app. Unfortunately, it has had a limited impact on fighting the pandemic. Gestur Pálmason, a detective inspector with the Icelandic Police Service who is overseeing contact tracing efforts, said, “The technology is more or less…I wouldn’t say useless...But it’s the integration of the two that gives you results. I would say [Rakning] has proven useful in a few cases, but it wasn’t a game-changer for us.”

The Icelandic experience tells us that contact tracing apps are perhaps best seen as one strategy among others rather than a silver bullet.

Other Ways Mobile Apps Are Solving the Pandemic

Contact tracing apps help to detect the spread of the pandemic. What about prevention? Many mobile apps provide entertainment, exercise, education, and other activities. If such apps encourage people to stay home, they may play a supporting role in halting the spread of the pandemic.


About the Author

Headshot of Bruce Harpham

Bruce Harpham is an author and marketing consultant based in Canada. His first book "Project Managers At Work" shared real-world success lessons from NASA, Google, and other organizations. His articles have been published in CIO.com, InfoWorld, Canadian Business, and other organizations. Visit BruceHarpham.com for articles, interviews with tech leaders, and updates on future books.

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