The Cautionary Tale of Two COVID-19 Apps

Image credit: iStockphoto/ViewApart

It’s no secret that Australia is falling behind in its vaccination rollout, and some of the frustration can be attributed to the quality of digital tools in addition to vaccine supply.

Try booking an appointment for vaccination, and you enter a digital labyrinth. The website for my local clinic is sub-par at the best of times. But finding information about vaccinations and booking an appointment was impossible. 

In the end, I had to resort to old technology and pick up the phone and make an appointment which I recorded in pen in my physical diary.

An app to solve an app’s problem

As an older person, I was comfortable with this, but much of the vaccination program is now focused on younger people who are digital natives. 

The Federal Government has bankrolled the Health Engine website and app for people to make vaccination appointments, but a private upstart of an app has been the real story in this space.

The HotDoc app created by a company in Melbourne, Australia, led by GP turned founder Ben Hurst was one of the top five apps downloaded in Australia last week, up there with Tiktok and Disney+.

HotDoc pitched their app to the Victorian Government and was turned down as the Government had already agreed to buy a solution from Microsoft for just under AUD 6 million.

Undeterred, HotDoc rolled out their app, and the company said that almost 4.5 million people had used it to make bookings.

One of the significant issues in Australia is confusion over which vaccine –— AstraZeneca or Pfizer — is preferred or appropriate for different demographics. A while back, younger people were being steered towards Pfizer, but a shortage has meant they are now also queuing for AstraZeneca.

A feature of the HotDoc solution is a filter based on vaccines and consent information which can be filled out before people arrive at the clinic.

Built from the ground up, the solution also enables the booking of follow-up appointments and sending messages about any adverse side effects.

In short, HotDoc is a great example of a digital tool that was in the right place at the right time. It’s simple and easy to use and has become the preferred way for young people to book in for vaccinations, even though it’s a private venture to fix a public problem and is not officially sanctioned by the Government.

For HotDoc’s founders, the app’s success is a validation of the pivot they made away from their original business idea, a kiosk service to medical and dental practices. They have made booking vaccines through the app free, so they aren’t recouping much on their investment. But let’s hope that’s an investment in the company's future that can pay off long term.

Sometimes, simplicity is all that matters

The success of the almost left-field HotDoc is a direct contrast to the Australian Department of Health’s COVIDSafe app, designed as a tool to identify people exposed to the virus.

Since it was launched in April 2020, the app has managed to identify only 17 close contacts who were not picked up by other means.

The app uses Bluetooth to register someone who spends more than 15 minutes within 1.5 meters of someone else who also has the app and so is dependent on mass downloading.

The reality is that for all the investment, Australians seem to have given up on COVIDSafe, a reverse situation of the U.K. where a similar app is identifying more than half a million contacts each week. 

In July, a report to Parliament showed that only 735 infected Australians had uploaded their data in the six months to November 2020, and in the six months to May, the number dropped to 44. 

The key difference could be that the apps rolled out in the U.K. and Europe were developed alongside Google and Apple technology while the Australian one was not. It might be worth noting that both England and Germany abandoned the idea of going it alone with their apps and decided to collaborate with the big tech firms.

Lack of trust is another issue

Meanwhile, state-based QR codes are doing much of the work that the COVIDSafe app was designed to do but isn’t doing because no one wants to download it.

In New South Wales, where I live, checking in using the Service NSW app whenever I go anywhere is as natural as putting on a pair of shoes, as it is for all my fellow citizens.

The app remembers me each time and takes only seconds to use. This is in contrast to other homemade apps, which require you to fill out a whole raft of personal information before you can go anywhere. 

When you only visit a place once or twice and have to fill out all the fields every time you go, it is dreadful UX and becomes a disincentive to enter a location.

But while the state-based systems have the scale and — in NSW at least — are seamless to use, there have been privacy issues.

For example, in Western Australia and Queensland, police have publicly admitted to accessing data from these apps for use in criminal investigations.

Given that the whole COVID-19 experience prompts calls of a “Big Brother” surveillance society from a noisy section of the population, this is not a good move. 

If the authorities want transparency for the good of public health, they also need to create trust, which has been in deficit.

The pandemic has made new rules, but the relative success and failure of these digital tools have highlighted the failure of Australia’s central government. But, hopefully, it also pointed out how we might do it better in the future.

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and DigitalWorkforceTrends, and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborate with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/ViewApart