A 3D Test for evaluating COVID Alert: Canada’s Official Corona-virus App

Great news – Canada has just released its free COVID-19 exposure notification app [1], COVID Alert. We evaluated it against three dimensions: Concept, Implementation, and User Experience. The concept we consider is leading-edge (A+), the implementation was just, adequate (C) and the user experience less than satisfactory (D). This post explains why.

Ontario Digital Service (ODS) and Canadian Digital Service (CDS) built the app based on a reference implementation by Shopify. CDS taking operational responsibility and ownership. Several parties reviewed the security architecture namely Blackberry and Cylance.

Health Canada performed an Application Privacy Assessment[2], which was reviewed by the Office of Privacy Commissioner of Canada[3] and Information Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

HOW COVID ALERT WORKS

  1. Via Bluetooth, the app remembers which phones it has come in close physical proximity to.
  2. When a person contracts COVID-19, she or he can submit code into the app declaring their status.
  3. The app will check daily to see if anyone you’ve been near has tested positive.
  4. If you’ve been near an infected person in the past 2 weeks, you’ll get a notification.

At present, there isn’t enough data to provide a proper assessment of COVID Alert

However, I would like to raise three points about the app’s:

  • concept, here we measured the design focus. We asked, “was problem mitigated or benefit realized through the design?”
  • implementation, here we evaluated the outcome of the product. We ask, “will it achieve the intent?”
  • usability, here we evaluated user experience. We ask the question, “what does the public feel after they read the news release?”

 in anticipation of further study. 

CONCEPT

Canada got it right – a successful COVID-19-related app will deal primarily with the benefit, i.e. notification, rather than tracking. A tracking app needs to track everyone’s routes and interactions all the time; this captures way too much private data. Because of that, it’s a tempting treasure-trove to hackers. This privacy risk will impede adoption.

COVID Alert side-steps these concerns by focusing only on notification. All other countries that have developed an app have built a tracking device to be installed on a cell phone, and included a notification feature. Canada, on the other hand, has built a notification app – and gone a step further by making its use voluntary, which will boost public confidence.

Grade for concept: A+

IMPLEMENTATION

Apps may be built for the public, for healthcare providers, or for business use. Canada has chosen to build an app for the public. For apps created for the business or healthcare sectors, adoption is a given. The main challenge for a public app is: Will the public adopt it? It will need to reach a critical mass of adoptees to be successful. Without that critical mass, the app will provide little to no benefit.

COVID Alert’s server and app are both open source. This is an encouraging decision, as it makes it business-friendly, and improves public trust through expert scrutiny of the code.

The Canadian government had the option of implementing a COVID-19 data network between citizens, businesses, and public health. This app, unfortunately, only covers the individual, with a manual link to public health. How could this have been improved? A data exchange platform would have been a wiser choice, as it would help boost business adoption.

Grade for implementation: C

USER EXPERIENCE

While I’m not an expert, I’d say that the app user experience is marked by three things:

  • The entire success of the app relies on someone with COVID-19 getting and storing a secret code on their phone. This activity alone may be prohibitive. People with severe symptoms may be semi-conscious, or even being hospitalized; their primary concern isn’t with entering a secret code into the app. If they hadn’t already downloaded the app, they wouldn’t download it at that point.
  • The OS version of the app requires a rather recent version, limiting its potential adoption.
  • Hackers have already targeted Canadians with fake COVID-19 contact-tracing app disguised as official government software. Downloading the bogus app activates a hidden program that hijacks the user’s data and holds it for ransom.[3]
  • The Alberta COVID-19 tracking app that was rejected by the Alberta privacy commissioner shows up on the Apple App Store right below the federal application. This won’t improve public trust of the app. It also appears that there has been already a fake app

Grade for usability: D

Takeaway and Next Steps

This is a positive and important concept; from a conceptual standpoint, Canada was ahead of all other solutions to date. Ideally, its implementation would go beyond the boundaries of an app. The current approach creates a basis for expansion; we intend to fully leverage the federal app by building an end-to-end solution.

References:

[1] https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/coronavirus-disease-covid-19/covid-alert.html

[2] https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/coronavirus-disease-covid-19/covid-alert/privacy-policy/assessment.html

[3] https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/hackers-target-canadians-with-fake-covid-19-contact-tracing-app-disguised-as-official-government-software

To read more about Wael’s outbreak notification design, follow this link. To learn about enterprise corporate compliance feel free to download Privacy in Design: a Practical Guide for Corporate Compliance from the Kindle Store.

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