The controversial COVIDSafe app is getting a much-needed makeover, but tech experts say any upgrades are useless unless the Morrison government finds a way to make Australians use it.
The app has largely disappeared from view after it was widely criticised for having software glitches and later abandoned in Victoria during the state’s deadly second coronavirus wave.
Federal officials last month told Senate estimates the app had identified just 17 people not picked up through manual contact tracing.
But now, it’s making a comeback.
On Monday, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert announced the app will receive a major upgrade by incorporating a new Bluetooth protocol called Herald designed to improve performance and better identify potential close contacts.
Here’s hoping it works: External spending aimed at improving the technology surpassed a staggering $5 million in September.
What are the upgrades?
The COVIDSafe app uses Bluetooth technology to quickly alert users who may have been within 1.5 metres of a positive case for more than 15 minutes in public places like supermarkets.
The upgrades promise to improve this capability to better identify potential close contacts.
This time, it will be integrated with state and territory health authorities, giving contact tracers a better idea of who may have come into contact with a known case no matter where they are in Australia.
Notably, the code for the update will be made publicly available on GitHub – an open-source platform where coders share their information to be scrutinised – before it is released for Apple and Google devices.
This means experts will be able to point out any critical flaws before the update is rolled out, unlike the initial launch of the app in April.
Mr Robert said the code would also be made available internationally so other countries could use it.
“Australia’s technology capability and contact tracing systems are world leading,” he said on Monday.
“We will be the first country in the world to adopt the Herald Bluetooth protocol, which has been shown to significantly improve our capability through the COVIDSafe App.”
Experts weigh in
“Upgrades are welcome, especially if they’re rectifying bugs in the system,” said Professor Katina Michael, a public interest technology advocate at the University of Wollongong.
She also welcomed the government’s decision to make the new code publicly available so coders could have their say before it’s released.
“That’s showing remorse and saying: ‘We did the wrong thing the first time. If you think you know better, tell us’,” she said.
However, Professor Michael pointed out many Australians had already made the switch to QR codes at restaurants, bars and cafes, especially in Victoria and New South Wales.
She said they would likely be reluctant to return to the COVIDSafe app, or use it in addition to the QR code system.
“My initial gut reaction is, ‘Great, there’s an upgrade’, but who’s going to adopt it?” she said.
“The Australian public are probably sceptical it works, even though it probably does.”
In August, as Victoria’s second wave took hold, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the app had surpassed seven million downloads nationwide – an improvement from 6.4 million in July, but still well short of the government’s target.
Ritesh Chugh, a senior lecturer in information systems at CQUniversity, agreed more work needed to be done to promote the app, and said the upgrades “should’ve been accomplished months ago”.
However, he was pleased the government had finally taken a “step forward” by improving the technology, “especially as borders reopen and people start driving more”.
“Integration with state and territory health authorities is definitely going to be good because that’s what was missing in the past,” Dr Chugh said.
“Once it becomes integrated with Apple and Google’s framework, the technology will become much more effective at identifying contacts, too.”
He said the Herald protocol was a big win because it supported more than 98 per cent of phones worldwide.
“It also offers international operability, and can be embedded into variable devices, such as smartwatches,” Dr Chugh said.
The upgrades come before a new Christmas advertising campaign urging Australians to adhere to social distancing rules during the holidays.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said it would be an important reminder about protecting people and their families against COVID-19.
“The government is reinforcing the message not to be complacent in regards to the risks of spreading COVID-19 and how to stay safe, including having the app on your phone,” Mr Hunt said.