The $6.4m NZ Covid Tracer app: Experts’ verdict on its cost, how it compares to overseas

The Ministry of Health has revealed spending on the NZ Covid Tracer app reached $6.4 million by the end of 2020 (see table below).

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The Herald First revealed that Auckland app developer Rush Digital was the MoH’s development partner for the NZ Covid Tracer.

Rush chief executive Pavan Vyas said his company had up to 15 staff working on the app at any one time.

The NZ Covid Tracer was first released on May 20. Its immediate launch was marked by confusion, as people tried to use it to scan posters for various private efforts to create a contact-tracing system, some of which had been in the market since March.

It was not until August 19 that it was made compulsory for businesses to display an official QR code poster compatible with the MoH’s official NZ Covid Tracer app.

On December 9, the NZ Covid Tracer received a key upgrade as users got the choice to enable an automated Bluetooth tracking system created by Apple and Google- recording who you have been in close contact with (if they have the same feature enabled), while QR code posters record where you’ve been.

As of February 9 (or last Tuesday – the most recent day for which MoH has released data) the NZ Covid Tracer had been registered on 2.56m phones.

Poster scanning is a manual process, and the number of people who bother to take their phone out of their pocket and snap a QR code fluctuates with the news cycle. Last Tuesday, 467,891 people scanned at least one poster.

Bluetooth tracking is automated. Once you enable the feature, it will keep recording your close contacts until you switch it off – so its user numbers grow by thousands each day. As of Tuesday, 924,662 people had Bluetooth enabled.

Just under 1 million using the app is a significant number, butDr Andrew Chen, a researcher with Auckland University’s Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, says we’ll need “at least 2 million people participating to have more confidence that this data will be useful in the unfortunate event of a further outbreak in New Zealand.”

So, for our $6.4m, we’ve got half-way there. Further than most countries.

But did the government get value for its money?

“Overall, I think it’s pretty good value for money as far as Govt IT goes, and is significantly cheaper than some of the costs seen in other jurisdictions,” Chen told his Twitter followers last night.

NZRise co-founder Don Christe said from the limited information provided by the MoH, it appeared that the core costs of developing the NZ Covid Tracer were $2.77m, which he described as “reasonable value,” assuming that beyond the smartphone app itself, backend work was also required so it could integrate with other systems used by the ministry.

Tech commentator Paul Brislen said, “I think the $6.4m budget sounds about right for a project of this scale and importance.

“Certainly, it could have been done more cheaply but we have to remember that at the time we were very much flying blind with no real idea of how this would pan out.

“Building a basic app and constant upgrades as advances enabled new features was absolutely the way to go and the end result is a classic Kiwi tale of producing a better app on time and dramatically under the budget of some others around the world. The app saves lives every day. I think it’s a bargain.”

Cost in other countries

The biggest blowout could well be the UK, where the NHS last September revealed some £10.8m ($19.4m) was spent on its original stab at an app, which was abandoned in June, and 25m was budgeted for a replacement app that launched on September 24 (with NZ’s Rush Digital consulting on its QR code scanning element). The UK’s total contact tracing app spend is expected to top £40m. The UK has at least got a tangible result for its spend-up, with an Oxford University study finding it prevented 600,000 Covid infections as 1.7m alerts were sent to its 21m users as of the end of December.

Germany’s contact tracing app cost €20m ($31.7m), according to AP.

Australia had allocated A$4.8m ($4.9m) to private partners working on its COVIDSafe app as of September, plus around A$5m spent on operational support on the government side.

As of November, Singapore had spent S$2.4m ($2.5m) on its TraceTogether app as part of a wider S$13.8m spend that included S$5.2m on SafeEntry programme – which includes QR code poster scanning – and S$6.2m for the development of its CovidCard-like TraceTogether tokens, which people without smartphones can wear around their neck.

Norway’s tracing app spend is expected to hit $9.5m – for which its numbers are similar to NZ with 1.4m using the app of its 5.5m population.

Ireland appears to be the hero case, spending just€850,000 ($1.3m) on an app that is apparently popular and works well – although unlike some countries, a detailed breakdown of peripheral costs is not available.

The low-budget champ appears to be Canada, which got a Covid app out the door for just C$500,000 ($512,000). Chen says it hit that mark because a number of companies donated their time.

Did NZ budget too little?

Was their scope for the MoH to spend more, sooner on the app? Was $6.4m under-cooked, given the seriousness of the health crisis?

“I think there were some technical issues that just took some time to resolve, but also a lot of the delay was likely for non-technical, non-monetary reasons such as the election happening in October and uncertainty around other Bluetooth-based tracing technologies being trialled,” Chen told the Herald this morning.

“I don’t think more money would have solved the problem. We needed more urgency from decision-makers.”

Earlier, Rush Digital boss Vyas told the Herald that while Bluetooth could potentially have been added to NZ Covid Tracer earlier with a larger budget, the MoH had the final say on what features should be added and when; his company was able to meet the ministry’s deadlines to within a couple of days on the allocated budget.

More spending ahead?

If time is money, then more spending on NZ Covid Tracer lies ahead.

The Government has moved to allay surveillance worries by making the app “decentralised”, leaving location data – like that loaded via QR codes – and interaction information, fed via Bluetooth tracing, on peoples’ phones until it’s needed for contact tracing.

While that approach, widely used by other countries, helped protect users’ privacy, there was still little legislative protection against the data being used for other purposes by the Government.

Singapore’s government recently sparked an outcry when it passed laws allowing its police to access data from its TraceTogether app for serious crimes like murder, rape and drug trafficking.

Australia, by contrast, introduced an amendment clarifying who and who wasn’t allowed to use tracer app data, and for what purposes.

Chen and Privacy Commissioner John Edwards are lobbying here for legal protections similar to the Australian approach.

Covid card in the wings

Meanwhile, the MoH has yet to release its final report on a Covid Card trial that took place around Rotorua pre-Christmas. Original Covid Card advocate Sam Morgan saw a national Covid Card rollout costing less than $100m, but Kris Faafoi – IT minister as the trial began – told media the cost could run to hundreds of millions.

With the first vaccine doses now set to arrive in New Zealand next week, the card’s moment has probably past.

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