With the government yet to announce its preferred contact tracing technology, the market is being flooded with private options. Alex Braae reports on an app developed for the local hospitality industry that has caught the eye of Wellington City Council.
The Wellington City Council has officially adopted a contract tracing app of choice, with a queue of options starting to form out the door.
Rippl, which was developed by Wellington-based tech firms Paperkite and posBoss for the local hospitality industry, will now be used by all sorts of local organisations after the council announced a partnership.
Mayor Andy Foster said, “Wellington City Council has also secured a number of three-month licences which we are offering to council-controlled organisations and Wellington’s cultural, sporting, recreation, business and community organisations.
“We are doing this to help make it easier for people moving around the city by using the same processes for managing contact tracing.”
It sets up a delicate situation for what will be a crucial tool in the fight against Covid-19 – contact tracing, and the technology being used to make that possible. The council’s move comes ahead of any preferred technology announcement from the health ministry.
Rippl keeps an anonymous private digital log of visits to venues after a QR code is scanned at the door. If there is a Covid-19 outbreak associated with that venue, a message can be sent to the relevant users’ app, which will ask them to make contact with the health authorities.
“It’s an elegant solution – it’s simple to use, it’s fast, and it doesn’t require businesses to have to try and deal with contact registers,” said Antony Dixon of Paperkite, pointing out that pen and paper records would have to be physically stored somewhere and manually checked if needed.
The council’s decision also gives Rippl itself an early mover advantage, given that contact tracing is made easier by the same tools being used across as many people and organisations as possible. Other apps, however, have also been picked up at a local level – for example, Environment Canterbury had adopted tracing.co.nz to use for the public transport network there.
Dr Andrew Chen, an expert in contact tracing technology at the University of Auckland, says a wide range of products is currently trying to find a way into the market.
“Because there’s no official government app, everyone is being left to try and figure out for themselves a solution, and people are being left to evaluate the different options. It would be hard for the government to come out and endorse a particular app, because they’d be picking a winner.” He says the government is currently working on an app of its own, which could “knock out” other competitors.
Chen says from a technological perspective, so far very little has been ruled out by the government. “They did say that the Covid Card was still in play, and Bluetooth is still on the table. But at the moment it sounds like it’s going to be the QR code, and the likely reason for that is that the QR code is technically the simplest solution. Bluetooth is really complicated.”
Speaking to media this afternoon, PM Jacinda Ardern said the government was not fixated on a specific solution for contact tracing. “One of the things I’m observing in Australia is uptake, but also whether or not it is meeting expectations. We in the meantime continue to work on those solutions, but they will include alternatives – not just Bluetooth apps that talk to each other.” She confirmed that one option being looked at was a QR code app.
But if a range of tech companies can already have products ready to go, why don’t our leaders? Chen says the government has far more considerations to work through than tech companies, which can build products quickly because they’re primarily technological projects. The government, by contrast, has to look at these questions through the lens of public health, rather than what is simply technically possible.
With more than a few players in the market, Chen is concerned about fragmentation – particularly if the data from each app ends up being stored in different forms. After all, collecting the data itself isn’t the point of these apps – it’s about making the job of contact tracing easier for health authorities.
Sir Brian Roche, chair of the government’s Contact Tracing Assurance Committee, told Radio NZ this morning that “ultimately, it would be desirable to have one source of the truth” for contact tracing data, but added that “the risk of having just one is a single point of failure, so I think there’s quite a bit more thinking that has to be done”. Multiple sources of data wouldn’t be desirable, said Roche, because it “adds to the complexity”.
Antony Dixon said the Rippl app was originally designed with privacy in mind, and for use primarily by the local hospitality industry. Wellington hospitality businesses have been hit hard by the alert level three and four restrictions, and to reopen at level two, they’ll need to have some sort of system in place to track all visitors coming through the door.
Dixon said Wellington City Council particularly welcomed the “privacy-focused” approach of the app, which does not require centralised collection of user data.
“There are a number of other ways to register people, which is basically what they’ve [hospitality businesses] been asked to do,” says Dixon. “We looked at the various solutions that were out there, and they all seemed to require you to enter some details. Then you’re putting your trust in that business or organisation to use that information appropriately.”
Privacy of data is a matter of trust generally, and often relies on the data not being abused by bad actors. Chen cited a story reported recently by Newshub, in which a woman complained that a Subway employee had stalked her after she logged her details in the contact tracing system. Rippl has an advantage here in that the data itself is stored on the user’s phone, rather than in a centralised database.
There are some wrinkles with the system, however. One point that could become a problem is that for it to work effectively, venues will have to require every single visitor to download and use the app, which means they’ll have to have a smartphone. That’s probably not too much of an issue for craft beer drinkers in Wellington’s central city, but in other areas it could end up being unrealistic.
However, Dixon says they’re not trying to provide a nationwide tracing solution with Rippl. Rather, he sees it as being a tool that supports the efforts of health authorities. “It doesn’t require every hospitality business to have it, but they do have to have a solution.”
The app was developed rapidly over a period of three weeks, with an estimated $150,000 in labour costs going into it between Paperkite and posBoss. Until Wednesday, they’ll be offering discounted licences to businesses that want to take it up, though afterwards the licence fee will still be fairly nominal, at $49. Downloading the app will be free for users.
Is this all just an attempt to move fast and gain a monopolistic position over what could emerge as a crucial tech market? Dixon says the primary purpose is simply to support hospitality businesses, and that is taking precedence over profitability.
“If we achieve a great outcome for people who get to use it, and it’s easy and simple, then that’s good. And if we get to recover what we’ve invested in it, we’ll be happy. In terms of whether we’ll have more uptake than any other product – that doesn’t matter to us. We haven’t got anyone in our sights, thinking that they’re a competitor and we have to beat them.”