Covid Tracer version 4.1.0 includes personal metrics, national statistics and a flashlight for scanning in low light.

The Contact Tracer app just got gamified. Here’s what that means for you

Pokémon Go it’s not. But from swirly success icons and live stats to a flashlight option, Andrew Chen explains what’s changed, and why.

Last week, the Ministry of Health released a new version of the NZ Covid Tracer app. After a lot of public debate and discussion in recent months, they added some gamification features to the app. Firstly, the app will now keep track of the number of days that you’ve scanned a QR code or entered a manual entry within the last 14 days. The idea is to help you check that you have good records for 14 days, so that if you do unfortunately test positive for Covid-19, you’ll be able to quickly provide those records to contact tracers. After 14 days of records, you’ll unlock a cool swirly icon that indicates you’re up to date.

You might feel like an icon change is a pretty small reward for using the app for 14 days. But let’s be honest, you’ve probably done a lot more for a lot less. Maybe you sent stupid selfies to a friend just to keep your Snapchat streak going. Maybe you spent hundreds of hours just to get an achievement in a video game. Maybe you accidentally learnt a whole language because the Duolingo owl kept berating you. The Ministry of Health wants you to adopt good habits, but not incentivise you to unnecessarily scan every QR code you see, so this small reward seems to hit a good balance.

The app counts both QR code scans and manual entries, so you can go back and fill out manual entries for any days you might have missed. Importantly, if you don’t go anywhere on a particular day, the Ministry of Health would like you to do a manual entry that says you stayed at home. This is so that if you have to provide your data to a contact tracer, there’s no unexplained gap – it says you stayed at home, so they can prioritise asking you about the other days. With the highly transmissible variants of Covid-19, time is of the essence so a bit of extra effort now could make a big difference later on. I’ve asked about adding bookmarks so that you can just push a button to say you stayed at home all day – apparently it’s in the plans for a future update.

They’ve also added live statistics about the usage of the app to the dashboard. Previously, we were getting daily reports on the Ministry of Health website, usually a day late, and in a different time zone to NZ. Now, you can see the number of QR codes scanned so far today, the number of manual entries, and the number of people with Bluetooth Tracing active. You’ll be able to see how you’re contributing to a national total, and maybe it’ll help you feel like your scanning is part of something bigger. This analytics data is anonymous, and is literally just a count of the number of times users do something – the government doesn’t get a copy of your QR code scans or Bluetooth logs when collecting the stats. I’d like the government to come up with some shared goals, though, so that we all know what a “good” number for us to be working towards is. Based on modelling work done by Te Pūnaha Matatini, I think we want to see at least four million QR code scans a day, and at least two million people participating in Bluetooth Tracing under alert level one settings.

The Ministry of Health have also delivered on one of the most requested features – being able to turn on the flashlight on your phone so you can scan QR codes in dark places. As we approach winter, and the dark arrives earlier, the number of requests for this feature have, I’m told, gone up. They also figured out how to make the app load a little faster on some Android devices – it’s not faster for everyone and it’s not instantaneous, but hopefully better than it was before. By the way, a couple of weeks ago they released an update that made Bluetooth Tracing compatible with older iPhones, so if you couldn’t use it before, get the update and try it again.

With the travel bubble opening to Australia soon, we’re going to get a lot more travellers coming in. It’s pretty low risk, but it’s not zero risk, so we do need to be vigilant and prepared. That means all of us having 14 days of tracing data at all times, so that if we discover a new case, we can draw a circle around the case and their contacts as quickly as possible. Only starting to use the app when cases appear in the community is better than never, but it’s definitely not ideal. Folks coming into New Zealand from Australia will be encouraged to use the NZ Covid Tracer app, but the government probably won’t be able to make it mandatory – after all, if you see someone walk into a shop without scanning in, it’s pretty hard to tell if they’re an Aussie visitor or a local, unless you sing Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi at them and see if they respond correctly.

Overall, these updates to the Covid Tracer app aren’t massive game changers, but I do hope it’ll encourage some people to get back into it. Digital contact tracing can help public health officials get more information and act more quickly to contain potential outbreaks, and potentially help us avoid lockdowns. You’ve almost definitely done a lot more for a lot less.

Andrew is a Research Fellow with Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland. He has had some conversations with the Ministry of Health, but isn’t paid by them.

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