Cost of Living

Where did things go wrong with Canada's COVID Alert app?

Nearly two years after the federal government launched the app, uptake has plateaued, and questions remain about whether the $21 million spent to develop and promote the app was worth it.

The app was downloaded 6.86 million times. Experts say millions more were needed for it to be effective

A phone showing Canada's COVID Alert app. The app uses Bluetooth to inform users if they've been in proximity with another user who reported a positive COVID-19 case. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

In the summer of 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touted the new COVID Alert notification app as a tech-forward tool to help trace and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Nearly two years later, uptake has plateaued, and questions remain about whether the roughly $21 million spent to develop and promote the app was worth it.

"I don't think the COVID Alert app made much of a difference in our fight against COVID," Peter Loewen, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, told CBC's Cost of Living.

"That doesn't mean that it was a waste of money, necessarily. We didn't even spend enough money to really try."

Peter Loewen is director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. He says at least 60 per cent of Canadians, if not more, needed to download the COVID Alert app in order for it to be truly helpful. (Alexis MacDonald)

The COVID Alert app launched in July 2020 for Apple and Android devices. The app uses Bluetooth signals to exchange random codes with nearby phones that also have the app installed.

Users are alerted if they've spent at least 15 minutes near another user who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Health Canada told Cost of Living that the app has sent more than 371,875 alert notifications as of Jan. 31.

Jason Millar of the University of Ottawa says it's 'impossible' to know whether Canada's COVID Alert app made a significant difference in helping detect positive cases or save lives. (Submitted by Jason Millar)

But it doesn't track users' names, addresses or location data, nor does it collect any data on whether a user actually follows up at a testing centre.

Without that key information, "it's simply impossible to say that the app did anything of significance," said Jason Millar, Canada Research Chair in the Ethical Engineering of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Ottawa.

"You should be extremely skeptical of anyone who claims they can measure the app's success in preventing cases or saving lives.... There is no data that I've seen to support the claim that it did anything of the sort."

According to Health Canada, the app "was designed to provide [a] high level of privacy protection" and shouldn't be considered a replacement or supplement for more detailed contact tracing.

Far more downloads needed: experts

Health Canada told Cost of Living that the app has been downloaded about 6.86 million times. If each download translates into one unique user, that's about 18 per cent of the country's 38 million people.

Each province and territory was required to opt into the program in order for people to use the app. It wasn't adopted by Alberta, British Columbia, Nunavut or Yukon.

Loewen says the app would need to be downloaded by at least 60 per cent — and preferably even 70 or 80 per cent — of Canadians to be truly useful. But he says it's incredibly rare for a single app to get that kind of widespread usage.

"It may have been that we designed a technology which required such a massively high rate of adoption that it just wasn't feasible to actually imagine it being taken up by that many Canadians," he said.

Emily Seto is a research scientist at the University Health Network's Centre for Global eHealth Innovation in Toronto. She notes that not everyone who wants to use Canada's COVID Alert app has a compatible smartphone to install it. (Submitted by Emily Seto)

Emily Seto, a research scientist at the University Health Network's Centre for Global eHealth Innovation in Toronto, noted that anyone without a compatible smartphone can't download the app even if they wanted to.

That relatively low uptake has been criticized over the last year and a half. Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie said last December that the federal government "gave up" on the app, but he later backtracked on those remarks.

Health Canada said that while it continues to support the app, no new features or major updates are planned. It hasn't received an update since Aug. 9, according to Google's Play Store. It received its most recent maintenance update on iOS five months ago.

Privacy versus function

Sheena Shand installed the app on her phone shortly after it was introduced and received her first and only exposure alert a few weeks later.

But without any information about when or where she was exposed, it left her with more questions than answers.

Shand and her husband were at a cottage in a remote Quebec community having little contact with other people, other than a grocery run in nearby Val-des-Monts.

Sheena Shand, left, and her husband, Craig Irving. In the fall of 2020, Shand was notified through Canada's COVID Alert app that she had been exposed to COVID-19. But with no other information about the exposure, she says she felt left in the dark. (Submitted by Sheena Shand)

"That was the only time I would have been around people," she told Cost of Living. And while she got an app alert, her husband — who also had the app on his phone — did not.

While Shand understands the need for users' privacy, she said she would be willing to give some information to get a better sense of when or where she might have been exposed.

"It actually made things a little more stressful that week than less stressful, which I think is what we were hoping for when we downloaded the app," she said.

'I think we were sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish'

Loewen said the app could have been much more useful — and more appealing to download — if it used some of the data that other apps on many people's smartphones already collect on a regular basis.

"We didn't have dinner parties in our family [home] at that time. But if we had and I'd been exposed, I wouldn't have known whether it had happened at that party or in a chance encounter on a streetcar or in a grocery store," he said.

Loewen pointed to Israel's COVID-19 app, called Green Pass, which he used during a visit there last fall. Three hours after taking a COVID test upon arriving in the country, his negative result was uploaded to the app, allowing him to use it as a pass for restaurants, hotels and other public locations.

It's a more integrated approach than that taken by Canada's app, which does not connect to provincial proof of vaccination documents such as QR codes.

People might have found the app more appealing if it offered more features, Seto added.

"You would probably download it more willingly if, for example, you could book [vaccine or testing] appointments through it. Or ... maybe you could show your vaccination QR code," she said.

Podium placards promoting the COVID Alert app are displayed on the day of its launch, July 31, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Loewen offered a more aggressive approach: He says the federal government should have paid people to download it.

"It might sound like a lot of money, but when you think about the fact that we were spending $2,000 a month to pay people to not go to work, paying an extra 50 or 60 bucks for people to try out an app ... I think it would have been worth the money," he said, referring to the federal government's Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) program.

"I think we were sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish," Loewen said.

Health Canada told Cost of Living that $15.1 million of the app's total $21-million budget was spent on marketing and advertising "to raise awareness and help increase uptake of the COVID Alert app by Canadians."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Andrew Nguyen.

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