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Brislen on Tech: RIP Covid Card

Paul Brislen, Editor. 05 March 2021, 12:39 pm

And so farewell, COVID Card. You were largely unloved but a staunch few thought you were the answer to all things tracking related and that we should have all leapt at the chance to develop you, presumably with one eye on the export market.

You are surplus to requirements and we've moved on. It's not us, it's you, they said, and that was that.

Covid Card Failure

But there's a lot we can learn from the COVID card failure to fire. It speaks volumes about the issues facing the IT world and its interface with those normal folk who will use the product - the muggles.

The card, in case you haven't been following at home, was mooted by TradeMe founder Sam Morgan and others, would consist of a Bluetooth capable ID card that would be worn around the neck on a lanyard and would be issued to all citizens and visitors in New Zealand at a cost of around $100 million to develop.

The idea was that since everyone was wearing them there would be no social stigma attached and because there were no buttons to push, no camera or app to fiddle with and indeed no user accessible parts at all, it would be easily used by all, from the youngest newborn to the oldest anti-tech granny.

Of course, first the technology would need to be developed, but remember this was back before we even had the basic diary app that sits at the heart of our COVID tracing model. Back then (only a scant year ago) the idea that technology would solve the problem of contact tracing was very much on everyone's minds.

There were issues from the beginning, not least of which were the privacy implications. Unlike the current app, which stores the user data on the user's device, the card would share its user's daily tallies of take away stores, bars, vape shops, gyms and office buildings with Health Central HQ or some such, which would then be able to mine the data for useful stuff later on, post COVID.

This immediately derailed a lot of interest because while that's useful it's also quite invasive. What seems like a good idea on paper hits the wall when faced with reality.

Plus there was the problem of the Bluetooth capability being a bit flaky and that is, apparently, what did for the card in the end. A trial in Rotorua saw plenty of failures with the cards not connecting effectively when in the user's pocket or covered by a coat, and then reporting lots of false contacts when left at the office overnight.

All of that is before you get to the obvious problem - this would be a state issued ID card that tracks users' movements around the country. While that's all perfectly fine for users of Facebook who like to share their dislike of cellphone radiation and spying from their mobile phone, when the government does it, it's a different matter. Quite how you get all that past a population that believes COVID is a lie and that Bill Gates is secretly vaccinating everyone with 5G chips or some such is beyond me.

While countries like Taiwan have introduced such ID cards and platforms, we have to remember the political climate there is vastly different. Its arrivals process, even for locals returning home, is extensive and every citizen is tracked as they move around the island nation. The population density requires far more cellsites per square kilometre than we have which means tracking and tracing is more accurate and is conducted on a scale that far exceeds the average New Zealander's comfort zone.

So while technology might be the answer, technically speaking, the user experience will always trump what's on offer from the IT department. Sure, it might make perfect sense in the lab or the test centre, but without the user's input you're pretty much flogging a dead horse. It's very rare for a product to be produced in total isolation from the users who only get to see it on release day. The iPhone was like that - we didn't know we needed a phone with only one button till it was there - but that aside I can't think of any products that don't get extensively tested on humans for usability and also for acceptance prior to launch.

The card might well have been the answer to the problem of tracking and tracing 12 months ago, but it certainly wasn't going to win friends and influence people. There's a lesson in there for other projects in the IT sphere I suspect.


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Hayden McCall 05 March 2021, 1:18 pm

And good riddance to a dumb idea that got way too much air time. Also noting that in fact the Aussie 'Contact Harald' technology used in the trial was well established. Perhaps it could be something that would be effective for workplaces (maybe KMart and Maccas Papatoetoe...). Or would it be more effective to use a GPS tracking app to ensure self-isolators actually do?

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