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Brislen on Tech: RIP CovidCard

Paul Brislen, Editor. 04 September 2020, 2:57 pm

RIP CovidCard - April 2020-September 2020

Committees, I was told a long time ago, are the cul de sacs into which good ideas are lured and then slowly strangled.

I sit on a number of committees and I can attest this is entirely true. There's something about the risk-adverse nature of a good committee that ensures nothing is ever done in a timely fashion, that the bureaucracy protects itself from outside intervention and that anything out of the ordinary is seen as a threat.

Covid Card.jpg

A colleague in the marketing world posted a LinkedIn piece the other day about the Cadbury television ad featuring the gorilla playing the drums to Phil Collins' song Air Tonight and how the award winning ad that grew the company sales by 10% was initially shunned by the committee responsible for approving it. It got me thinking about risk in the corporate world and how often companies are so risk adverse they create risk.

Risk is measured in two ways - how likely the thing is to happen and how much damage the thing will cause if it does take place. Earthquake risk, for example, is probably low on the former scale but high on the latter. Pandemics are likewise less likely than you fear but more damaging than you'd like.

COVID-19 is a case in point. The outbreak was unexpected, widespread and a lot more damaging than first thought. The initial denials of the scale of the problem lead to all kinds of problems further down the track and here we are today, mopping up as we go.

If committees are designed to strangle good ideas then what are governments for? After all, they're nothing but a series of committees strung together with a remit to retain the status quo. After all, they ARE the status quo - so how do you enact change quickly when something risky happens that needs a fast response?

The short answer is, of course, that you don't and sadly that's how empires fall. Not with a bang so much as with a denial, a no-comment, with a committee meeting.

We've been very lucky in New Zealand with our response to the COVID-19 outbreak. We had good warning, we had the right people in charge of the right departments at the right time and we had political leaders who are young and inexperienced enough (I say this kindly) to say "we will do what the experts tell us" rather than respond as we've seen elsewhere "I am the expert and I will tell you what to do".

It's lead to some good outcomes - but also has highlighted one or two issues with the way government works. It works incrementally, it works with known solutions and it doesn't jump to conclusions. It certainly doesn't react kindly to leaps of inspiration and someone saying "I can help, throw away your so-called experts and business continuity plans, I have the answer" and I suspect that's where Sam Morgan and the CovidCard came unstuck.

The CovidCard was to be a Bluetooth enabled credit card sized device worn on a lanyard around the neck for all to see. Anyone who went out of the house during lockdown would wear one, possibly by law, and the card would track which other cards you were near to during your day. Should you fall ill and test positive, your history of contacts would be downloaded and all those card holders would be contacted and told to isolate and test.

There were brochures with pictures of the card. There were even lanyards with branding for all to see. It must be serious if there are lanyards, right?

It was a bold leap over the existing technology and over concerns that were, at the time, plaguing the government around privacy, equity of access to a service, how best to track and trace individuals and how to rapidly clamp down on any resurgent infection.

It was so good there would be no need to lock down cities or borders and travellers could come to New Zealand and freely move about the place safe in the knowledge that they would be rapidly contacted if someone near them was found to be ill and communicable.

This was bold, it was radical, it was a giant leap forward. It was world leading.

All those things to a tech company spell success. To a government they spell risk. To a committee they spell disaster. What if we invest $100 million in a product that doesn't work as they claim? What if we build a system nobody wants to use? What if we build something that everyone else in the world says won't work? What if?

Sam pulled the plug on the card this week and got quite shouty about short sighted government gnomes (I'm paraphrasing here and I really like the word gnome) and you have to say he has a point. Sure, the card didn't have general support from the very people who would be required to use it (you know, the customers or "public"). Sure, the technology was never really discussed openly and the issues raised by various parties including the Privacy Commissioner were never really addressed. Sure, the present state moved dramatically while Sam was talking (the COVID-19 tracer app now has more than 2 million downloads, accounting for half the population over the age of 15 and is used 1.7 million times a day and is adding new features at a steady pace) making the sell even harder, but what an opportunity, right?

Sam threw his hands up in disgust and moved on, blaming tall poppy syndrome and a lack of vision. But that's exactly what governments and large bureaucracies do, right? They move cautiously and carefully. The overanalyse and they miss opportunities. Sam should know this - he was at the helm of submarine cable company Pacific Fibre and laid out a very good business case for a vital piece of critical infrastructure that was a guaranteed investment opportunity, but couldn't land the deal and the company folded. Less than five years later the telcos invested in a trans-Tasman cable and then Hawaiki Cable completed its connection to the US and now Southern Cross Cables has begun work on a new connection with the outside world. Sam's dream is now reality just not with Sam's company. 

There's another lesson from the PR world that I think can be applied here: you have to take them on the journey. You might have the best solution to the problem in the world but if you don't take your stakeholders on the journey with you from here to there, they won't buy into the vision. I suspect having branding and brochures but no technical specs probably didn't help much either. Trust and social licence are two parts of the same equation and without those you don't have a viable solution.

We won't get our CovidCard but we do have a COVID tracking app (although I would have preferred an open model that allowed other developers to plug in to the API) and we do have a world class response to a global problem. I hope Sam has learned from it because no doubt he'll be back to pitch more great ideas to the laggards that make up our investment community and our banks, our government's and our public. One day who knows? One idea might even stick.


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