In early 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern and the fast-moving epidemic prompted countries around the world to take action.
The New Zealand Government, determined to minimise the impact of COVID-19, opted for a strategy which combined strict physical distancing, border controls, strong testing and clinical management of those infected with clear, regular public communication and a focus on contact tracing.
In a health emergency where physical distance is required and quick, effective tracing is one of the best defences against further outbreak, technology needs to play a major role and RUSH were brought in to develop and deliver a solution.
The entire country went into Level 4 lockdown on 25 March 2020, and in early April RUSH began working with the Government on a tech solution that would enable New Zealanders to give contact tracers a head start in breaking the chain of transmission. Staying one step ahead of the virus was of critical importance to the Government’s response plan, and success related directly to the speed at which contact tracers could identify and contact people who had come into contact with COVID-19.
The RUSH team of product, delivery, design and engineering specialists were pulled together very quickly to work on this project.
The Ministry of Health moved at pace to solicit feature requirements from stakeholders, all-of-government response teams, and clinical experts. RUSH took these requirements, process diagrams and user stories and expedited the information architecture, visual designs, solution architecture and technical architecture.
It was known very early on that the public health outcome called for an app which held current contact details, allowed users to keep track of where they’d been, and gave users control of their own data.
In a process which would usually take weeks or months, the squads were collaborating remotely over hours and days in a cycle of approval - development - testing and refining, in order to deploy a full solution within six weeks.
The NZ COVID Tracer app was formally launched on 20 May 2020, to help protect New Zealanders, their whānau and the community by giving contact tracers a head start with identifying anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
There are two native apps (Android and Apple iOS) because the speed of the development in the initial stages required us to allow for the ability to quickly pivot, however since our first iterations Google and Apple have created a collaborative OS which has allowed us to develop one React native app with Bluetooth capabilities.
The third product is a web component which allows frequently updated content to be retrofitted on to a progressive app page - basically this means that the app always displays the most up-to-date information that the MoH has.
Lastly, RUSH built the QR code generator for the official NZ COVID Tracer posters which all businesses and services, unless exempt, are required to display in a prominent place.
The NZ COVID Tracer app was updated in December 2020 to include the additional tool of Bluetooth tracing technology. When Bluetooth tracing is enabled, it sends out a private and secure random ID code which records how close another Bluetooth enabled phone was, and for how long. It’s like your phone is giving digital high-fives to other nearby phones. This allows users to keep track of who they’ve been near, and receive an alert if they have been near another app user who tests positive for COVID-19.
The app was intentionally developed with flexibility that has been invaluable in allowing the Ministry of Health to continually improve contact tracing efforts. When Auckland entered a second lockdown on August 12 2020 following cases of community transmission, the Minister of Health advised that we would be introducing the option for users to add their National Health Index (NHI) number to their app. This addition speeds up the process for COVID-19 testing.
There have been additional benefits such as increased efficiency in being able to reach people on their most up-to-date contact details, when their contact information through other sources is outdated.
The app’s ease of use and accuracy when scanning provides a very simple way for the Government to support effective and efficient contact tracing.
In early September app usage peaked, with 2.5 million scans recorded by nearly a million devices in a single day, and after the October Labour Day weekend an accumulated total of 100 million poster scans was recorded. As of 27 January 2021, there are 2,496,000 users registered on NZ COVID Tracer, which equates to 61% of New Zealanders aged 15 and over (which was 4,055,000 as of 30 June according to Stats NZ).
In the first six months of the app going live, dozens of contact alerts have been sent out through the NCTS for exposure events, and hundreds of individuals have been alerted through the app that they may have been exposed to the virus. Individuals who receive alerts are provided with information on the steps they should take to protect their whanau and help stop the spread of the virus.
Public Health Units have reported that digital diaries uploaded or otherwise shared by app users who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been an effective case investigation tool that speeds up the contact tracing process.
For example, in August a prolific user of the NZ COVID Tracer app contracted COVID-19 on a chartered flight after being in managed isolation in Christchurch. They were able to immediately share their digital diary with contact tracers so contact alerts could be quickly issued for each of the many locations they visited.
COVID-19 testers in Christchurch reported back that “We've had a number of people who have presented for testing because they were notified by the COVID tracer app that they had been at the airport during the designated contact times. Several have commented on what an easy and slick process it has been.”
New Zealand’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been labeled by many as the best in the world, and we are the country that gives business leaders the most confidence for future investment, according to a Bloomberg Media survey.