Follow the North Star: creating the COVID Alert app

The circumstances of 2020 can only be compared to that of an end‑of‑the‑world movie plot line. I bet back in the good ol’ days of 2019—a time where “Thank u, next” was the response to minor inconveniences in our lives, and no item in our closet was safe as we questioned whether they “sparked joy” because Marie Kondo told us to—nobody could have seen COVID-19 coming. Our once COVID-free world seems so far away now, doesn’t it? But whether we like it or not, we’ve had to accept the new normal: mandatory masks, limiting interactions with people, physical distancing and so on, down an all too familiar list—all much needed actions to keep our communities as safe as possible during the pandemic.

At the same time, the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), was working around the clock and taking action in the form of COVID Alert, an app that would help Canadians know if they’ve come in to close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus. For the 4.3 million Canadians who have downloaded it to date, we know that the app is simple to use and navigate. But on the back end, there was much more to it than the simple user interface we see.

“There exists a public health emergency, and knowing that this app could be instrumental to protecting Canadians led the speed of its delivery.”

As luck would have it, we were granted the opportunity to chat with two brilliant individuals, who were key figures in the delivery and implementation of the app—to see what the process looked like from their side. Emily Kuret, Product Manager of COVID Alert, told us that while some days sleep is scarce, the public health impact of the app is what drives their team. Her colleague Joshua Ruihley, Service Owner of the app, echoed the same, “there exists a public health emergency, and knowing that this app could be instrumental to protecting Canadians led the speed of its delivery.”

‘Trust is everything’

“Our priority is to only ask and only collect what we need to get the job done.”

One of the things the team prioritized with the app was that it would not infringe on the privacy and security of Canadians. Emily tells us that every suggestion was met with the question, “how could we do it in a private and secure way?” As a result, the app only uses the Bluetooth function on your phone to determine if you have come into contact with someone with COVID, and nothing more. It tracks COVID cases using a one-time code, issued by provincial health services to those who test positive, so that they can enter it into the app. The key is that no part of the process is associated with the specific identities of Canadians. “Our priority is to only ask and only collect what we need to get the job done,” Emily says. The team at CDS worked with the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security and Blackberry to make sure that from top to bottom, it was secure. “Building trust with Canadians is everything,” Josh states.

Collaboration is the backbone

Both Emily and Josh emphasized that this app was a product of significant teamwork and collaboration between various organizations, including both federal and provincial levels of government. It began with a framework, created by Google and Apple, that allowed devices to scan for exposures without having to be open and lit up. A group of volunteers at Shopify then created COVID shield, an exposure notification solution built using that framework. From there, CDS stepped in to see how they could fit it into the Canadian context, first working with the Ontario Digital Service, before taking it to the federal level, so that it can be supported in all provinces across Canada.

Avengers, assemble

On June 15, the team was assembled. Emily detailed that there were three pieces to work on. First, the healthcare side, “how do we integrate the one-time code with healthcare practices and how will healthcare professionals give out the code?” Then it was a question of how a server could be created to support the whole country. And last, but not least: “how do we get as many people as possible to download and use it?” Quite the feat for such a short period of time, but the team insisted that they would not release the app until they felt it was ready, “we had a day before checklist, which we would run through prior to the launch day, and if we didn’t feel that it met the criteria, we didn’t launch,” Emily explained. With the team’s determination and dedication, the app launched on July 31, a mere 45 days after the team came together. Josh told us, “at CDS, we are an agile development shop, meaning we adapt based on what we learn. And though there was great pressure to not stick to that style in the interest of time, we continued to follow our instincts. We wanted to do right by the user and public health.”

‘Follow the North Star’

“Having a really solid north star of what the end goal looked like helped us overcome hurdles and make decisions more accurately.”

To overcome the challenges of creating a nationwide app on a short timeline, Emily says that “having a really solid north star of what the end goal looked like helped us overcome hurdles and make decisions more accurately.” She explains to us that every decision made for the app went through two filters: 1. will this help us get as many people to use this as possible, and 2. will this help the app itself work better? Constantly asking themselves these two questions helped the team stay on track to deliver the product they had envisioned, ensuring the focus never shifted from those two goals. “I think it’s possible to get the outcomes you want when you have an agreed upon end goal, and I hope that people can look to this as an example of digital service delivery,” Josh says.

Into the future

“We’re hyper focused on serving people better.”

As for what the future holds, well, both Emily and Josh emphasize that their work is far from finished. “We’re hyper focused on serving people better,” Josh says. For their team, that means updating the app often, based on new findings they learn through ongoing research—each time with the goal of delivering something better. They’re also focused on continuing their work with provincial and territorial health providers so that all provinces and territories can be onboarded and Canadians across the country are able to get a one-time code for a positive diagnosis.

And beyond that future? Emily says, “my vision for the long term is that the app is no longer needed because the pandemic doesn’t exist.” We’re with you on that, Emily, but in the meantime, we’ll keep wearing our masks, maintaining our distance, and checking the app.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s never too late! Download the COVID Alert app now and let’s help stop the spread of COVID-19 together:

 
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