Together we can do so much

A lot has changed around us in the last few months and so have we. From rocking masks in public (I never thought my browser search history would include “where can I find bedazzled masks in Ottawa?” yet here we are), to making sure we’re walking the right way through one-way store aisles. And it’s especially weird to think that it was only a few months ago, that you could sneeze in public without getting wide-eyed stares from strangers. Nowadays? Don’t even think about it. 

But those are just some of the small adjustments we’ve had to make. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on many challenges, some bigger than others. And when it comes to travel, it’s no secret that things are pretty different. At the beginning of the pandemic, when public health and border measures were introduced, many Canadians were desperately trying to find their way back home. To ensure everyone’s health and safety, the measures require travellers to fill out a paper form that includes their contact information and quarantine plans, upon arrival into Canada. 

I know what you’re thinking. Paper forms? In this day and age? Enter Sheriff Abdou, Chief Data Officer at Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Cameron MacDonald, Director General at Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), whose brilliant teams came together to create the ArriveCAN mobile application (app) and make the whole process easier and safer for Canadians.

Less paper, more digital

“We wanted to make information collection easier and safer for Canadians, and for the employees, and that’s what drove the creation of the ArriveCAN app”

“Imagine every traveller —and at the time it wasn’t only essential workers crossing the borders, but rather thousands of travellers returning to Canada —all filling out these paper forms. There were stacks of these forms collected daily, and the information was being manually inputted into a computer. Not only was this process hindering timely data collection but the papers also had to be treated as biohazardous materials and handled carefully as they could be contaminated with COVID-19” explained Sheriff. When Sheriff mentioned this, I immediately began to regret all the times in my life I rushed to fill paper forms out —my writing less than legible—not realizing that someone has to then type it out word for word. “We wanted to make information collection easier and safer for Canadians, and for the employees, and that’s what drove the creation of the ArriveCAN app” he explained.

“As COVID-19 escalated, we knew our response measures needed to be modified. If you’re not working in real time, then you’re out of the game”

“As COVID-19 escalated, we knew our response measures needed to be modified. If you’re not working in real time, then you’re out of the game” explained Cameron, “the importance of accurate data is always high, but during a pandemic, it’s especially high”. Sheriff added, “we needed a way to have travellers’ information quickly so we could, in the interest of public health, share this information with provinces and territories, and law enforcement.” The ArriveCAN app, which is available for download through the app stores of Apple and Google Play, allows travellers to input their information 48 hours prior to their flight, ensuring efficient data collection, and less stress on travellers. However, most importantly, it reduces the risk of border officers coming into contact with potentially contaminated paper and it minimizes interactions at the airport, which in turn, keeps everyone safer.

When 2 become 1

“We had an army of colleagues, who gave everything they had to get this app launched in 5 weeks, while ensuring it met accessibility standards. Everyone was working around the clock”

There was a lot of collaboration between the teams at PHAC and CBSA in order to deliver the app quickly. Sheriff explained, “There is an obvious connection between our teams and why the app was a joint project but then there’s the not-so-obvious connection. CBSA has tremendous expertise in respect to developing apps and when Cameron’s team volunteered to help us, we started talking to see how quickly we could put together a prototype.” “We had an army of colleagues, who gave everything they had to get this app launched in 5 weeks, while ensuring it met accessibility standards. Everyone was working around the clock” Cameron told us. “Bringing in the right people to the table and those who would think outside the box was instrumental. It was even more crucial to have these key players involved in the process from day one. Everyone —the communication folks, the technical specialists, the legal team, those in privacy —were all included from the get-go” Sheriff added. The duo wanted to give a special shoutout to two incredible members on their respective teams: Antonio Utano, Executive Director of Emerging Technologies (CBSA) and Amanda Bernardo, Project Manager of Digital Solutions (PHAC) —the success of the app would not have been possible without their relentless hard work and unwavering support.

“It was a team Canada approach. We didn’t think of ourselves as two separate departments with different mandates. We came together with the understanding that this is what Canada needs and that we needed to move quickly,” Sheriff explained. The pair echoed that keeping Canadians at the forefront and maintaining an outcome-focused mindset helped with the quick and successful launch of the app. Upon its release, the app was impressively ranked #4 in most downloaded in the Apple app store under the travel category. It gets better: with an updated version coming out soon the duo is hopeful the app will reach the #1 spot. Cameron went on to tell us “We’ve had over 95 000 downloads of the ArriveCAN app and that’s with little promotion. With the launch of our second version, we have implemented a very robust communications plan, so we expect to reach more Canadians, and see even more growth in numbers.”

The future is bright

“This is the positive direction we want to continue going in”

The launch of ArriveCAN really drove home the benefits of going digital for the two teams. Not only did it reduce the use of paper and plastic bags, but the reliable and timely data collection allowed for public health interventions to be implemented on the spot. There is no doubt in my mind that initiatives like this are breaking barriers and transforming the GC, proving that successful projects can come to fruition in record timing. “This is the positive direction we want to continue going in,” Sheriff happily stated, as the conversation came to a close.

Looking to download the ArriveCAN app?

 
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