COVID Apps won’t work — and the reason is not technology

Last week in the comments of a LinkedIn post, I had a brief exchange with Ger Schoeber about the usefulness (or absence thereof) of the current efforts to build a Corona app in The Netherlands.

I had a vague idea of writing down how I thought a Corona app could or should work, but I know too little about the workings of smartphones and Bluetooth (the core of every solution attempt it seems) to do that on short notice.

However, I can say something from a system architecture perspective, based on what I learned the past 25 years by working as an architect and keeping track of the works of people like Gerrit Muller, Erik Philippus, the clever folks at ASML, Philips — Healthcare and many more.

First of all, when defining a system, from architecture perspective we need to find a balance between what is required by the customer, the user — stakeholders in general: the Customer Objectives, and what is technically possible, the Realization. These terms come from an apprach called CAFCR, where they are two of 5 views of looking at a system. I won’t go into all five here, as it doesn’t add anything to my message.

Looking at customer objectives, it’s pretty clear what ‘our stakeholders’ want:

  • Reduce the health effects of COVID-19 virus on the world population, and
  • Protect our brittle economical world against the effects of the COVID-19 virus, by
  • Ensuring social distancing rules are followed and
  • People are warned when they risk infection
  • Without endangering the privacy of the individual

The above is a combination of the needs of governments, businesses and individuals — combined into what I perceive as the goal current efforts to build a ‘Corona app’ try to achieve.

On the technical side, solutions like using Bluetooth, the mobile phone network and QR codes are used or being investigated as possibilities. For these, we already know the following:

  • Bluetooth has disadvantages in terms of accuracy (walls in between people are not seen, signal strength varies, etc.)
  • QR codes require explicit action by people (risk of forgetting)
  • Cell phone tracing is considered a privacy violation in many countries

I see some big flaw in this whole situation, and they are not technical at all.

First of all every country, every government and every solution developer so far has ignored the fact that the problem doesn’t stop at the borders. Europe is a continent that thrives on free transfer of people and goods, we’ve build a society that travels all over the world. Yes, we have social distancing and so called ‘smart working’, but not all our human activities fit with those concepts. A true solution is first of all a human solution, with possible technical support. And that will only really be effective if the technical solution takes into account that borders are an articial means, defined by humans, followed _only_ by those same humans and only if it suits them. It seems that both developers and governments in ‘the west’ however prefer to start from scratch, and in isolation, within their own borders, rather than seek reuse and cooperation.

Second, every effort to build an app right now in Europe and the US is ignoring the possibilities solutions are already in use in China (QR code app), Singapore (Bluetooth app) and Taiwan (cell phone tracing). These are discarded without much investigation, based on the claim that they violate privacy by default. Maybe they do, but there might be ways to deal with that — either by the public giving priority to health over privacy to some extend, or by making modifications that do protect privacy. And no, making the use of the app ‘optional’ is not solving that problem: you can’t claim to have a technical solution that will solve a problem if it depends completely on the amount of people that voluntarily give up their rights to privacy in favour of their health. That’s a choice nobody should have to make — so find a technical solution that does not require privacy violations.

Third is the timeline. The app shows up in the media and in technical publications as if it is THE solution to the whole problem. It’s not. In the end, we are dealing with something biological, and the app is only a small means to help prevent too many people getting infected and ill at the same time to avoid what we’ve been dealing with around the world the past four months. The real solution lies in finding medication, vaccines and in the end immunity by means of antibodies. An app that helps us keep our distance and warn us when we’re at risk is only a means to help us through the period needed to develop those things. The current discussions, and the fact that it takes months to develop a functional, reliable and safe app already make that developing something from scratch now takes too long.

So, to those working on the apps — don’t see it as a way to make money (direclty or indirectly), but as a means to help complete the set of measures we need. Focus on what is really needed, and what is technically possible, and cooperate. If you can’t do that, it’s more effective to stop now.

CEO at Schinchoku and software architect at Delphino Consultancy B.V. — writing about software, and about the Shinchoku startup.

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