The new "COVID-Alert" app launched in late July first in Ontario and is now being used in four provinces, soon to be joined by Quebec as the fifth, Critics continue to raise questions about the effectiveness of such apps (Ontario Digital Service)

New ‘COVID Alert’ tracing app has a major accessiblity flaw: expert

A new COVID-19 tracing app launched last Friday by the federal government–amidst much fanfare and high hopes–is already coming under sharp criticism.

At least one expert says the “COVID-Alert” app will be inaccessible to many older Canadians and members of marginalized groups because of its makeup.

The app, which the government says over 1.18 million Canadians had downloaded by Sunday night,  requires users to have Apple or Android phones made in the last five years, and a relatively new operating system.  

Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Policy, says that leaves a lot of people out.

“The worst affected by (the pandemic) are Black, Indigenous, people of colour, people who often have a lower socio-economic bracket. Who’s not going to be able to install the application? That same group … that’s a problem,” Parsons told The Canadian Press.

And, Parsons added, for a contact tracing app to properly work, it requires 65 to 80 per cent of all Canadians to use it.

Parsons said the current version of the app makes that impossible.

The app, whose launch was delayed in early July for unspecified reasons, is designed to track the location of phones relative to each other without collecting personal data anywhere centrally.

Users are notified if their phones have recently been near the phone of a person who later volunteers that they have tested positive for COVID-19.

Parsons says criticism should be directed at the federal government, not those who designed the app.He believes the technical aspects of the application, such as its ease of use and its performance in both official languages, has been done well.

“On the technical end, the developers deserve to be congratulated,” he said. “This is a failure of policy. The government should have seen this, I hope someone has, they should have predicted it, I hope someone has, and they should have done something to try and start fixing it.”

The latest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada as of 4:00 a.m. on August 3, 2020: There are 116,884 confirmed cases in Canada. — Quebec: 59,599 confirmed (including 5,681 deaths, 50,886 resolved) — Ontario: 39,449 confirmed (including 2,778 deaths, 35,539 resolved) — Alberta: 10,843 confirmed (including 196 deaths, 9,261 resolved) — British Columbia: 3,641 confirmed (including 195 deaths, 3,168 resolved) — Saskatchewan: 1,342 confirmed (including 18 deaths, 1,070 resolved) — Nova Scotia: 1,071 confirmed (including 64 deaths, 1,003 resolved) — Manitoba: 421 confirmed (including 8 deaths, 337 resolved), 14 presumptive — Newfoundland and Labrador: 266 confirmed (including 3 deaths, 259 resolved) — New Brunswick: 170 confirmed (including 2 deaths, 166 resolved) — Prince Edward Island: 36 confirmed (including 36 resolved) — Yukon: 14 confirmed (including 11 resolved) — Repatriated Canadians: 13 confirmed (including 13 resolved) — Northwest Territories: 5 confirmed (including 5 resolved) — Nunavut: No confirmed cases — Total: 116,884 (14 presumptive, 116,870 confirmed including 8,945 deaths, 101,754 resolved) (The Canadian Press)

The issue of needing an app that works with older smartphones was known from the start, Parsons told CP.

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat referred questions about the technical requirements of the app to Google and Apple but noted the app is only one tool to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Neither Apple nor Google returned requests from CP for comment.

The app is currently only linked to the Ontario health-care system, with the Atlantic provinces set to be the next provinces to link up.

With files from The Canadian Press, RCI

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