France tries to recover failed StopCovid tracking app as cases rise

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When the pandemic raged across Europe last spring, many politicians and health experts were optimistic that a new generation of tracking apps could potentially help keep COVID-19 at bay. France was one of the many countries to embrace the idea, but its controversial approach has had no impact and instead becomes a cautionary tale.In a report released this week, a national committee tasked with reviewing the country’s response to COVID-19 called on the government to reinvest in promoting the app, which has so far generated few notifications. In theory, someone who has the app installed on their smartphone will receive a notification if they recently crossed paths with someone who reported a positive diagnosis through the same app.

So far, such notifications have been rare. The report said that only 14 notifications had been sent in the first three weeks after the app was released, and as of August 20, that number was only 72. At the start of the week, notifications were even lower at 200, a figure the report called “pathetic.” ”

The app only recorded around 2.4 million downloads out of a population of 67 million. Worse yet, the report estimates that around 700,000 users have uninstalled it and many of those who install the app never activate it.

Reports criticized the government for not doing enough to encourage users to download and activate the app. The committee “calls into question the coherence of the policy followed and asks the government to be coherent”, indicates the report. “A first step would be to launch an information campaign on the StopCovid application.”

A renewed conversation on the StopCovid app comes as the country experiences higher daily case rates than seen last spring, when the country went into lockdown for two months.

The higher numbers are in part due to more widespread testing. The county has increased its testing capacity six-fold since the spring, according to Reuters, and major cities in particular are carrying out large-scale testing.

While experts note that deaths and hospitalizations lag behind cases, so far France has not seen the number of deaths reach anything close to the figures seen in the spring.

Still, government officials at the national and local levels have slowly reimposed restrictions in an effort to combat the increase in cases. However, it does not seem likely that officials can count on help from the StopCovid app.

Wrong turns

The French government launched its application in June, but the effort has failed almost from the start. In its first eight days, the app recorded 1 million downloads. In contrast, Germany released its app on June 16 and reportedly recorded 10 million downloads in three days.

The figures for France remained disappointing during the summer. In a report by Sensortower in mid-July, an average of 9.3% of residents in 13 countries had downloaded some sort of COVID-19 tracking app. In France, this figure was only 3.3%, compared to 14.3% in Germany.

To be fair, the researchers say the majority of these tracking apps haven’t achieved the adoption rates needed to be effective. But France remains a special case because the COVID-19 application it released uses a centralized system that collects data on a remote server and makes a potential match there.

Most of the countries that have created a tracing app have adopted the contact tracing API designed by Apple and Google that works on Android and iOS devices while keeping data decentralized. French officials felt that this did not give them enough control and chose to go ahead with their own solution. Privacy groups have criticized this approach and accused the otherwise privacy-obsessed French politicians of being hypocrites. StopCovid also sparked a showdown with Apple, which refused to allow such an approach on its devices.

More than three months later, French officials refuse to acknowledge errors in their technology and privacy decisions. Instead, Prime Minister Jean Castex and Digital Minister Cedric O, who oversaw the development of StopCovid, insisted the problem boils down to a failure to properly promote the use of the app. The COVID-19 committee echoed this sentiment.

With so much news focused on the rise in cases, the committee urges a renewal of promotional efforts. Such a campaign would seek to convey the measures taken by the government to protect privacy – even if it uses a system that privacy advocates continue to criticize.

With higher adoption, app developers would hope to collect enough data to improve technical shortcomings. The committee also referred to a program in the overseas territory of Guyana, where text messages sent to all smartphone users resulted in thousands of downloads in a short time.

The committee believes that “the StopCovid application should be“ relaunched ”, on the one hand, identifying possible avenues for improving the application and on the other hand helping users to better appreciate its usefulness in“ the real life “. The rebound in the epidemic is favorable to a campaign to promote this application. ”

Conservative Senator Patrick Chaize went so far as to suggest that the government consider making the use of the StopCovid app mandatory, although this measure does not seem to be supported. There were also rumors that the government could give users of the app testing priority, although some argued that this would be illegal, possibly in violation of EU GDPR rules.

It is not surprising that the government is sticking to the current architecture of its StopCovid application. He’s probably invested too much in the app, from development resources to the various support systems that determine what steps to take if users get a notification.

If he fails to get enough users, he will miss a chance, however small, of collecting enough data to see if his technical approach works. Beyond the failure to slow the transmission of the disease, it would be a missed opportunity to learn from any mistakes and ensure the country has an effective application for the next pandemic.

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