“It doesn’t tell me how to move safety in my community. It doesn’t give me my risk profile based on my behaviour.”

Author of the article: Zak VesceraPublishing; Oct 05, 2020

More than two weeks after its debut, a handful of Saskatchewan people have used the federal government’s COVID-19 Alert app to warn close contacts after they tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

However, the lack of information beyond that raises questions whether the application is actually helping people navigate the pandemic, says Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy professor Dr. Tarun Katapally.

“It doesn’t tell me how to move safety in my community. It doesn’t give me my risk profile based on my behaviour,” Katapally said. 

Anyone in Canada can download COVID-19 Alert, but it’s only active in Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan, where it debuted on September 18.

As of October 1, the app had been downloaded more than 3 million times and 675 people in Canada have used it to report a positive diagnosis. Doing so sends a warning to devices that were within six feet of your device for 15 minutes or more in the past two weeks.

Marika Nadeau, director general of Health Canada’s COVID Alert Task Force, said Thursday that some of those 675 alerts were sent in Saskatchewan, making it the only province aside from Ontario where that is known to have happened.

Health Canada declined to say how many alerts were sent in Saskatchewan specifically, noting it was fewer than 15.

Little is otherwise known about the app or people who download it because of its high privacy settings.

Katapally says privacy is a good thing, but thinks governments should have access to aggregate-level data about users. He argues this would help them make better policy, and help users understand if their behaviour is risky.

Nadeau said the app’s privacy threshold hasn’t been an issue for provincial or territorial governments because they do their own COVID-19 contact tracing and testing.

She said it’s meant to help people make better decisions rather than guide public health responses, particularly younger people who have been a driver of recent community transmission in provinces like Ontario and British Columbia.

The application is most effective if more people use it, so Ottawa is also spending $10 million to promote it.

Katapally says an incentive program might help create even more uptake. But he argues efforts could be more focused if government’s knew how many people in Saskatchewan or other jurisdictions use the app or where they are. He supports the app and uses it himself, but worries some communities are benefiting more than others.

“Are we widening the existing equity gap through this app? Are people who are more affluent, educated downloading this, and are people who are not affluent not downloading this? That we don’t know,” he said.