Track and trace: If at first you don’t succeed…
Editor Philip Mason looks at some of the lessons which might be learnt from the UK government’s initial failure to roll-out a ‘track and trace’ app to combat Coronavirus.
Believe it or not, that blog was my very first in something like eight months of providing regular content for the BAPCO 2021 news site. This was not so much because I don’t enjoy writing them - quite the opposite actually. Rather, I’d simply prefer to leave the commentary to someone who is actually involved in the development/use of the technology itself, thereby providing something genuinely useful rather than just another piece of click bait.
Given my previous level of productivity then, I was surprised (not to say a little dismayed) that certain events over the past seven days have given me the urge to run my mouth a second time in the space of as many weeks. These events, it probably won’t be a surprise to learn, have centred around the UK government’s ongoing attempts to roll out a ‘track and trace’ app to stem the flow of COVID-19.
To provide a little context, the government first announced the app in April, swiftly followed by the news that it was going to be piloted on the Isle of Wight, starting in May. According to statistics something like 60,000 devices had downloaded the solution in the trial’s first ten days. It was subsequently anticipated – despite several delays – that it would be ready to roll out by the end of June.
Fast forward several weeks to last Thursday, and the announcement that the app was now going to be scrapped altogether, at least in its current form. This was due to technical difficulties, not least around interoperability and data storage, areas of work which had dogged the project since its inception.
As if this weren’t frustrating enough however, Saturday also saw The Guardian run a story in which Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London claimed that elements within certain government departments had displayed a less than cooperative attitude to other organisations working in the field. Or in his words: “They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public... The idea was that this [government] app was going to be a saviour, another world beating thing.”
Now, while we currently have no reason to doubt the veracity of these claims, they still require further corroboration, and therefore need to be taken very much with a grain of salt. Acknowledging that situations can and do exist where organisations don’t communicate each other however, what can potentially be learned from all this?
Well firstly, that there are certain public safety scenarios in which the requirements of real people have to take precedence - over reputation, expedience, preferred working method, personality, culture or, well, most anything really.
To take COVID-19 as an obvious example, it has already been responsible for over 40,000 UK deaths, with the economy likewise standing on a precipice as a result of the virus’ continuing presence. And with lockdown looking like it’s about to be eased even further, if there was ever a moment when we could do with a genuinely world beating track and trace app, it’s probably now.
The second - and perhaps more important – lesson meanwhile, is that it’s always better to actively contribute within a given ecosystem than to try and operate alone. This is a truism in life, business, and certainly in the development of public safety communications technology.
As I said in my previous blog, we’ve seen the latter proven quite spectacularly with the recent shift from proprietary to standardised technology in relation to the Emergency Services Network. In the context of the current conversation meanwhile, ETSI’s newly launched E4P group will hopefully likewise point the way forward when it comes to effective cross-working, between both apps and agencies.
In a statement released last week, the DHSC said that “the next phase” of the government’s track and trace app will bring together previous work, alongside the much discussed “Google/Apple framework.” Reports have put a revised timescale for deployment at around Winter or Autumn at the earliest.
Whenever the date for roll-out - and whatever the technology -, please just make sure it works this time.
We'll be publishing more commentary and news relating to the government's track and trace app - including when it's ready for BAPCO members to download - as the weeks progress. To attend BAPCO 2021, register your interest here.
Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
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