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Podium placards promoting the COVID Alert app are seen on a table on Parliament Hill on July 31, 2020.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Donna Dasko is an Ontario Senator and former pollster.

On July 31, many weeks after the initial announcement, the governments of Canada and Ontario launched the voluntary, privacy-first COVID Alert smartphone app. The government of Alberta just announced that it, too, will adopt the app, meaning a big win for public health could be in the works.

COVID Alert is best described as an exposure notification app. If a user tests positive in Ontario, they are provided with a single-use code by Ontario Public Health, which the user can choose to enter into the app. At that point, all devices within two metres of the user for more than 15 minutes over the prior two weeks will receive an exposure notice.

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The app does not store information about individuals, locations or times of contact. Therefore, users will not be able to determine where or when they were exposed to the virus; they will simply be informed that they were exposed and can then decide if they want to get tested. Canadians are thought to be especially privacy-sensitive, so it is not surprising that privacy considerations have dominated this app’s operations. The privacy commissioners for Canada and Ontario both reviewed the app and gave it their approval. Daniel Therrien, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said he will be using the app himself.

The importance of privacy considerations, however, means we are left with an app that apparently provides minimal support to public-health authorities in their efforts to track and trace the spread of this virus. For instance, some experts have expressed concern that the app cannot be integrated with traditional contact-tracing methods, which means contact tracers will still need to manually track down those who have been potentially exposed to COVID-19.

The ability to collect data and measure the effectiveness of the app in reducing the spread of the virus is integral to understanding its usefulness and improving its design, but there are questions here, too. Will public-health authorities ask Ontarians about their use of the app at COVID-19 testing facilities? Can public-health institutions collect data on how many users receive notifications?

One key measure of success will be the number of Canadians who download the app, but there are concerns on this point as well. On June 26, Stephen Lucas, the federal Deputy Minister of Health, told the Senate standing committee on social affairs, science and technology that the utility of contact-tracing apps is maximized when they are used by between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of the population. Dr. Lucas stated that the goal should be to have the app in the hands of about half of all Canadians.

Conditions are ideal for public uptake. A national poll commissioned by myself and senators Rosemary Moodie and Colin Deacon this spring found considerable support among the public for using such an app. Of the respondents, 82 per cent said they wanted to be anonymously notified via a smartphone if they were exposed to the virus, and 92 per cent said they were willing to share the results of a positive test so others could be notified.

Canadians show high levels of trust in public-health authorities and are motivated to act in this crisis by concerns about their own health, that of their families and of Canadians as a whole.

Still, translating such sentiments into action requires a huge effort, and achieving that 50-per-cent figure is a tall order.

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A Leger poll released on Aug. 11 found that just 14 per cent of Canadians had downloaded the app, 20 per cent said they planned to download it, while the remainder said they either would not download it or were not sure. A Mainstreet Research poll released Aug. 14 found the app download rate among Canadians was around 21 per cent.

According to a report from technology news site The Logic, the federal government will spend $10-million raising public awareness of the app, which is welcome news, but details have yet to be provided and no campaign is yet visible.

A major public awareness and marketing campaign is needed, and the messages must be consistent, clear and constant in order to convince Canadians that COVID Alert is an important tool in fighting the pandemic.

Appropriate target markets should be identified, with a particular focus on the younger, more mobile segments of the population who are most likely to benefit from using the app.

Public-health officials must be involved, much like they have been in delivering messages about physical distancing, hand washing and wearing masks, and they must find credible spokespeople to assist.

In the development of this app, the government made a host of compromises that increase privacy at the expense of greater utility.

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Now launched, it is time to highlight those safeguards and encourage Canadians to download this app through a serious public health campaign. Otherwise, why launch it in the first place?

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