Two Canadian tech firms that build apps for corporate clients are planning to recreate the ArriveCan app within days as a way of showing federal officials that they should not have spent $54-million on the mobile software.
Sheetal Jaitly, chief executive officer of a Canadian-based company called TribalScale that creates apps and other software for global companies, said the idea came from staff during their Friday morning video meeting.
“We do a stand up every morning where we talk about what’s happening in the news,” he said. As they were discussing the Globe and Mail report that total federal spending on the ArriveCan app is on pace to reach $54-million this year – more than double what the government had recently said had been spent – one staff member said he bet he could build it in two days.
“We all started laughing and one started feeding off the other. ‘Hey, why don’t we just go do this and show the world that this is completely ridiculous?’ ” he said, summarizing the staff discussion.
After announcing his plan online Friday, some social-media users questioned Mr. Jaitly as to why he would have staff work on a project over the Thanksgiving weekend for no obvious purpose. Mr. Jaitly said his staff are salaried employees and are under no obligation to work on the project.
“Nobody was asked to do this,” he said. “People got energized.”
Zain Manji, co-founder at Lazer Technologies, which also builds apps and other digital products for clients, told The Globe Friday that his team is launching a similar hackathon.
“It’s voluntary by us and over the weekend – like a hackathon project,” he said in an e-mail. “Purely to show that, professionally speaking, an app like this should not cost as much as it did, and for the government to please consider other avenues or do more due diligence in the future.”
Mr. Manji and Mr. Jaitly spoke by phone Friday about potentially co-ordinating their efforts. They are both planning for their work to be open source, meaning it will be publicly accessible for free.
Mr. Jaitly said other Canadian tech-company leaders have reached out to him about a potential collaboration.
“I think the [Canadian technology] ecosystem is taking a look at this and saying ‘Hey, we can run this as an open source project,’” he said. “Team up together, community driven, and say, ‘Hey, government, stop wasting our money.’”
ArriveCan was designed as a tool for travellers to upload their mandatory health information in relation to COVID-19 measures. It was expanded to allow users to answer customs and immigration questions up to 72 hours before flying into Canada.
While the government has announced that use of the app is no longer mandatory as of Sept. 30, it will continue to exist as a voluntary option.
A Globe and Mail analysis of federal contracts related to the ArriveCan app found that in addition to the higher price tag, the company that received the most federal work on the app – GCstrategies – has fewer than five employees. The Ottawa-area company told The Globe it is working with more than a dozen federal departments and delivers on its contracts through the use of more than 75 subcontractors. Neither the company nor the government will reveal the identity of the subcontractors, saying it is confidential third-party information.
Several tech leaders have told The Globe they question why the government would turn to such a company, rather than working directly with a Canadian firm that specializes in building apps.
The Globe reported Thursday that several Canadian tech leaders with experience building apps for major corporate clients said the $54-million price tag is outrageous and that most apps are built for less than $1-million.
Conservative MPs raised the tech leaders’ concerns about the app’s cost on several occasions during Friday’s Question Period in the House of Commons.
“What Canadians need is an about face from the Liberal government on its wasting of Canadian tax dollars, like it did on the $54-million ArriveCan app that tech experts are confounded by it costing more than a low seven figures at worst,” said Conservative MP Michael Barrett. “If Canadian tech experts do not know why it spent this much money, what we want to know, what Canadians want to know, is which Liberal insiders got rich on these contracts?”
Answering on behalf of the government, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who is parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, defended the spending and said the cost covered a range of expenses.
“I will make no apology for an app that saved the lives of tens of thousands of Canadians. This was part of a global health strategy in order to protect Canadians,” he said. “Where the honourable member insinuated the price was entirely related to developing the app, that price related to development, accessibility, support, maintenance and multiple different contracts. It was not related just to the development of the app.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh issued a statement on Twitter Friday describing the $54-million price tag as “beyond outrageous.”
“Where did the $54 million money go? And most importantly who profited from it?” he asked.