The smartphone-based application was launched on June 4 with high hopes and much fanfare in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus
There were high praises heaped on the app, Corona Tracer BD, a mobile phone application claimed to have the ability to warn a user of any Covid-19 patient nearby, thus helping the app user to maintain social distancing, two metres, as suggested by the WHO.
Ministers and government functionaries full of optimism promised that the app, launched in the first week of June, would "...play a key role in securing the lives and livelihoods of the people of this country at a time of great need."
However, three months down the line, the app, called the "finest example of…public-private partnership" launched by the Bangladesh government with Shohoz.com to tackle the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, turned out to be a major disappointment as the smartphone-based app does not reliably track and notify its users of possible infections.
Rahi Rahman, a resident of Mohammadpur, one of the Covid-19 hotspots in Dhaka, installed the Corona Tracer BD app on his mobile phone and used it for two months. Leaving a review on the Google Play Store page of the app he writes that the app has never given him any warning about the proximity of any Covid-positive patient. Not even at the Ibn Sina Hospital where he went for a health checkup.
"...the hospital was crowded with corona patients, but still the app says no contact was detected. This app is a joke for us," Rahi wrote in the review of Corona Tracer BD.
The Google Play Store page for the app is full of such negative reviews – the users expressing their frustration about how the app fails to do what it boasts it can.
Corona Tracer BD was launched on June 4 with high promises and amid much fanfare in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Dr ASM Alamgir, principal scientific officer at the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), told The Business Standard that the IEDCR is supposed to provide a2i with mobile numbers of newly infected patients and a2i is supposed to add those numbers to the app's database.
Also, users of the app need to update their health condition on the app on a regular basis.
Only then the app will alert a user about the proximity of a Covid-19 positive patient – provided the app is installed and Bluetooth and GPS are activated on the phones of both the infected and the healthy user.
But, because of an apparent lack of publicity those who downloaded the app have seldom updated their Covid-19 status on the app.
Whether the authorities updated the database regularly could not be known as none from Shohoz replied to our queries while officials directly involved with the project simply declined to comment on the matter.
Thus, the app has completely failed to serve the purpose it was created for.
The way the app is supposed to work
Evidently, Tk91 lakh of the taxpayers' money has been wasted in the name of this initiative, with experts pointing out that the app failed to benefit its users due to poor planning and technical limitations.
Utilising a smartphone's Bluetooth and GPS technology, the app is supposed to alert "at risk" users by detecting their exposure to any Covid-19 positive user through the use of Bluetooth connectivity and a so called "Digital Handshakes."
The data is collected when two app users come within a certain distance of each other, and is kept secure in-transit via encryption.
The ICT Division spent Tk91 lakh to develop the app through the Skill Development for Mobile Games & Application Programme. Seeking to avoid Covid-19 infection, more than five lakh people have downloaded the app from the Google Play Store so far.
Many user reviews of the app on the Google Play Store term its performance far less than satisfactory.
The app has an overall rating of 3.4 out of 5 on Google Play Store.
While there are several 5- or 4-star ratings for the app, most actually appreciate the initiative and these reviews and ratings were done before the users actually used the app for some time. Some of them wrote that it would be a great app if it worked the way it promised to.
But those who have used it for a fair amount of time came up with very low ratings and negative reviews.
Jahidul Islam, a private job holder, installed the Corona Tracer BD app on June 6. He eventually uninstalled it after a week due to its ineffectiveness. Speaking to The Business Standard, Jahid termed the app "useless."
On the app's page, the developer says, "This app utilizes Bluetooth signal to understand if you are near another Tracer app user. It will help you in identifying whether you are at risk of COVID-19 infection, by checking if you have been in recent contact with an infected individual. If your case seems risky, you will be able to seek medical help at the earliest and go into self-isolation."
But like Rahi and Jahid, many users have expressed anger at the ineffectiveness of the app on its review page.
Contacted by The Business Standard, Project Director Md Nuruzzaman declined to comment on the matter, and requested that the secretary of the ICT Division be contacted on the matter.
The Division's Senior Secretary NM Zeaul Alam said, "The effectiveness of the app would have been observable if a larger number of people had used it properly."
Unwilling to admit that the project's expenditure had been a waste of money, he added, "At least an app has been built and we can use it for other purposes."
ICT expert Sumon Ahmed Sabir said launching software for a major purpose without popularising it among people indicates poor planning.
The app suffers from a number of serious technical limitations at the user level due to its dependence on Bluetooth and GPS.
A user named Raghib Isharq Alvy expressed anger in his review, saying, "To run this app, Bluetooth has to be turned on, which drains the phone's battery. Besides Bluetooth, it also needs permission for Wi-Fi and GPS, which is also causing battery drainage.
"Because of continuous access to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS, other apps seem to lag. Even the home launcher sometimes crashes."
He also mentioned that the app needs a high-end processor to run properly.
In addition to these considerations of hardware limitations, the smartphone penetration in the country was not considered, experts said.
A Sri Lanka-based think-tank LIRNEasia in a report released earlier had said App-based contact tracing of Covid-19 patients can't work in developing countries with low smartphone penetration.
But in countries like India and Bangladesh where less than 17 percent people use smartphones or in Pakistan where the rate is 13 percent, the need is for contact tracing by simpler, more widespread technology, it added.
Lack of hard data
Aside from the Corona Tracer BD app's reported lack of effectiveness, The Business Standard could not find any records on how many people have been tracked and alerted by the app so far.
The Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) and the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) could not provide any data on the app's usage, though it was developed with direct support from and financing by the DGHS, IEDCR and ICT Division.
When queried on the issue, Additional Director General of DGHS and former director of IEDCR Professor Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora declined to comment on the matter, though she led the IEDCR when the app was approved.
Instead, Dr Flora asked The Business Standard to contact the newly appointed Director of IEDCR, Professor Dr Tahmina Shirin, for more details.
When contacted, Tahmina Shirin said, "I don't have any knowledge about the issue as I have only recently been appointed. I need at least seven days to know all the information about the IEDCR. Until then I cannot comment on it."
Shohoz, an online ride-sharing and ticketing platform, built the app for the ICD Division. The company did not respond to comments about the app despite being contacted on multiple occasions through phone and email.
Several officials at the ICT Division and DGHS said they have no data on how effective the app has been in tracking and alerting its users to possible infections since it was launched.
"It was just an eyewash, and another example of the government's poor planning and expenditure," said an official on condition of anonymity.
Currently, the country has 161.29 million mobile phone subscribers and the number of smartphone users is around 14 million. But only 5 lakh users have downloaded the app since its inauguration last June.
Syed Almas Kabir, president of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) said, "Due to a lack of awareness, publicity and usage instructions, the software did not have the desired effect on the users.
"The effectiveness of an app depends on the popularity of the software and the number of users. But the aforementioned app could not gain that popularity due to a lack of widespread and proper use."
Emphasising on the publicity, Kabir said "Some people may have downloaded the app, but they did not provide the required information. To resolve such issues, there should have been more awareness and publicity."