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Germans Disappointed By Coronavirus Tracking App: Lots of Work But Little Utility

  • September 24, 2020

The number of glitches has been painful, particularly because the app was hardly a bargain. It cost the government 15 million euros to develop it, and a further 44.4 million euros have been earmarked for “maintenance and care” during the operation of the app through 2021. As of August 27, the government had also spent 9.4 million euros advertising the app. “This app deserves your trust,” Chancellor Angela Merkel ensured her podcast listeners shortly after the launch.

Despite all the advertising, the numbers of downloads have been growing only slowly for some time now. Every second user now considers the app to be ineffective, as a survey for the initiative D21 and the Technical University of Munich has shown.

Further Development Needed

Some health and digital experts are urging for the app to be revised as soon as possible before infection rates start to increase even more with the arrival of the cold season in Germany. “The app urgently needs to be further developed in order to make it effective,” says Karl Lauterbach, the point man for health care policy for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and an epidemiologist by training.

Manuel Höferlin, the point man for digital policy in the parliamentary group of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), is critical of the government for having “rested for too long” following the app’s successful launch. With the exception of troubleshooting, he says, nothing has happened since then. He says it is “completely incomprehensible” to him why the app hasn’t been made available since then for older phone models and in App stores for people under the age of 17, as well.

The FDP politician also accuses Health Minister Spahn of having sowed confusion among users himself. “At times, he talked about the corona warning app and the data donation app and a quarantine app at the same time, which made many people uncertain and sacrificed important trust,” he says.

The truth, though, is that it was Spahn himself who got the app project rolling. It seemed to fit in perfectly with his agenda. When he became health minister two years ago, Spahn told an all-staff meeting at the Health Ministry that digitalization would be one of his core focuses. To back up that commitment, he set up a separate department for digitization, headed by Berlin-based health policy and digital health expert Gottfried Ludewig.

In the corona crisis, the Warn-App is one of the few measures with which he can stand out, given the federalist ramifications of a health policy system in which much of the responsibility is held by states and local governments. Early on, Spahn pointed to countries like South Korea, which succeeded in using mobile phone data to stop chains of infection. Spahn also saw the app as a way to get out of the lockdown in the long run.

But Spahn was too brash when it came to the implementation of the project, which unsettled many people. Initially, he wanted to enable the health authorities to request mobile phone cell data from telecommunications providers to trace infection chains. Following fierce protests, including objections from the Justice Ministry, Spahn backed down.

In the end, he pleaded for risk assessment to be carried out centrally on a server maintained by the Robert Koch Institute to obtain more data for pandemic control. That, in turn, also triggered protests. Hundreds of scientists and experts warned of “unprecedented surveillance.”

A Watered-Down App

Ultimately, the German government opted for what is called the decentralized solution – one in which the risk of coronavirus infection is determined by the smartphone itself. Apple and Google had announced that their operating systems would only support decentralized variants anyway.

Almost overnight, Chancellery Chief of Staff Helge Braun and Spahn commissioned the heads of Deutsche Telekom and SAP to develop that variant. It now meets the requirements of privacy and data protection, but it also weakens the app’s central task: that of stopping chains of infection early and widely.

At least that’s the view taken by Patrick Larscheid. The physician is the head of the public health department in the Berlin district of Reinickendorf. Each day, his team what the app should be able to take care of on its own: They perform contact tracing to warn people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. They go about their work using traditional means – by interviewing infected persons and then phoning their contacts.

Theoretically, the app should be able to make such work easier. But Larscheid says that isn’t the case and even compares the project with a fiasco in Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer’s ministry. “The app is Jens Spahn’s equivalent of (Scheuer’s) truck toll disaster – it cost a lot of money and has no apparent benefit.” The disaster is a reference to a truck toll technology system that Germany bought but failed to implement, at a cost of hundreds of millions of taxpayer money. “This app does more harm than good,” he says.

Larscheid believes the app would have to collect significantly more data to be useful – about the place and time of contact and also about the person, for example. “The app doesn’t even tell you if the alleged risk took place outdoors, on a commuter train or when visiting relatives in a hospital,” says Larscheid. The app’s algorithms operate with rough probabilities, he says, which isn’t effective enough. “You would never ride in an autonomous vehicle that might or might not hit a tree,” he says.

Diminishing Interest

Other critics think the path chosen was the correct one, but that the execution has been less than stellar. “I have the impression that too many people are still only using the Warn-App out of their own interest – in other words, in the expectation of being warned themselves, but without the willingness to warn others in turn. But if too many people do that, the app can’t provide the full effect it was intended to,” says Anke Domscheit-Berg, the digital policy point person for the Left Party in parliament.

That refusal could explain one odd statistic. According to Deutsche Telekom, only 3,613 positive test results had been reported via the hotline as of last Tuesday. Even assuming that app users follow the hygiene rules and are less likely to belong to risk groups, that number would be concerningly small if you consider that there have been around 80,000 confirmed new coronavirus infections since the app’s launch.

It’s possible that many infected people aren’t reporting their positive test results to their app. Or that many of those who downloaded the app in the early days are no longer using it.

The diminishing interest in the app could also have something to do with the many glitches that have accompanied the project. At first, it didn’t update automatically in the background on some devices as intended, meaning the app didn’t warn people reliably for weeks in those instances. It also took quite a while for the people in charge to admit the mistake.

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