As virions of coronavirus started hijacking human cells in early 2020, the world started to mobilize against it. Virions themselves do not do anything, they are not active agents. They are bits of generic material that get stuck into living cells, causing them to create more copies of itself instead of normal cell reproduction. The infection causes people to cough, spreading new bits of the virus to others through droplets in the air.
The virus propogates so well because of its Darwinian fit in the nature of humanity today: we are social beings living in tight spaces, constantly interacting with one another. If we did not live together or pack into bars to drink or hug our grandparents, the virus would never have spread. And that is why it is so hard to stop the virus.
It took government mandates and fines to get people to stay inside. Laws obliging masks had to be put in place. Stickers and spray paint outline where we should stand to distance ourselves socially. Each measure was designed to slow the spread by changing how people lived – but only a little bit.
One thing that did not work was the first app StopCovid that was released over the course of the middle of the year in France. The promise of the app was big: help create tracing capabilities so that if you had been exposed to someone with the virus you would get notified. In theory then you would isolate until you could get a test. The goal was to break chains of transmission and thus lower the R value.
Some Asian nations like South Korea relied heavily on this type of technology in order to prevent nationwide lockdowns. Their populations were already accustomed to a higher degree of digitalization and so barriers were lower. And caseloads were lower too. People followed the rules: if you were identified as a potential contact, you isolated until you were in the clear.
StopCovid was an attempt to get the same sort of traction working against the virus in France. Turn on the app and your Bluetooth connection and it will anonymously record any other device that comes within a certain range for a certain amount of time. If one of the people possessing one of those devices tests positive for Covid, a chain reaction of notifications is triggered to each device that recently came in contact.
The utility of contact tracing is desired when you are a government looking to suppress a pandemic, it is much less so when you are an individual. First, the app drains your phone’s battery. You have to remember to turn it on again if you have turned it off to conserve battery. Second, the anonymous nature of the notification made people skeptical. We want to understand, and saying that you came into contact leads us to pose questions. We ask where we were, with whom, and what we did. Our memories may omit moments where a transmission might have taken place. Finally, it relied on people being honest: to trust the app and heed the notification, and to declare to the app that you are yourself infected.
It was no wonder then that Macron declared StopCovid a failure when he announced the curfew a month ago. He waved away the old effort and launched a new app branding it “TousAntiCovid.” Many people groaned about yet another app, but it was a classic pivot that any tech entrepreneur would have made by asking themselves: how can I make my app worth using?
The app still wants to do contact tracing, but it has incorporated two major improvements that are designed to make usage of the app daily. Start with information. The first thing you see when opening the app are the stats. New cases from yesterday, number of new patients in réanimation, and the occupancy of ICU beds. Today the occupancy is hovering over 96%. That stat is enough to instill a sense of urgency to fight the virus. But there are also a lot more stats, like caseload as a percentage of the population, and the most important stat of all: the R value. After a month of curfew and two weeks of lockdown #2 the R value in France is holding at less than 1. This means that even though the cases are rising they are slowing down and the direction of the pandemic has tipped towards being under control.
Knowing the stats is all good, but the app features a newsfeed regarding any new measures the government puts in place. It also has an option to show you where the nearest testing center to you is. You can declare yourself positive with a quick click. A large banner asks you to turn on the tracing. If there ever was a crash course in app UX, this is a prime example of reworking every aspect from the ground up.
The other element working in favor of the TousAntiCovid app is that it automatically generates your attestation to go outside. The government has hinted that the attestation will stay in place even if more types of businesses get to reopen come early December. Instead of having to go to the government site, fill out the form each time, and screenshot it on your phone, you fill in your info once and can generate your attestations in three clicks: one to open the generator, one to select the reason why you’re going out, and one to certify. This is a major improvement from March, and the primary reason that people will come back to continue using the app.
To date 8.8 million French people have downloaded the app (it’s another stat presented in the app). That represents 13% of the French population. It’s become a part of my daily life and a way to ease the lockdown burden as well as inform myself as the situation evolves.
I commend the French government for admitting failure and taking the time and effort to build a new experience so that we can all be TousAntiCovid.