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Why Google and Apple Failed at COVID-19 Digital Response

By Wayan Vota on December 10, 2020

apple google covid-19 failure

Back in April 2020, Apple and Google announced COVID-19 contact tracing technology for iPhone and Android mobile phones. At our Global Digital Health Forum session on digital COVAX certificates, not a single person was using either company’s apps. What happened? What led to their failure?

How did the richest technology companies fail in COVID-19 digital response?

After our GDHF2020 session ended, I kept wondering how Apple and Google could fail at what was a pretty easy problem: developing a contact tracing application for COVID-19 infections. Robust digital contact tracing applications are in use for many other infections diseases, and these are two of the most powerful corporations on Earth – almost independent nation-states.

Failure Wasn’t Due to Lack of Resources

First, we cannot overestimate the resources amassed by these technology companies. They have an embarrassment of riches, especially when compared with international development organizations.

Apple is the most valuable public company in the world. Google is richer than many countries. Here is a visual representation of the annual revenues or budgets for Apple, Google, USAID, the World Bank, and The Bill and Melina Gates Foundation. Each bubble is relative in size.

apple google usaid budgets

Apple’s $274 Billion in FY2020 revenue is 16 times larger than USAID’s FY2019 $17 Billion budget. In fact, Apple’s free cash flow – cash profit it can use as needed – was $75 Billion. In essence, Apple could fund the entire USAID budget every year with what amounts to pocket change for the company. The Gates Foundation is a rounding error by comparison.

Failure Wasn’t Due to Technology Design

Developing a technology solution contact tracing is a relatively simple problem. We’ve know the science behind contact tracing for decades. Both the epidemiological process and the computer technology that can understand mobile phone proximity and alert those phones that were near another device.

In fact, Facebook already tracks your location and shares that data with advertisers, even if you opt out. (One of many reasons why I left the Facebook) Facebook is an application from a third-party developer too. Not Apple or Google, who have access to the core firmware and software of every phone.

Hence, it was pretty easy for Apple and Google to build the core exposure notification system software. That wasn’t where they failed. Actually, their solution was pretty elegant. It used Bluetooth technology for devices to ping their immediate geographic area and record the phones nearby in unique number sets stored locally on the phone.

If a phone owner subsequently tested positive, that phone would upload its recent activities to a server that could notify the phones that were in proximity. Neither Apple nor Google would have any personal or location data, which is better than Facebook’s app.

Three Reasons Why Apple and Google Failed

If the exposure notification technology solution was viable, where did Apple and Google fail with what is a relatively easy technology problem? You’d think that with all their money, power, and smarts we would all be using their contact tracing app.

1. Launching in an Emergency

The first rule with any technology deployment is to not deploy anything new in an emergency. Always build on existing systems that already have wide adoption and trust within your target constituency.

Here, Apple and Google did build on their existing smartphone ecosystem with iOS and Android. However, they required state-level public health agencies to develop the alert system – just as those same agencies were battling a massive pandemic after years of disinvestment in public health resources. Public health agencies were too overwhelmed to pivot towards smartphone application development.

In addition, neither Apple nor Google had a high degree of trust with consumers or government agencies. Apple has a slightly better reputation for privacy than other technology companies, but that’s not saying much. Google on the other hand, has privacy violation as a core business strategy. It’s whole goal is to find out everything about you for the benefit of advertisers, its true customers. Few had trust that these two companies would be honorable with even more personal data.

2. Putting Technology First

Apple and Google are technology companies, so obviously, they put technology first. They talked about the contact tracing functionality. They were proud of their specifications for Bluetooth, cryptography, and framework API. Yet, in all the documentation I could find, they only spent one paragraph (just three sentences) on the need for contact tracing:

Contact tracing has been used to slow down transmission for many infectious diseases in the past. Each contact tracing effort is unique in some ways as they manage the specific challenges of individual infectious diseases. Governments, public health authorities, and NGOs around the world are starting to deploy contact tracing as a valuable tool for managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes, public health agencies have the primary responsibility for educating the public on contact tracing benefits, which means it was even easier for Apple and Google to reinforce their message. Focus on the benefits, sell the emotion, and drive adoption with all the skills they use to entice us to buy iPhones and use GMail. Yet they did none of that. They launched the tech and sang praises for Rolling Proximity Identifier Keys and ENIntervalNumbers.

3. Assuming Government Adoption

Finally, both companies did what so many of us do in ICT4D. Apple and Google assumed that if they built a world-class contact tracing technology, governments and their citizens would immediately adopt their solution. The same assumption that is central to so many failures in international development.

Many governments opted to build their own contact tracing software, with mixed results. Singapore, Ireland, and Germany were very successful. The UK’s effort was an object lesson in mismanagement. Others took their time investigating the Apple/Google solution. Switzerland became the first country to adopt the exposure notification system in May.

Now that many communities in the USA have given up on contact tracing – there are just too many exposure opportunities – California is launching CA Notify on the Apple/Google exposure notification system. 18 states and Washington, DC, now have a COVID-19 exposure notification application based on the Apple/Google system.

Yet how many people have actually used any of the systems? Governments may adopt the system, but that doesn’t mean their citizens will use it. Ireland has one of the highest voluntary adoption rates at 37%, which still may not be enough for success. Qatar and China have better adoption – as exposure notification apps there are mandatory.

Tech Companies Often Fail – As Do We

For 8 years, I organized Fail Festivals around the world to celebrate failure as normal and expected when we push the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs. Technology company failures were a highlight of every event.

For example, did you know YouTube started as a video dating site? Or that Pets.com thought that people would buy dog food over the Internet? Or that Rovio created 51 game failures before they launched Angry Birds?

They joined international development organizations in being honest with what goes wrong in pushing the boundaries of what is possible in scaling ideas from pilots to global programs. Hence, my critique of Apple and Google is not done with malice. Instead we should review and learn from failure, less we grow arrogant and then repeat it.

Google Failed in Ebola Response Too

Speaking of tech companies repeating failure, in his GDHF2020 Lightning Talk, Clayton Sims pointed out how Google failed in the Ebola response.

google failure ebola

He shows that when COVID-19 hit, it lay bare an underlying truth: tools originally developed and funded by the ICT4D industry were all suddenly, unexpectedly, and critically unique and important. Not just in LMICs, but everywhere.  While tools developed by big technology companies did not – and can not – respond to global health challenges.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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6 Comments to “Why Google and Apple Failed at COVID-19 Digital Response”

  1. Hi Wayan,
    thank you for your overview.
    While from a US perspective your conclusion that the Google/Apple approach was a failure seems to be correct, I would not make this conclusion on an international level.
    As you wrote, Germany was very successful in implementing a Corona contact tracing app that adheres to open standards (the whole app is open source) and very strict data privacy standards. But the whole app is based on the Google/Apple framework which is working as the foundation on which the German “Corona Warn App” is built. This was only possible because Google and Apple (the only two relevant providers of mobile operating systems) sat together very early in the pandemic and defined a common standard and very quickly implementes this framework into their operating systems (or the Google Play services app in the Android case).
    Almost all successful contact tracing apps worldwide are using the Google/Apple framework underneath, see: https://www.xda-developers.com/google-apple-covid-19-contact-tracing-exposure-notifications-api-app-list-countries/
    And I think this approach makes sense. Google/Apple as the OS manufacturers provide a framework and then governments can build apps that are suitable for the local context on top of that. In the German app for example the whole notification process is very easy: Whenever you do a Covid-19 test, you receive a QR code from the screening center or doctor which you scan in the app. As soon as the laboratory determined the result of your test, you will receive a push notification in the app about your test result. If it is positive all your contacts of the last two weeks will be notified automatically. And since this is the only way a negative test results will be communicated to you, there is a good incentive to install the app (in case of a positive test result you will of course also be contacted via phone from the health authorities).
    So, the only negative point I can see is the low adoption rates of actually installing the app. But I wouldn’t blame Google/Apple for this, but rather the government campaign failing to persuade people to actually use it.
    With all the best wishes from Berlin, René

    PS: I would never have thought that I would publicly defend Goolgle and Apple, because as an open source advocate I usually find myself in the opposite position 🙂

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Rene, I think we can both agree on a major point: Apple and Google built a great tool that could be used by others to build out a notification system. We seem to disagree on two other points:
      1. I think it was an error for Apple and Google to stop where they did with the tech. I would’ve hoped companies with that much wealth and reputation on the line would’ve worked harder to help countries develop their unique notification systems. $1-10 million per country in free developer time would’ve been nothing to their budgets and bought them much goodwill and government adoption.
      2. I very much believe they should’ve done more to drive personal adoption. Too often, we all assume away implementation and adoption challenges with “that’s their problem” instead of making it a core aspect of our work. For example, when was the last time you worked on an ICT4D project where the marketing budget for adoption was as larger (or better, much larger) than the tech budget? Not training, but old school marketing to get people interesting in using the tool enough that they wanted to have training. Here again, $1-10 million per country in marketing skill, ads, and the like, would’ve gone real far. Imagine a mask wearing or contact tracing ad campaign from Apple, the company that gets us to pay $1K for a phone. Or Google, which is an ad platform.

  2. Vincent says:

    Thanks Wayan for the post.
    Not only i agree with you but i think there are other reasons and perhaps even is it a good news?
    I disagree with René on several aspects.
    We cannot call Germany or Switzerland success or you need a quite low threshold. Switzerland by the way is where the elegant algorithm started (see https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/28/apple-iphone-contact-tracing-how-it-came-together.html) and despite a pretty good public health system still struggle with the logistic of the tracing part (e.g. QR code) https://www.netzwoche.ch/news/2020-08-14/die-swisscovid-app-warnt-zu-spaet-oder-ueberhaupt-nicht-das-sind-die-gruende. Saying the process is easy is a lack of knowledge of what it really means, in real world, to deploy, sustain, train staff, in a word organize the logistic of it.
    Second, “government campaign failing to persuade people to actually use it”, really? Why should Gov play the role of trust proxy? Take the example of the logistic failure i mentioned, if (when) that happens, will it be Google workforce to fly over and help? Would it be google to be blamed?
    Lastly (form this already too long post), back in April-May, Google and Apple committed to stick to API and not enter contact tracing app market. Today, they have the Exposure Notification Express features (note also the subtle change of names despite contact tracing being a proven practice in epidemiology) see here https://developers.google.com/android/exposure-notifications/en-express This is the biggest risk of all that:function creep.
    Next stop: immunity passport.