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‘Digital diary’ contact tracing app coming

The Government will finally enter the contact tracing app market with its own, scaled-back product, Marc Daalder reports

Wednesday will see the release of a Government-sponsored "digital diary" app for contact tracing, Jacinda Ardern has announced.

"That day will come the release of what is probably best described as a digital diary app," she said at her post-Cabinet press conference.

"Many of you will have been out and about over the weekend and seen that there have been the development of different apps to support contact tracing. Well, this version on Wednesday has been constructed through the Ministry of Health and is a nationally-consistent app that New Zealanders and businesses can use to record where they've been and when."

Newsroom reported last week that the absence of an official Government app has led to a bevy of private sector options, which has led to concern that the diversity in the market will pose additional problems for contact tracing teams.

"It is intended to aid and support physical contact tracing efforts, not to replace them by any means. While there are other similar apps in this space, we wanted to give greater certainty about the use of the data that is collected, which this app happens to deliver. But I'll leave all the further details on that till Wednesday," Ardern said.

The new app will have very basic functionalities and will not be replacement for the more advanced contact tracing app that is still being worked on, Ardern said. The data will only be stored on the phone of the user.

"Let me be very, very clear, this is around really what I would describe as a digital diary. Helping users when they're out and about, keeping a log of their own movements, for instance, between cafes and restaurants. That's obviously something that those businesses are doing themselves, but this is a way that people can do it that keeps the data for themselves," she said.

"It's just in case, in the future if you find yourself with Covid-19, you've got an easy reference to tell where you've been over a period of time. This is just simply a tool that aids contact tracing."

The app as described does not appear to meet the Ministry of Health's requirements for businesses that need to keep a register of patrons. Such a register is supposed to be kept by the business and include a person's name, phone number and email address, but the app would store data locally. It is unclear whether these rules will be amended or whether businesses will be expected to use the app and another form of register.

Ardern said the app would use QR codes in addition to diary functions. Newsroom understands that the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment has been devising a solution to give every business in the country a unique QR code based on their New Zealand Business Number (NZBN). Businesses with multiple locations will be able to receive multiple QR codes.

It is unclear whether the MBIE effort is linked to the "digital diary".

QR codes are essentially more complex bar codes that usually link to a website or app or serve as a unique for of identification. By producing official, standardised QR codes for businesses across the country, the Government is hoping to ensure consistency across the numerous private sector efforts that have emerged in the absence of an official contact tracing app.

Hospitality - and those retail outlets unable to maintain social distancing - must under Level 2 restrictions keep a register of all customers with whom they have face-to-face contact. This could be done with pen-and-paper, a digital sign-up sheet on an iPad, or a more complex tech solution. QR codes, which most smartphones are able to process without needing to download an app, form a middle ground: They are more accessible than a specialised app while still allowing people to sign-in without touching a shared physical object.

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