Ministry of Health deactivated the GEL 400,000 Stop Covid mobile app without any explanation - საერთაშორისო გამჭვირვალობა - საქართველო
GEO

Ministry of Health deactivated the GEL 400,000 Stop Covid mobile app without any explanation

12 February, 2021

 

On January 20, 2021, the Ministry of Health of Georgia deactivated the Stop Covid mobile application that had been created with the aim of combatting the coronavirus pandemic. The creation of the app, which was activated nine months before, on April 16, had cost more than GEL 400,000 (EUR 120,000). The Ministry has yet to present an explanation on why this costly project ended unsuccessfully. 

The following concrete questions remain unanswered:

  • What was (were) the concrete reason(s) for the decision to deactivate the application?
  • Why was an active information campaign not conducted in connection with the use of the application in the fall of 2020, after the virus started to spread uncontrollably?
  • If there was a problem with the quality of software, has the contractor company returned the money, as was provided for by the contract? 

In a situation when the virus is still spreading and, according to various estimates, the pandemic may last for another year and a half, it’s unclear why the Ministry deactivated the application, the full operation of which was supposed to slow down the spread of the virus – according to the organization that created the application, its main purpose was precisely to slow down the spread of the infection.

The base version of the Stop Covid application was created by Austrian NGO NOVID20 – with the organization’s own expenses – and made accessible to all governments without a license fee. The only thing that cost money was to adapt the base application to local needs and its technical support for three months (with the prospect of extending the service), which was carried out by an Austrian company Rocket Media Communications; it was this company with which the Ministry of Health concluded a three-month-long agreement.

The application enables the user to find out whether or not they have had contact with a Covid-infected individual. Smartphones with the application establish and remember their proximity with one another by encryption. When a user reports themselves in the application as infected with the virus, this information is first verified in the list of infected individuals at the government’s disposal and, if confirmed, the application sends an automatic notification to all smartphones that have been within a distance of less than two meters from the infected individual for at least 15 minutes in the past several days.

Identifying newly infected individuals was never the goal of the application; its goal was to help regular citizens identify and manage contacts, which was supposed to have a positive impact on slowing down the spread of the virus.   

Judging from the principles of operation and goal of the application, it is obvious that it would only have worked successfully if used on a massive scale. And in order to achieve massive use, it was necessary to conduct an information campaign on a corresponding scale. Statements and video materials designed to raise public consciousness of the application were mainly disseminated during the first week after its activation; a large-scale information campaign was not carried out in the fall of 2020, when the virus began to spread uncontrollably in Georgia. The Ministry of Health failed to answer our question about the funds spent on raising public awareness about the application.      

Two main indicators can be used to measure the success of the application:

1. The number of downloads – During nine months, the application was downloaded by 232,659 individuals in total; 85% of the downloads were made during the first month and 64% (150,000 downloads) – during the first 24 hours (see the table). Only 9% of the downloads were made during the last three months of 2020, when the problem of uncontrollable spread of the virus was the most acute.

In addition, 232,659 downloads is also a low figure in total terms, because, according to the latest opinion poll (2020), 80% of the families in Georgia (with a population of 3.7 million) have at least one smartphone (88% in Tbilisi).

Based on this, we can say that the Ministry of Health failed to retain the public’s high initial interest in the application, in order to help slow the spread of the virus when it was most needed.   

2. The number of self-reports about being infected with Covid – According to official data, as of December 11, 2020, a total of 11,437 self-reports were sent through the application, which amounted to 5.6% of the total number of infected at the time (see table below). Three months prior, as of September 17, 2020, only 27 self-reports had been sent, which amounted to 0.9% of those infected at the time.

Considering that during the same period (from September 17 to December 21, 2020) the number of users of the application increased only slightly, we can assume that the rate of self-reporting would have increased even further if the application had been used on a massive scale; as a result, more people would have received notifications on having contact with infected individuals, which would have contributed to slowing the spread of the virus.

One more indicator of success could have been the number of notifications that app users received about having contact with an infected individual. However, according to the official letter of the Ministry of Health, this data is not available.

Official data related to the Stop Covid application

Date of publication of data

Number of downloads

Number of infected individuals

Self-reports about being infected

Share of self-reports in the total number of infected individuals 

April 17

(Source)

151,000

Per day - 22

Total - 370

0

0

May 5

(Source)

200,000

Per day - 11

Total - 604

0

0

June 17

(Source)

203,684

Per day - 9

Total - 888

10

1.1%

September 17

(Source)

211,308

Per day - 179

Total - 2,937

27

0.9%

December 21 (Source)

232,659

Per day - 2,635

Total - 204,003

11,437

5.6%

 

While no public statement was made about the reasons for deactivating the app, the Ministry of Health named two reasons for the deactivation of the application in its communication with the media, none of which can be considered satisfactory:

1. The contract ended and the Ministry decided not to extend it – According to official information received from the Ministry, the app launch and a three month technical support cost EUR 120,000. The Ministry also provided us with the contract concluded with the Austrian company. The Ministry’s letter does not mention that the contract had been extended. If such an agreement was made and the technical support service was extended for another six months, until January 20, 2021, this would mean that the deactivated app cost even more than officially reported.

2. “Since the spread of the virus has stabilized, the app is no longer necessary at this stage” – It’s unclear what the Ministry means by ‘stabilization’, since, according to official estimates, the pandemic may last for another year or a year and a half. 

Finally, the fact that the contract was not uploaded to the official public procurement website is also a problem. The public has the right to know how and on what conditions public funds are being spent. The official response letter from the Ministry of Health points to the fact that the Ministry follows special rules for procurements related to the management of the pandemic; according to these rules, contracts with foreign companies may be concluded bypassing certain requirements of the procurement legislation. We believe that managing the pandemic at the expense of transparency cannot be justified, since this increases the risks of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. 

We call on the Ministry of Health to present comprehensive information and explanation on why the Stop Covid application failed to work and why it was deactivated.