In case you haven’t noticed from our near-daily coverage of the issues being faced by the NHS’s track-and-trace app, the whole thing is an absolute shitshow. The latest balls-up in series of balls-ups is the news that the app is no longer considered a priority by the government, and we’re looking at a potential release window of “for winter” – whatever that actually means. It’s actually got to the point where Jimmy Wales, best known as the co-founder of Wikipedia, has offered to get us on the track-and-trace system developed by Germany – and without eating up any tax money.
If the NHS will to support it, I could roll out the German Corona-Warn-App (privacy respecting, official diagnosis rather than self-reporting as I understand it) in short time at zero cost to the taxpayers.
If the government can’t pull themselves together, we can.
— Jimmy Wales (@jimmy_wales) June 18, 2020
Corona Warn App went live earlier this week, coinciding with the easing of lockdown restrictions in the country, and complementing a manual track-and-trace system that went live back in February. The differences between it and the one developed by the NHS are that:
Wales might seem like an odd choice to try and get involved, but he does live in the UK and has to suffer through the shitshow that is the NHS’s attempt to develop a track-and-trace app with the rest of us. In an email he told me that the UK’s system has been “broken on several fronts”. That includes evading the privacy protections built into the Google/Apple system, and relying on self-diagnosis rather than actual COVID-19 tests – as is done in Germany.
Obviously adapting the German tracking app for the UK is going to take some work, but Wales is confident that he could rally the open source community to volunteer their effort and avoid having to spend taxpayer money. But, at the very least, he says that the existing COVID-19 testing system still uses code numbers that can be adapted for use in the German app.
Wales admitted that the system wouldn’t be perfect, particularly due to Bluetooth’s own limitations, but all that’s really needed is support from the NHS. The way he sees it, rolling out the app now is more sensible as “every percentage point counts” on the path to ensuring R0 is as low as possible. If improvements need to be made later, then there’s nothing stopping that.
If Wales is willing to rally the troops, so to speak, then it’s probably going to be less of an embarrassment to the government – which would otherwise have to sink money into fixing the multitude of problems in the existing app. Not to mention the legal challenge regarding its use of user data.
This is, of course, assuming the government actually wants to accept the offer. It’s already been admitted that the app is “no longer a priority”, and naturally the privacy focused approach doesn’t let them sell off ‘lucrative’ contracts to Silicon Valley. After all, who could say no to a deal that sold NHS data to Palantir for £1? If all goes according to plan it could, theoretically, help solve a lot of the issues faced by the track-and-trace app idea already. Assuming the government is competent enough to see it, and care.
But hey, they’re going for the Google/Apple approach now, which is better than nothing.
Image: Zachary McCune/Wikimedia Commons
The original version of this article said Wales was offering to pay for the system to be migrated onto the German software. Wales has since clarified this is not the case, and we apologise for the error.
The article has also been updated to include comments from Jimmy Wales, and to mention reports that the government is now switching to the Apple/Google API.