Technological boondoggle? Utah’s multi-million dollar coronavirus app will no longer provide contact tracing

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In a stunning announcement, Utah health officials said Thursday the state’s much-hyped, multi-million dollar coronavirus contact tracing app would no longer collect location information from users.

That means the Healthy Together app will now be reduced to only providing a health assessment for users since, without the location information, contact tracing was impossible. 

Dr. Angela Dunn, Utah State Epidemiologist, made the announcement on Thursday saying that Utahns were reluctant to download the app because of concerns over privacy.

“We’ve learned over the course of the past three months that location tracking isn’t popular and, as a result, it hasn’t really been helpful to our contact tracing efforts,” she said.

Not that the app could assist much with contact tracing efforts to begin with. As reported last month, the app still lacked the technology to assist the state with a robust contact tracing effort. If a user allowed contact tracers to access their location history, they could only pinpoint within 10 feet where that person had been. There was no ability to say who they had come into contact with or how long that contact lasted. 

Instead of a technological game-changer for fighting the coronavirus, the Healthy Together app looks more like a multi-million dollar boondoggle. 

According to the contract with Twenty, the technology company responsible for developing the app, the state paid $1.75 million for the initial development of the app, with an additional $1 million for future upgrades. The contract also paid Twenty $300,000 per month in maintenance fees for the first 1 million users. 

So far, the Healthy Together app has cost taxpayers approximately $2.65 million as state health officials are scaling back its intended use. The app has just 58,000 active users, which translates to about $46 per active user. Last month a spokesperson for Twenty told the app had been downloaded approximately 65,000 times, meaning usage is on the decline.

As first reported in May, the state’s coronavirus response team was approached by another company, Ferry, offering a person-to-person contact tracing application that the state could implement for free, but that offer came shortly after the contract with Twenty was finalized. The “Distancing” app offered by Ferry did not include a health assessment.

Taymour Semnani, CEO of Ferry, said the amount of money the state is paying for the Healthy Together app seems excessive.

“It is not consistent with what I would expect to see on the open market,” he said. 

The contract with Twenty also called for the development of a portal for state officials to monitor the data produced by the app. That functionality was implemented in June. However, Semnani says, in his experience, that still would not justify the multi-million dollar expense.

“Without seeing the backend, I would estimate the functionality available to the public today could be achieved significantly more efficiently,” he said.

Despite the cost and decreased functionality, Utah plans to soldier ahead with the Healthy Together app, saying the health assessment functionality will help with the state’s efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s not so much of a function of the app not working the way it was intended to work. It’s a function that people aren’t using it the way that we had hoped they would,” said Utah Department of Health spokesperson Tom Hudacho.

Dr. Dunn said Thursday that users have completed 500,000 health assessments using the app and 18,000 have been referred to testing.