The strange case of New Zealand COVID tracing or how to murder innovation

In the late 1990s, I spent six months sitting next to Sam Morgan when we both worked at Deloitte in Wellington, New Zealand. As I recall, we were mostly stuck on the bench, which meant long days in a near-empty office, Sam was (apparently) working on the TradeMe concept, and I was trying to decipher how to create a secure connection between two of our customers (badly as I recall.)

I found Sam to be smart, engaging, kind, with a good sense of humour and basically a decent human. Often his solutions were quite innovative and outside of the normal. I remember we had one of those terrible team-building days where we had to create a device that would haul an office chair, without human intervention, up a flagpole outside of the office.

As I recall, Sam’s answer to that was to hire a petrol self-powered lawnmower, tie the rope to it, and the chair, and let it loose in a cloud of blue smoke and great noise, at which point the chair was hoisted at high speed with the crowd scattering in the mower’s wake.

This week, Sam expressed frustration at the slow progress and roadblocks he perceived in getting the COVID card off the ground. He quit the project, of which he was putting his resources into, and rather than us taking the opportunity to talk about how we murder innovation, a stream of hate was directed at Sam online, primarily via Twitter, and mainly via various political attack commentators.

The failure was not the Ministry Health it seemed, nor the government proper, it was that a “tech bro” had thrown his toys out of the cot and all the usual abuse followed. This is something that we have seen time and again, not just in New Zealand, but globally. Sticking your head above the parapet will still designate you a target from a range of misinformed armchair experts. They delight in slinging mud, rather than looking at the underlying issue.

We need a contact tracing solution as opposed to the assortment of options that currently exist. It is also clear that we need a solution that is accessible to those of us who are privileged enough to have a smartphone that a) has Bluetooth and b) can afford to connect to the Internet.

How on earth is it then, is it that after several months, rather than working together as an industry to come up with a solution, we have made near-zero progress with important questions around the existing, official app?

Because sadly, the government is often where innovation goes to die, and, we as technologists delight in pulling things to pieces (it is what we do) to try and improve them.

The official COVID tracing app could at best be described as a stop-gap measure, and there are many unanswered questions about its efficacy and accessibility that I am not going rehash here. Reading the reviews on the Apple Store and Google Play will give you a quick view of some of those, as will researching views from actual experts.

Government struggles with speed and innovation because it involves risk and the government is not geared to take risks. It is necessarily risk-averse. So, when someone turns up with an idea that could be fast-tracked but involves taking some risks, it baulks.

An array of experts is brought to bear to analyse the risk of the idea. That array of experts needs a methodology to operate under. Financial analysts, contract managers, IT architects, middle managers, senior managers, policy analysts, sector advisors, technology vendors, data scientists, security managers, consultants, operations teams, privacy staff, records management groups, risk departments, political advisors, and everyone else all has something to contribute.

Two things then happen.

First, the time to stand up this massive programme of work is many, many months with many, many hangers-on.

Second, because of the risk-averse culture of government, multiple risks are identified (but often not qualified), and it all becomes ridiculously hard.

It is rare for the government to create new technology; instead, they assess and consume what is available in the market, understanding their unique needs to ensure it can be fit into an overarching ecosystem safely.

And what is a COVID tracing app, card or not? A diary. That is all. It is the same collection of data that is already automatically gathered for those of us that have a smartphone by Facebook, Apple, Google, loyalty card schemes, hundreds of other Apps, and then all sold off for private profit.

I worked with an organisation recently that had this issue on a macro scale. Everything they tried to do that was innovative, with their core computer systems, was roundly murdered by the cultural machinery that was powered by a low-risk appetite.

Their strategy was to start again. They took who they saw as the ideas people, the creatives, the innovators, and the technologists that were happy to get on with doing something and gathered them together.

Then, they built a virtual wall around that group, disconnecting them from the organisation’s existing technology systems, and the culture.

Then they told them, “start again, build our technology as if we were a brand-new organisation starting from scratch.”

They are still on that journey; however, they have created several technology-based products that are already reaping dividends and have the potential to be sold on privately.

In may have been better in the case of New Zealand to have thrown up the problem of contact tracing to the entire country for solutions. After all, we had nothing better to do for a month and a nationwide, virtual hackathon (I used that word carefully), could have identified an easy solution, with transparent code, with enough risk management to be safe without killing it, accessible to everyone.

Looking to government to create innovative solutions is generally going to fail. Do not get me wrong. I am not browbeating government IT teams. They live, as I have said, in sensitive high-risk roles where caution is necessary.

Trying to “bottle up” innovation by creating an independent organisation, even government-funded, is also likely to fail because it couldn’t ever be outside of government control, after all, it would have to be funded, and in the case of COVID tracing, it has high political risk in an election year.

What would have been a remarkably exciting situation would have been to publish all the requirements for such a service, including risk rules publicly, and just let the community crowdsource the answer amongst itself. We have talented technologists and businesspeople as well as grassroots community members who could have come up with something quite, well, innovative.

It is something that the government must consider in the future. Because right now, governments all over the world are accruing technical debt at a great rate of knots, legislation is changing rapidly, new technologies are pushing social boundaries fast, and we, government, are too slow.

You cannot force innovation to happen, and when it does happen, you can kill it incredibly quickly without even trying that hard. We need to create ecosystems where innovation can occur. Right now, those ecosystems and cultures do not exist.

And so we come back to Sam.

I once worked with a large team of systems testers. On their office wall, they had a poster which read “It’s our job to tell you that your baby is ugly.”

As technologists, we are often not equipped (some of us have learned the hard way) to sugarcoat a problem. We state it as we see it, blunt, throwing it bleeding onto the desk.

The way I see it, Sam told the government he thought their baby was ugly, something which has been echoed by many other technologists and commentators.

As technologists, we should never stop doing that, because otherwise, we’ll never see innovation happen.

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