Earlier today, I received an Apple Watch notification that made me gasp out loud. A quick glance at the alert, which was from Canada’s official covid-19 exposure-tracking app, stopped me in my tracks. I immediately assumed the worst, but instead, the app was instead letting me know I hadn’t been exposed to the virus over the past week. This unexpected feature wasn’t as reassuring as the app’s creators probably thought it would be.
In a continued effort to flatten the curve of covid-19 infections here, several provinces, including Ontario, made the Canadian government’s voluntary COVID Alert mobile app for iOS and Android available to residents last month. The app, built on Google’s and Apple’s exposure notification system, promises anonymity by sharing randomised codes to other nearby devices over Bluetooth and keeping a two-week log of who a user has been in close proximity with. If a user tests positive for covid-19, they can update their app using a verification code issued with their positive test results, and it will then automatically notify other users who’ve potentially been exposed, through the app running on their own devices.
Based on a fairly simple and straightforward installation process, I assumed I wouldn’t hear a peep from the app unless I had been potentially exposed to the virus, otherwise it would just run silently in the background until it needed my urgent attention. Today I learned the hard way that that isn’t the case. I received my first “Weekly Update” notification (despite installing the app two weeks ago?) that I assumed was the notification every user is quietly dreading, but after my heart resumed beating, I realised everything was fine. (With “fine” doing some heavy lifting there.)
There’s definitely some peace of mind to be had knowing I wasn’t exposed to the virus over the past week, and that the app is still functioning as designed. I also understand there’s a very real chance that a user of the app could miss a ‘potential exposure’ notification, in which case regular reminders would be vital to ensuring they properly quarantine. But maybe only activate those notifications on a user by user basis when a potential exposure has been confirmed? It’s going to take a while before I get used to seeing these “Weekly Update” notifications and not gasp every time they pop up on screen, even if delivering good news. Everybody’s already permanently on edge about this ongoing pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to go about this.