Olympics: A buggy contact-tracing app is latest setback for Tokyo Games organisers

The delayed Games has been beset by everything from allegations of plagiarism for its original official logo to a high-profile delay due to the pandemic. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Organisers for the Tokyo Olympics are asking athletes and teams to install a smartphone app that tracks their movements to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus when they arrive in Japan, but there is just one problem.

"It's not a good app," Minister for Digital Transformation Takuya Hirai said last month, following a series of high-profile glitches, including one in which the app did not notify users they were exposed to confirmed infections for more than four months.

The problematic software, called Cocoa, is just the latest headache for the delayed Games, which has been beset by everything from allegations of plagiarism for its original official logo to a high-profile delay due to the pandemic. Some remain unconvinced the Olympics will take place at all, as Japan and the world struggle to bring the pandemic under control. Dogged by problems almost since its release, the app is a curious choice for the troubled Games.

"Cocoa is the prime example of a digital technology that doesn't meet people's expectations," said Mr Hirai, who was appointed after the release of the app to help bring Japan's paper-heavy government into the digital age. "There are many problems with it."

On paper, the Covid-19 contact-confirming application, should have been a success. The app employs protocols co-developed by Google and Apple, which use Bluetooth to track smartphones that have been within one metre of each another for 15 minutes.

Launched in June and hailed by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a "key" to building a new society where people could live with the virus, it quickly became one of the most rapidly installed apps in Japan. To date, it has seen 25 million downloads, or about one-fifth of the population in a country that has weathered the pandemic better than most.

If someone using the app tests positive for coronavirus, they will be encouraged to register that result, triggering a series of notifications for users who had been in recent close contact, and advising them how they should proceed to get tested, all while preserving users' anonymity.

The Olympics Playbooks, a series of manuals laying out procedures for attendees, says the app will be used to inform close contacts of confirmed cases at the Games.

'God-like app'

"If you are a close contact of someone who tests positive for Covid-19 during the Games, you will be informed via the Cocoa app" or by a liaison officer, the Playbook states.

That is how it should work in theory. In reality, Cocoa has been little help, with a litany of problems have meant that despite the Olympic organisers' faith in the app, it is widely regarded as a failure.

It was recently discovered that for more than four months through February, as coronavirus cases surged to record levels in Japan, the Android version of the app failed to notify close contacts of confirmed coronavirus cases.

To this day, to continue receiving updates, the ministry continues to recommend Android users reboot the application once a day. Similar issues affected some iPhone users on older OS versions. Others have reported issues with glitchy notifications leaving them unclear if they were exposed or not.

Just 10,000 confirmed cases have been registered with the app to date, a fraction of the official count of more than 400,000 infections since its launch.

Blame has been laid at Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the Health Ministry, and Persol Process & Technology Co., which developed the app at a cost of ¥400 million yen (S$5.06 million). The unit of Persol Holdings Co. further outsourced most of the development to three other companies, according to the Asahi.

An updated version of the app that promised to fix the bugs was released in mid-February. In a statement at the time, Persol Process & Technology apologised for the issues with Cocoa, and pledged to work to restore trust. It also said it would fully cooperate with a Health Ministry investigation into how the bugs came about.

The issues surrounding Cocoa were back in focus again after opposition lawmakers attacked the spending on another application being prepared by the government for the Olympics. Designed for foreign spectators - under the far-from-certain assumption that they will be able to attend the Games - the software is meant to centralise tracing of fans, and be used in conjunction with Cocoa. In return for installing the app, foreign spectators would be exempted from a 14-day quarantine.

The tracing app has a budget of ¥7.3 billion budget, according to testimony given in parliament by health ministry and cabinet office officials, despite the fact that Olympics organisers are still uncertain if fans will be able to attend the Games. Its ambitious set of features led opposition lawmakers to mock it as a "god-like app" if it were truly able to do everything it promises.

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