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It's time to activate the federal 'COVID Alert' app in Alberta

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The message on the author's COVID Alert smartphone app, and yours too if you live in Alberta. Image: David J. Climenhaga

With the coronavirus pandemic surging in most parts of Canada, most definitely including Alberta, the federal government needs to make its COVID alert exposure notification app available in this province immediately.

Needless to say, with case numbers rising rapidly in Alberta, it is extremely frustrating for Albertans concerned about their health and doing their best to act responsibly to turn on COVID Alert and see the words "No reporting in your area -- people in your province or territory are not yet able to report a COVID-19 diagnosis through this app."

Why the hell not?

This isn't good for Alberta or the rest of Canada.

Such explanations as there have been about why the federal app is still not operating in Alberta do not make sense.

Last Tuesday, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw repeated the claim made earlier by United Conservative Party political staffers that COVID Alert "isn't available in the province because there are still technical issues in transitioning current users of the ABTraceTogether app to the federal app."

Say what?

Albertans know that the ABTraceTogether app was a dud. When it was introduced last May, it didn't work properly on Apple iPhones, the dominant smartphone product in the market. To run on an iPhone or other Apple product, it required a jury-rigged workaround that drained phone batteries at warp speed.

Since the app required high pickup by users to work properly -- and since more than half the smart phones in Canada run on Apple's iOS -- introducing the app was a major policy failure from the get-go.

The cost was also excessive. Alberta's oh-so-cost-conscious government paid yet another U.K.-based consulting company $625,000 to come up with that lemon.

Back in August -- early August -- the Alberta government announced it was abandoning ABTraceTogether because so few Albertans were downloading it. Many who had downloaded it soon removed it for the simple reason it sucked their phone's batteries dry.

On October 16, Health Minister Tyler Shandro's press secretary, Steve Buick, told iPolitics that Alberta was working with the federal government to transition "nearly 245,000 users" of ABTraceTogether to COVID Alert, which has the advantage of working.

At the time of the iPolitics story, about 4.5 million Canadians had loaded the federal app on their smart phones.

As the number of cases surges during the second wave of the pandemic and testing facilities are overwhelmed, the utility of the federal app becomes more obvious to most provinces. For that reason, Manitoba and Quebec overcame their initial hesitation to sign on to COVID Alert. At this point, all Canadian territories and provinces have signed on to the program except Alberta and British Columbia. B.C.'s app, however, at least works.

But Alberta is still having "technical issues"? Or is it dragging its feet for some other reason -- like, say, not wanting to give the federal government credit for doing anything? Or, worse, not wanting Albertans to know how bad the second wave is as the government struggles to avoid a second lockdown?

Seriously, the time for Ottawa to stop letting Alberta futz around is now.

Apps are apps. COVID Alert can be turned on in Alberta right now without waiting for the provincial government to solve its technical issues with its failed app, which it's walked away from anyway.

Ottawa should do so immediately.

If the technical issues can be solved later, excellent. If not, too bad, so sad.

Remember, the whole idea of smart phone apps is that they're easy to download and use. It makes more sense to ask those 245,000 Alberta users to each spend another 30 seconds loading a new, national app that works than it does to wait weeks or months for Alberta to find a way to call its now-abandoned flop a success.

If Alberta objects to Ottawa doing that -- and wouldn't that be interesting? -- the federal government can and should act unilaterally to protect Albertans.

Activate the COVID Alert App in Alberta. Activate it now!

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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